Time. It’s something that millions of us across the world have had in abundance this year. Time to relax, time to recuperate, time to face our demons. Time to think. Whilst 2020 has undeniably been pretty bloody depressing, I certainly have to give thanks for the time it gave me to think about the trajectory of my life and the new opportunities this has afforded me. I categorically would not be returning to uni this year if it weren’t for COVID.

Pre lockdown it wasn’t uncommon for me to work around 70 hours a week (I know this will be shocking for all of you who only followed my blog during the height of the pandemic when I was an unemployed mess) in dead-end jobs just to make ends meet. It didn’t occur to me that my horizons could be anything broader than this. I was so stuck in my mundane rut that I hadn’t even considered the idea of returning to education or to change the trajectory of my career in any way at all.

Speaking candidly, I honestly only applied to return to university on a whim. I didn’t tell my mum until the application was already sent. I had no faith that I would get in at all considering my previous degree was in musical theatre and had no relation to literature. I only applied to one university that was local to where I lived and was therefore convenient. Also (not to toot my own horn here) but it was a very high achieving university and I really didn’t think I had the qualifications to be accepted. I think I was simply panicking about what I was going to do with my life after losing all my jobs, and returning to education seemed like a safe bet. So, as you can imagine, when that acceptance letter came through I was more than a little bit baffled. I hadn’t made any sort of action plan for receiving an offer considering I’d honestly been expecting a rejection.

My reaction to that acceptance email…

So there I was, an offer on the table in front of me and wanting with every fibre of my being to accept. Apart from that one tiny voice in the back of my head screaming that accepting meant that I might have to venture out of my house and safety bubble (many of you know I live with someone highly vulnerable), and put myself and my family at risk for the sake of my education. I have become somewhat of a hermit this year; at present I have been to a supermarket twice since March, I haven’t ventured into bars or pubs, and have only visited a friend’s house twice. So the idea of suddenly having to go into a building with such high levels of traffic was incredibly anxiety-inducing for me.

Lots of pretty tough conversations with my family followed over the coming weeks. For one thing, I simply did not have the money to move out and live either in halls on campus or in a flat nearby, having chewed through a large portion of my savings during lockdown. It would have been unfair also to ask either of my parents to take on the level of financial pressure that would mean supporting my rent, so that too was out of the question. A postgraduate loan does not cover maintenance so I wouldn’t have even half as much as I’d need for rent from that. The only viable option for me was to stay living home, and so ultimately my finances decided for me.

The next question was a matter of teaching; would seminars and lectures be held on campus or online? This was something I would not find out until my induction during the first week of uni, so as a family we decided we would cross that bridge when we came to it. My biggest anxieties surrounding this year really boiled down to the matter of putting my own health and my family’s health at risk. Thankfully, my university seems to be taking matters pretty seriously issuing regular COVID updates via email and even putting hefty fines in place for students who are not wearing masks properly or, indeed, at all. Some may think this is a little tough, but we all know losing money hurts and personally I feel this is a swift way to make people pay attention to the rules.

I am now on week two of my masters and, on the most part, things have gone smoothly. My university is approaching teaching postgraduates with a ‘flexi-learning’ system. For the King Lear module I am studying there are only five of us in the class, and so there is more than ample space for us all to distance in a classroom. I attended my first in-person lecture last week and felt surprisingly safe sat next to an open window with my mask on.

The number of us taking part in the Victorian module is a little larger, and so the flexi-learning system comes into play. Having split the class in half, a timetable has been organised so that one week half of us attend the seminar in person and the other half online over a live stream. The following week we switch, meaning everyone gets a chance to ask the questions they need to or have enriching in-person discussions about the texts whilst still being able to social distance. I haven’t heard of many other universities using this system for postgrads, so I feel very lucky that they’re making the effort to do what they can for us to get the most out of our year. Of course, much of this is subject to change but for now I’m seizing the opportunities I’m being handed.

Something that has been a great source of frustration for me is seeing the large groups of students gathering on campus. I don’t mean to villianise, blame, or stereotype students here at all as I know a large number of you (if you’re reading) are just as scared as I am. I also know many adults are breaking rules, having dinner parties, etc. Despite the current media narrative I am very much aware that students are not solely to blame for the huge spike in cases we’ve seen this month. That being said, the two times I have visited campus so far I have despaired at the sizes of some of the groups gathered together without masks on as if we were not rapidly advancing towards lockdown part two.

Ultimately, I understand that my own personal safety boils down to the measures I am willing to take to protect myself. There is so much I stand to gain from this year, I don’t want to marr what could be a really incredible time of growth for me with feelings of anxiety about catching a life-threatening virus. However, this is unfortunately the world we live in now. I will continue to strive to stay as safe as I can, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified every time I pull into the campus car park at the thought of getting out and stepping into the crowds. I would also be lying if I said I expect my studies to continue this way; I fully expect to transition to being taught entirely online as cases continue to rise.

I can’t help but feel a little cheated that my time at university is going to be so heavily dominated by these immensely confusing and stressful feelings, although it is of course my choice entirely to continue my studies this year. It is no one’s fault (except maybe that guy who ate a bat last year…), but it is disheartening to know that this year could have been so wonderful despite all the academic pressure. There are so many social events that simply won’t be happening, right down to post-essay-deadline evenings at the pub to celebrate, the small moments of bonding with peers that will pass us all by.

That being said, it’s nice being able to roll out of bed at 8.45am to attend a 9am lecture in my jammies, so you won’t catch me complaining about that! I mostly pity undergraduates whose defining years at university, the years that epitomise freedom and growth, will now be tainted with COVID restrictions and social distancing limitations. I’ve already had my time at uni, made my friends and memories, and have come out the other side. I only hope that second and third year will bring a little more happiness for these students. Personally, as long as I stay healthy I know I’m going to be okay.

I’d love to hear from any of you who’ve started university this year! Let me know in the comments or on Instagram (@dearkatherineanne) how you’re finding your experience or how your uni has adapted to the new world we live in.

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