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Education: University challenges

24 September 2021

Students tell Julie McKee how they survived and thrived, despite Covid

Eleanor Thompson

Eleanor Thompson

STARTING a university degree is exciting and daunting at the best of times, but, post-Covid-19, the usual challenges of leaving home and negotiating a new course, friendships, and lifestyle can feel particularly heightened. Other aspects of student life, however, haven’t changed.

For Chloë Aggrey, a geography student at Heriot-Watt University, leaving home in Birmingham to live in Edinburgh felt momentous. “It dawned on me that, oh my gosh, I’m going to be in a different country to my family,” she explains. “It was a whole different environment. . . It was 100 per cent scary. But Freshers’ Week is just the best week, because that is when you [realise]: I could probably settle in here, make friends, and it’s actually going to be OK.”

Chloë Aggrey

Ms Aggrey teamed up with a course-mate before she started, via a group chat on the university freshers’ page. “As soon as I made one friend I could go to freshers’ events with, I felt more at peace about the whole situation,” she says.

For Joshua Harris, who recently graduated in English literature from Birmingham University, being focused on sorting out various practicalities early on helped.

“I just took things at my own pace,” he says. “It was quite overwhelming; but I made sure I found out the things that were important to me, and did what I needed to do for me, rather than just do what everyone else was doing.”

The chaplaincy stall at the Freshers’ Fair was one of his first stops, and helped him to find a church. “I spoke to my chaplain, and she pointed me towards the local parish churches that were good, and I went to a few of those.”

Bethan Macdonald, a medical student at Edinburgh University, researched churches online before arriving. She found her current church by going to a freshers’ event there, and joined a small group for the year. When the drawbridge was pulled up for in-person activities and lectures a few weeks later, it became a lifeline — “because of the circle of support you get, and the people willing to help and look after you, especially this year, and the regularity of having church to attend each week, even online”.

Bethan Macdonald

Having a church network can also give you a change of environment, as Mr Harris, whose time at university was not during Covid, discovered. “We’d regularly be invited to the local Methodist church, which would host us for lunches; so we’d get to chat to older members of the congregation and meet different types of people.”

For Eleanor Thompson, whose lectures in her first year of occupational therapy at York St John’s were entirely online, the Christian Union (CU) was invaluable. After Freshers’ Week, the CU ran walking tours around the city of York in small groups to point out useful landmarks. “That was really nice, because it actually helped you meet some people outside your flat.

“Also, when you went to introductory — online — CU meetings, people afterwards took the time to send you a text and say it was nice to see you at the meeting, and just chat to you a bit by text.”


IT CAN be tricky to know how to navigate faith away from home under the pressures of university life. “One thing I did early on was tell people I’m a Christian,” Matthew Ho, an architecture graduate from Sheffield University, says. “That really helps people to understand why you behave a bit differently, perhaps.”

He also joined several societies. “I knew I wanted to mix around, not just in Christian circles. It’s a balance between church life, people on your course, and in societies.”

Many Christian students find that their faith helps to ground them. Ms Aggrey says: “For me, back home, I didn’t really have that many Christians around me at school and stuff; so it wasn’t very different for me. [But] it is harder, because uni culture is different. . . I’s a bit more intense.”

Adam Hopkinson, who graduated in drama from Huddersfield University this year, became a Christian through one of his flatmates, who was a member of the CU, after attending Adam Hopkinsonvarious events and completing an Alpha course in Huddersfield. Even though his church experience has been mainly online, he says, he has enjoyed it.

“I was gobbling up as much Christian information and perspectives as I could. Now, I’m at a point where I’d rather go in person. I’m looking for the more social aspect of church, which you don’t really get on Zoom.”

In his second year, Mr Harris and a friend formed a student group affiliated with the Student Christian Movement (SCM), and has now started exploring a vocation for the ordained ministry. He found being openly Christian at university to be a positive experience, overall.

“My non-Christian friends were quite interested, and were very supportive of it, actually. It wasn’t a hurdle at all. People asked me questions and I answered them honestly, and there wasn’t any difficulty, really.”


ANOTHER step-change from home and school life is taking responsibility for your own learning. “The one thing you’re learning for the first time is to self-motivate,” Ms Macdonald says. “I’d say: get as organised as you can, and find people on your course that will do bits of study with you, or go to the library with you. Find what helps motivate you.”

Ms Aggrey agrees: “It wasn’t massively hard in the first year, but it was different, because uni is a different style. It [involves] your own research and your own time. You think you have so much spare time — I didn’t have many contact hours — but a lot of those hours they expect you to be researching in the library.”

The imposition of online learning has presented its own challenges. Ms Thompson says: “Online learning can feel quite distant. You can’t go up to the lecturer at the end and ask them if you don’t get it. With the culture of Teams, so much of the time everyone is silent, it’s weird.”

Matthew Ho

Mr Hopkinson notes that many students are reluctant to ask questions in lectures, but he encourages it all the same. In his view, the way you behave in the first year has a bearing on the rest of your university career, because the second and third years involve working on projects with others across your course: “You get put into presentation, debate, or seminar group, working together; sometimes you might even need to write a paper together.”

Despite the pressures — or perhaps because of them — Ms Thompson advises maintaining a good work-life balance. “Don’t be scared to take time off. You’re not sure how much is expected of you, and I thought: ‘I’ve got to do all this extra reading.’ But, actually, it’s so important to spend time with flatmates and friends and build relationships. In your first term, as long as you keep up, and you know what’s happening in your lectures, it’s important to take time out, and it’s OK to do that.”

Joshua Harris

Mr Ho agrees. “Obviously, you have to care about your grades. But take time out to do the other things you want to do.” He managed to combine working freelance as a photographer, one of his hobbies, alongside his course, connecting with the student Christian group Fusion along the way by doing a job for them. “That helped with life-work balance, because I was able to earn a bit of money doing what I love to do.”

Cooking is another new life skill for many, which can bring a gratifying break from academic work. Ms Thompson says: “I went vegetarian. I quite enjoyed cooking for myself; it’s a nice thing to do when you’ve been in your room all day. And it’s quite nice . . . going out and buying your own ingredients.”

For Ms Macdonald, planning pays off: “Learn a few basic meals that are really simple, and easy to buy ingredients for from Lidl, and that will be your lifesaver. It’s so easy to get to an evening and click on the Deliveroo app, and that’s not healthy for your bank account.”

If, despite everything, you are struggling, reach out, she says. “Don’t be afraid to say to other people in your class, or at church, that you need a bit of help, especially with the academic stuff. You’re not expected to know everything. Most people would be very happy to help you, and that will make your life much easier.”

Mr Hopkinson, looking back on his degree course, points to the one thing that changed his whole experience. “I enjoyed and succeeded better at university once I became a Christian.”

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