“Welcome to all new students! Please turn off your microphones so we can limit background noise and make sure to join our virtual initiation party this evening via Zoom.”

Every fall, people from many corners of the Earth pick up and leave for university (or college for the Americans). The new students, who are lucky and privileged enough to go, find a home, education, parties, love, themselves, a different kind of future, and, realistically, some debt too. This year, however, the pandemic Covid-19 has struck and impacted work, travel, socializing and, of course, university life and education. Universities that produce Q&A podcasts with the headmaster and solely arrange thesis defenses via Canvas are common. And right now, it looks like this new kind of university might stick around for a while, since the pandemic isn’t over (but, of course, things might change). What will that mean for those starting university for the first time this fall?

Tanya Mehta is one of affected students-to-be. She recently moved to Melbourne, Australia from Auckland, New Zealand, and her time in the new city has mostly been spent in lockdown. Thus, she hasn’t been able to find a job, and is waiting to start her double degree in communications and business at Monash University in Melbourne this fall. Regarding her coming time at university, she says there is a lot of uncertainty. She doesn’t know if the education will be online or on campus, although she definitely prefers the second; she’s heard about a lot of people struggling with their education online. She doesn’t know how the practicalities of starting university will work, like exams. It’s been her dream to do a semester abroad, but that might not happen depending on the travel restrictions. And normally, there are a lot of parties and events related to starting university, but that might not be the case this year: “It’s going be very different because there is no talk about when that’s going be allowed to start.” She says that since she’s moved to a new city, she was depending on university to make friends and connections. This fall, when those parties and events may not happen, and the education might not even be in person, that might be more of challenge. Furthermore, since Tanya isn’t a current student, she’s not getting much information. Instead, her thoughts about starting university and what university is generally like are based on the things her friends who are already studying in New Zealand and Australia say. But that strategy doesn’t necessarily lead to less confusion for newcomers when it comes to starting university this fall; every university has different resources, possibilities and obstacles when it comes to adapting to covid-19. Yet, in the midst of all this uncertainty, Tanya is still excited to start university so that she has something to do and perhaps meet some people (in any way possible). She’s looking forward to having something to take her mind of these crazy times. Tanya says: “I need to now start my life”.

Another student-to-be, Lulu Marshall from Tisbury, the UK, feels a similar excitement as Tanya about starting university and the importance of university to her. Lulu is going to the Reims campus at Sciences Po university in France. She says: “I’ve been dreaming about this for the last three years. When I got my acceptance letter I just burst into tears.” At Sciences Po, she’ll be taking an undergraduate in a Europe – North American programme, which explores “transatlantic relations through a comparative approach to studying institutions, history, law, sociology, international relations and humanities”. She’ll also be taking two languages while there, and the third year will be spent abroad (in New York, if she gets her wish and travel is allowed). Lulu, who went to an all-girls boarding school in Winchester, says that her path is unusual compared to most of her old school friends since she won’t be studying within the Russel Group in the UK. However, she did also get into the University College London and accepted her place there. She has thus gotten the chance to compare the information given about the coming fall and the changes made due to covid-19 from two different universities. She says that UCL has been late with its information to coming students, and that it’s been confusing. However, she feels a lot more positive about the plans and information supplied by Sciences Po. She’s officially starting classes the 14th of September, but she’ll have a virtual orientation the 1st of September and virtual integration over the summer. Already, there has been an introductory lecture with “a ton of people giving a ton of information” as she phrased it, for example the student union and the head of campus. Furthermore, Lulu really feels that the first-year students are a priority education-wise for the university, for example in having lectures face-to-face, and that those taking part online will be supported properly. Not only that, the university is also putting together Facebook chats with smaller groups of students to make sure that they can get some socializing in those groups. Lulu thus seems quite happy to go to university this fall, despite the current state of the world. She acknowledges that starting university this fall is different and that it isn’t a hundred percent safe, but she also says: “In any big city, I’d still be at risk”. She’s been weighing out the dangers and the benefits, but not going would be to defer her dream.

Starting university, like Tanya said, can be a way to start your life, or maybe just continue an already fulfilled one. It can be a way to rise out of poverty or get better job security. For many, it’s a way to see perspectives you never saw before or meet people you never would have met otherwise, both professionally and personally. It can be a way to get a roof over your head and some help in exceeding and learning about yourself, others and the world. Often, students also have to work very hard to get into university in terms of energy, time and costs (in certain countries and at certain universities that is especially true). When you start university, which unfortunately far from everyone gets to do, it can feel nerve wracking, exciting, confusing, and so on. But for those who do start university this fall, like Tanya and Lulu, the process might be even more intense, emotional or confusing than for the first-year students of previous semesters. Lectures and exams in person, finding friends and partying, and studying abroad – these were all rather common and uncontroversial parts of university life until a couple of months ago. Now? Not so much. The only sure thing to say is that this generation of students will have it different and be different than any other students before them.

Any bets on that “unique” will be one of the most common words at graduation speeches in the coming years?

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