By Ella Dorn, BA Chinese and Linguistics
When Valerie Amos announced in mid-March that all SOAS classes would move online as a COVID-19 measure, many students took this in stride: public anxiety over the virus had steadily grown, and the sudden transfer of lectures and tutorials to a computer screen seemed almost affirming. At that point, however, it was unclear how the situation would affect the next academic year. If Amos had proclaimed then that the whole first term would be taught online, with Language Year Abroads postponed or cancelled and a number of students physically away from London, the reaction might have been more lukewarm.
2020 is hardly the best year to start university: with the virus causing complications for school-leaver exams, mandatory quarantine for some international and domestic arrivals and little real-life opportunity to meet new friends, the situation might make returning students gratefully nostalgic for their own first weeks at SOAS.
I spoke to three Freshers about their recent experiences, hoping to get their perspective on starting university – and not just any university – in a global pandemic.
Two of the students interviewed had relocated to London to start their degree, one travelling internationally. ‘I had to fill in a form before leaving France and then isolate for two weeks after arriving,’ says Charlotte Paule, who is studying the Politics of Asia MSc. ‘I couldn’t quite enjoy the city at first and it was tough to really settle in.’ Elle Robertson, who moved into student accommodation in London from her home in Cardiff to start a BA Korean degree, was grateful to have a second-year friend in her flat, who could ‘help [her] with any questions [she] had’.
So, how does SOAS seem to compare to other UK universities? ‘I have friends who also go into uni for tutorials, which I would have liked,’ says Nahidah Khan, who is studying from home in London for a BA in Development Studies and Politics. ‘It would’ve made me feel as though I was part of SOAS.’ Paule explains that her friend, a returning UCL student, has had an experience that ‘also seems a bit chaotic, and she has a hard time with online classes’.
Many students have had difficult experiences dealing with SOAS admin this year. After a large proportion of staff were made redundant and some degree programmes were restructured, enrollment and module selection became a challenging process. ‘I had a flat out mental breakdown when my department announced a class I wanted to attend was full, a week after I tried to register to it,’ says Paule. ‘It got solved in the end, after several days of anxiety since it was a class I was taking for my dissertation.’
Student finance was also a challenge: ‘I know that a lot of people, including myself, had issues with fees and it did take a while for SOAS to respond to any of us,’ says Robertson. ‘Not ideal when you’re already so stressed out about starting uni!’ These blows came with mixed levels of mental health support from the university. She cites, ‘a lot of emails from SOAS about the support available for mental health and studying’, while Paule reveals she received ‘no support… all they did was give all of us panic attacks’.
Meeting new people seemed to be a mixed concern. ‘I’ve made a couple friends but I think right now it’s very awkward,’ says Khan. ‘It’s really hard to tell a person’s vibe over text so it becomes more difficult to connect.’ Others fared better: ‘We had set up a WhatsApp chat with people from my programme during the summer,’ Paule says, ‘and more and more people joined through the weeks. We met in September, and I actually formed a solid group of friends who I see very regularly and with which I can talk about classes and life!’
Photo Caption: The SOAS campus. Credit: “Cantavestrella”, Wikimedia Commons.