I vividly remember my first day on the COVID Campus that was Newcastle, as I sat in the strictly the outdoor area of a pub (adhering to the rule of 6 of course), on a table with people I’d never met, having no idea if they’d be the bridesmaids at my wedding or solely just ‘fresher friends’. After the inevitable incessant small talk covering all the extremely fascinating bases, from what I study, where I’m from or whether I knew ‘xyz’ from their friend’s cousin’s neighbour’s friend’s primary school, I was shortly distracted by a familiar face, giving me the means to go and branch out further by standing outside halls to meet a load more people, only to repeat the same conversations I’d just had with everyone at the pub.
The all too familiar notion during fresher’s week of introducing yourself a thousand times a day to hundreds of people who you may never speak to again is overwhelming at the best of times, never mind when within the first five minutes of introductions, a university security van drives past and threateningly splits up budding conversations to encourage ‘social distancing’- really setting the tone for what the rest of the year had in store.
We spent the rest of the pandemic-oriented fresher’s week waking up at midday, making the most of the limited pub experience, knowing that it could be taken from us at any moment, and running away from security at ‘flat parties’ (an art which we quickly learned how to master) again and again and again. Caught up in the adrenaline and buzz of new university freedom and friends, we didn’t quite realise just how copiously this repetitive routine was going to take over our lives for the next nine months.
However, this routine was to be put on hold for a week, on day six of university... ‘Flat Groupchat’ is typing... “Hey guys I’m really sorry but I’ve tested positive for corona, you’ve all got to get a test and we need to isolate for a week”.
As someone who didn’t spend much time in their flat during fresher’s week, the thought of being trapped in with utter strangers terrified me. But we had no choice but to embrace this weird time and adapt to flat bonding and ‘virtual’ freshers. As tough as this week was, we managed to make fun with poker nights, exchanging recipes and admiring the post-it note art on other flat’s windows; some saying things like “I’m claustrophobic Boris!”.
An integral moment of me realising just how tragic this week was, was exacerbated one evening when I was having a ‘boozy Zoom call’ with my friends from other flats who I had met only eight days prior. After fully reliving the feeling of the lockdown Zoom craze in my university fresher’s week, I (partially wine fuelled) wrote a 1200-word long email to Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock demanding that the pubs shouldn’t and simply couldn’t shut. I think some of the particularly convincing lines amongst many were similar to “pints are like essential for uni students and the economy”, or “omg boris how are we meant to have fun without like, the pub???”. Two automated emails and no personal response later, the pubs swiftly shut exactly a week after.
The November lockdown hit, along with the crippling cold, and there was officially nothing to do. We filled our days by rinsing the free drinks that the Pret subscription gave us, or going to the occasional online lecture. If we were feeling extra adventurous, some evenings we’d walk to Quayside, admire the lights from the Millennium Bridge, shiver until we could no longer bear it, and then walk back. Riveting.
As bleak as these days were, somehow there was still fun to be had and I often wonder who it was worse for out of all the university years, as we didn’t entirely know what we were missing. Was the complete ignorance blissful or was it better to be able to look back on what normal Newcastle used to be like? Either way, it was hard for everyone.
Hindsight is an interesting thing when looking back onto how extraordinary life was for university students last year. We were definitely aware of how mundane our lifestyle was, made even more unfavourable by living in student halls, but we still found ways to not only cope, but also to appreciate it. This unique experience first year university students endured was unquestionably uniting, and there were definitely some pros to the limiting lifestyle that there may not have been if it were a regular year.
The lack of clubbing or drunkenly making a ‘best friend’ in the girl’s bathroom at the pub encouraged stronger bonds in friendships as often a good chat with someone was more accessible in these flat parties than it is in clubs where you can’t even hear someone speak. Additionally, the limitation of staying in halls ensured that if you got on with someone, you would most likely see them again, broadening the opportunity and scope to solidify friendships. And lastly if we’re really clutching at straws to find silver linings, it really made you excited about the next normal couple of years to come.
As the Spring and Summer months approached and restrictions steadily eased from now being able to sit outside at the pub to the alien experience of ‘sit down clubbing’, it was fair to say we were far more familiarised with the true essence of Newcastle than we had ever been before.
After this new phenomenon of having gone from feeling like a hermit to feeling like a true Geordie student, I was rightfully dragged back down to Earth when I gave my friend, a prospective student here, a tour of the university. Her and her mum asked the simplest of questions like where the Student Union was, and of course I had no idea, reinforcing how much I still had to learn to qualify as a proper Newcastle student.
The transition from flat parties to clubs, online lectures to meeting your course mates in person and living in locked up halls to housing with your friends, has definitely been a much awaited one and has not disappointed. As much as first year was sufficiently character building and there definitely were some fun times that may not have happened if things were ‘normal’, second year has been welcomed with open arms.
Uncertainty can be exciting, but I’m certain that this year will be an improvement and I’m much more excited by that.