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Higher Education

Life in lockdown 4 years on: Aberdeen University students look back on ‘eerie’ chapter

For new Aberdeen University students moving into halls in September 2020, lockdown could not have come at a worse time. Due to graduate this year, we find out what student life was like for the Covid generation.
Calum Petrie
Aberdeen University students, who began their courses in lockdown in 2020, are getting ready to graduate. Image: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson
Aberdeen University students, who began their courses in lockdown in 2020, are getting ready to graduate. Image: Colin Rennie/DC Thomson

For many of us, lockdown was the worst period of our lives.

But while there’s never a convenient time for life to come to a halt, among those hit hardest were new university students.

Starting university is about meeting new people, socialising, partying – finding yourself and having fun. With a bit of study thrown in.

But for those moving into student halls in September 2020, lockdown could not have come at a worse time.

On March 23, 2020 – four years ago today – prime minister Boris Johnson announced the first national lockdown in the UK.

Six months later, and still pre-vaccine, university students across the country embarked on the strangest of first years.

Missing Freshers’ Week was the least of their worries, with an eerie atmosphere permeating student life for half their student days.

Some say things are only getting back to normal now, as they’re getting ready to graduate.

And the effects of lockdown are still very much present with some students.

We spoke to students graduating from Aberdeen University this year – having begun their degrees in lockdown – to find out more about this unique time for Scottish students…

Isolated in their rooms with tight security outside: Welcome to student life at Aberdeen University in lockdown

A masked-up Ava moves in, with dad – who wasn’t allowed in – keeping his distance. Image: Ava Bowers

Originally from Balfron near Loch Lomond, Ava Bowers came to Aberdeen to study philosophy, politics and economics.

“When I got my keys to halls, I was told that my parents couldn’t come in,” said Ava.

“It was already hard enough leaving home, but from that point it became clear just how hard everything was going to be.

“My mum and dad didn’t even see my room until I moved out. So even just settling myself at the start was difficult.”

Lockdown left its mark on us all, but it can be hard to remember just what the logistics were.

I asked Ava what, as a new university student, she could and couldn’t do.

Halls were in lockdown. No parties were allowed. There was campus security about. So we were basically isolated to our rooms.

“And we weren’t allowed to go home, because of the travel restrictions.

“Thank God for FaceTime, because everyone really was stuck where they were.

“There was the odd attempt at a party, but they were broken up by security pretty quickly.

“They tried to put Freshers’ Week online, but it wasn’t the same at all.”

The rigid rules that defined life in lockdown for students

Such an unnatural environment, particularly at a point of your life when the world is supposed to be your oyster, took a heavy mental toll on many students.

Ava has kept the letter she was given on arrival at her halls of residence. Rules included face-coverings, gatherings of no more than six people…and the dreaded self-isolation. Image: Ava Bowers

“It was very isolating,” said Ava. “We didn’t really know what to do.

“We had this fresh independence, yet we weren’t allowed to decide where we went, whose flat we visited and so on.

It wasn’t great for anyone’s mental health. I don’t think I’ve spoken to anyone who hasn’t said that they really struggled mentally during that first year especially.

“There wasn’t really anyone to talk to. If I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents then I don’t know what I would have done.

“You find yourself relying very heavily on your flatmates. People might say, ‘you don’t need to be friends with them, you just need to get along.’ No, you really needed to become pally with your flatmates, and hope that nothing blew up in the flat, because that was about all you had.”

What was the impact of attending lectures through a laptop screen?

So much for the social impact of lockdown. But what about the academic side of student life?

“Lectures were all online, but they weren’t live. It would have been nice if they were at least live, so we could talk to other students.

“Tutorials were very odd because no-one would turn their cameras on, you’d just see their initials on the screen.

“I now live with two people on my course. Looking back four years ago, I’d seen their names on screen countless times, but we only met properly for the first time last year.

“That was a bit odd. And a bit sad in a way, because it’s almost like we’ve lost two years of friendship.”

Isolation: Ava making the best of things while cooped up in her room. But she admits that lockdown took its toll on almost every student. Image: Ava Bowers

‘When I look back, I realise I lost two years’

By the second semester, and with Covid cases beginning to rocket again, all lectures and tutorials moved online.

“It was very eerie on campus,” said Ava.

Second year, which began in September 2021, saw restrictions eased somewhat, but student life remained far from what Ava had been promised.

“By second year we could move about more, pubs and nightclubs opened. It was so good just being able to go out on campus and see another student.

“But things didn’t return to ‘proper’ normal, what I’d expect a university experience to be, until third year.

“The timing was really unfortunate, because third and fourth year are the years when your grades really matter and you’re trying to get them up, but we all just really wanted to socialise and meet new people and go to the pub and have fun. But we couldn’t go crazy like a first year would because we had to go home and study.”

