university can be the loneliest time in a young person's life. Flying the nest, leaving friends and the familiarity of home behind while trying to navigate new environments, studies, and social groups can be overwhelming for some. New and returning students knew this past semester would not be normal, but many did not expect to spend it alone; The move to online courses, the limited opportunities to meet new people, and the ever-present uncertainty about the future led to an increase in loneliness.
What is less well known, however, is how many students have filled the gap and banded together to fend for themselves as university life has changed dramatically. Through university clubs and societies, students across the country have struggled to instill a sense of purpose and community for themselves and their peers in the face of isolation from Covid restrictions.
Ruohan Liu, who is studying astrophysics at University College London (UCL), is in her third year at the university. She is President of the UCL Pokémon Society and, along with other niche clubs such as UCL Graphic Comics and Novels Society, used the popular Discord chat room app during the pandemic to socialize and promote events such as Pokémon tournaments or cooperative play.
"At Discord … we're creating a template that newbies can use to say what their favorite Pokémon or games are, so that starts a conversation," she says. “You can make friends like that; it makes you pretty happy. "
"We were born into (the pandemic) … it was pretty difficult at first," she explains. "We're always asking for feedback as this is our first term."
Isabel Creed, president of the Oxford University Walking Club, faced a different challenge. When England was banned again in November, the club gave up socially distant walks with six people. Instead, they set up a WhatsApp group to make it easier for members to go to one, and listed Oxford walking routes on their website to encourage students to go outside.
"It brings a sense of normalcy to life when you still have things you normally do," says Isabel, even if it's just about "taking someone who feels a little apprehensive for a walk."
Running these societies can be a serious obligation. Sometimes it feels like getting a part-time job for free. Stories like Ruohan or Isabel's Show can also offer a welcome escape from the isolation of an online campus.
Even before the pandemic, student societies played a role in combating student loneliness. Analysis by WonkHE, a blog on higher education policy, found in 2019 that almost Half of British students felt lonely on a daily or weekly basis. More than a third said their friendships came from those with whom they shared interests or hobbies, and it was found that participation in student societies correlated with higher standards of wellbeing such as satisfaction and worth.
Loneliness is one of the reasons why over half of UK college students say COVID-19 has deteriorated her mental health, according to a survey by the National Union of Students (NUS). Student Mental Health Charity Student Minds says that while more research is needed on the relationship between student societies and mental health, there is evidence that attending clubs and societies can improve students' sense of belonging.
“Community-building activities can also encourage students to engage in behaviors that have been shown to be good for wellbeing, including volunteering, exercise, and being in contact with nature,” the charity continues.
Daniel Takyi, who was in his fourth year of PSA at Durham University, is motivated by the help of the Durham People of Color Association (DPOCA) as president of the association. During the pandemic, the association hosted public speaking events, expanded welfare team members to speak to when they had problems, and created a parenting system where older members cater to freshmen. They also produced a manual for freshmen telling them where to get support.
"We try to give the students as many options as possible. It's not about DPOCA wanting to monopolize POC welfare," says Daniel.
Francesco Masala, president of the University of Bath Student Union, which supports societies with training, guides and meeting places, argues that they are not only beneficial for students. He believes that how it works should be a priority for universities that want to stop violating Covid regulations in the future, as they provide a safe way to socialize.
"Clearly, the student experience is not just about delivering lectures in person … (it is) actually providing spaces where students can safely conduct personal activities," he says.
Despite government exemptions for education, many universities have prevented student societies from meeting indoors in the final semester. Jim Dickinson, Associate Editor at WonkHE said, "This government has consistently categorized student societies as frivolous social in its guidelines for universities and it is therefore very unfortunate to be sacrificed during the pandemic."
With universities now closed until at least mid-February, Covid poses an existential threat to student societies that goes beyond temporary disruptions. Societies need time to build, with information on how to host events, promote activities, or recruit freshmen that has been passed down through generations of students. If normal function is disrupted, they run the risk of disappearing if students forget what to do or if members lose interest in society.
And in the meantime, they are no silver bullet for the sadness of the Covid campus. According to the NUS, 65 percent of students say they interact less with clubs and societies. Online events can be monotonous and cannot replace a face-to-face meeting.
"One of the best things about a (face-to-face) event is that you meet people afterwards, talk to them and the speakers talk to people," says Daniel, but at online events, to make this impossible, he regrets that " You're missing out on finding out who people are ”.
With social distancing, personal events can also be less exciting than they were before. "(On walks) people generally want to get into a group that is difficult to deal with," says Isabel.
Despite these imperfections, for Francesco the importance of well-funded SUs supporting student societies through the pandemic is personal.
In the past, as a student originally from Italy, he felt "incredibly lonely" due to language barriers and limited opportunities to connect with others. He paid high tuition fees and pondered until he discovered the theater company.
He remembers thinking, "I'm not going to leave this university with just a piece of paper in hand. I leave with memories and friends. (It) sounds super stupid, but ultimately it's the stuff that gets you at the university. "