She added: “When I look back I think, gosh, I lost two years, should I have waited a year?”

Aberdeen University in lockdown: an international student’s experience

Aberdeen University welcomes students from across the world, with 6,500 international students from 130 countries.

One of them is Elana Alatalo from Tampere in Finland. She began her economics degree at Aberdeen in September 2020.

“You couldn’t do anything, pretty much everything was forbidden,” said Elana.

“You couldn’t even have a friend over. All you could do was go for walks outside, so we walked a lot.

“I’ve always been really sociable and enjoy talking with people, so that element of Covid was really hard for me.”

Elana was somehow able to get herself to Aberdeen for the start of her studies. But there were travel woes ahead. Image: Elana Alatalo

One of the hardest things to do in 2020 was international travel.

Keen to think ahead, Elana had booked her flight home for Christmas before she even arrived in Aberdeen to begin her studies.

Her plan worked, and she was able to celebrate Christmas in Finland with her family.

There was just one problem. She wasn’t allowed to come back.

“I missed the whole spring semester because I was stuck in Finland,” she said.

Stranded 1,000 miles away from the ‘fun’

Elana had to work online at her parents’ house 1,000 miles away, until she was finally able to come back to Aberdeen for the start of second year – nine months later.

“I was lucky that I’d made such good friends with my flatmates in the first couple of months, because otherwise I’d have been completely lost in second year.”

Elana will graduate this year, having started university in lockdown. Image: Elana Alatalo

Lockdown had a lasting impact on students – introverts and extroverts alike – as Elana explained.

“When things did return to something like normality in third year, even for a sociable person like myself, I wasn’t as bubbly as I used to be with people I don’t know.

“You lose a bit of those interaction skills with new people. After such a long time of seeing and talking to people on screens, it was a challenge being face-to-face again.

“I knew of some people who developed really bad social anxiety because of it all.

‘A lot of people lost their formative years’

“To be honest, it’s actually only really now that things are starting to be like they were pre-Covid, events and things.

“I know the business school are trying to put on more events, CV workshops and stuff like that, but people just don’t turn up.

“It’s a mix of social anxiety and just people having become so used to getting everything online.

“I think a lot of people lost their formative years during Covid, when you build those patterns of how you live.

“What’s also noticeable is how people don’t go around in big social groups like they used to. It tends to be small groups of two or three.”

She added: “It was really when third year started that I realised how much I’d missed out on.

“Grades matter, but at the end of the day you have to enjoy your life and experience the things you want to experience.”

Lockdown across the city at RGU

Viktoriya Paskaleva was allowed into the workshop once a week in the first semester. After that, ‘complete lockdown’. Image: Viktoriya Paskaleva

Across the city at Robert Gordon University (RGU), Viktoriya Paskaleva is also nearing the end of her student days, having started her journey in lockdown.

Viktoriya came all the way from Bulgaria to study 3D design at Gray’s School of Art.

During the first semester, students were allowed on campus once a week.

“It was all very odd. You couldn’t sit next to other students, and the floor was marked with two or three square metre spaces.

“And when the tutors wanted to point at something they would use a long stick.

“We also had to sign in and out with a QR code every time we were on campus.”

The social side of university life during lockdown was every bit as odd.

“Living in student halls was a strange experience as well, you had to have a mask on whenever you were in the corridor and hallways.

“We weren’t allowed in other students’ flats, so the idea of a student party, there just wasn’t any question of that.

“There were security about constantly, making sure we weren’t mixing with other people.

Across the city at RGU, campus life was ‘very odd’. Image: Viktoriya Paskaleva

“Making friends was impossible, so my only friends were my four flatmates. We’d have a movie night every single night, but after a while it felt like there was nothing more to watch.”

Worse was to come. Just a couple of months into her ‘studies’, Covid cases surged.

How can you do hands-on subjects online?

Viktoriya’s second semester entailed not just continued social isolation, but some bizarre solutions when it came to fulfilling the requirements of her very much hands-on course.

“By the second semester it was complete lockdown.

“My course involved a lot of prototyping and workshops, but we were stuck in our rooms, so they’d post materials like clay and jewellery to us.

“There would be a technician on Teams, but you basically had to figure it out for yourself. And all the tutors could mark were photos.”

She added: “Second year was a big change in that we could physically be in the workshop, which was great, just having a technician there who could help you.

“But it was also upsetting because it showed what we’d missed out on in first year.”

Viktoriya said there were times when her first year felt like a “waste of time”.

But looking back, she feels going through lockdown when she did has given her a greater appreciation of life.

“Going through that first year in lockdown made me appreciate things more.

“It pushed me to spend as much time as I could on campus and meeting people.

“I felt like an animal who’d been let out its cage.”