The Staggering Optimism of Students

It’s a turbulent time for everyone, none more so than for the thousands of students currently studying at our city’s university who are nowhere near our city.

Most students have gone back home, wherever home might be. It could be abroad, or hundreds of miles down the road to the coastal parts of our country, but they’re still part of this broken and haphazard group we call the student body. As a university student myself, this year has been the most difficult so far, completing all our lectures, seminars and assignments from the dining room table whilst the rest of your family bustle around you and try and find the small piece of normality they still have left.

It’s been hard to remain positive for many, with social interaction with other students confined to a fortnightly Zoom quiz and Netflix party. It’s been a shock to the system and a change that many weren’t prepared for. But there are a few ways that students are keeping their spirits high during these unprecedented times.

Olivia Stock, 21, an English student at the University of Nottingham, has found refuge in her extracurricular opportunities that have found a way to continue throughout the pandemic.

She said: “Student media has been a lifeline for me during the pandemic. When things were unsettled, it offered a real sense of purpose and constancy. Having the time to indulge in creative projects has been brilliant and for students who often feel anxious or overwhelmed by small-group study sessions, the online learning environment has made for a more comfortable and reassuring experience.”

Olivia also noted how moving back in with her parents helped prepare her for her life after she finishes university as she fully expects to have to live with them for a while again whilst searching for a job.

She added: “For me, living at home for periods of time during the pandemic has helped eliminate that irrational student fear about moving back in with parents post-graduating. I think there’s a real stigma about not walking straight into a job after university, so the pandemic has really shown me that it isn’t all bad!”

“This third lockdown has been particularly tough, being stuck inside all day during the winter months can be really tolling at times.”

Lewis Tibbs, 22, a Broadcast Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University also admitted that he has found it more difficult to concentrate during the current lockdown but has found small ways to stay motivated.

He said: “This third lockdown has been particularly tough, being stuck inside all day during the winter months can be really tolling at times. But there has been a lot of positivity to come out of it as well. I’ve used lockdown to recuperate and refocus and to really think about what I want to achieve and what I want to do with my life. I’ve thrown myself into my work and tried my best to prepare myself for my life post-graduation. It’s given me a purpose every day and something to wake up for.”

Lewis also added that the changes to his university degree have been significant, but he managed to find the positives in those as well.

He admitted: “University isn’t the same in the slightest, of course, it isn’t how I expected to be finishing my degree at all, but the staff work really hard to provide a good quality learning experience, so it’s been okay. I try and talk to my friends as much as possible because it does help. Despite the obvious challenges, I’m doing good.”

Lilith Hudson, 22, an English and Philosophy student at the University of Nottingham, has also found these last few months more difficult than previous lockdowns. However, she has found spending time outdoors as the key to keeping her spirits high.

She said: “There’s no denying that the last few months have been a struggle. Life has become routinely boring in the absence of any spontaneity. As a final year student, it’s easy to think that because there’s nothing better to do you should spend your time studying, but this approach won’t do you or your grades any favours.”

“As contrived as it may be, I’ve been trying to spice up drab days with impromptu jaunts; mid-mornings spent meandering along the Trent and afternoons plodding along the canal. When exercise doesn’t appeal, I do some impulsive baking or randomly call a friend. It’s the little things like this that help you to find something positive every day.”

She added: “The faint possibility that I’ll actually have a graduation was the motive I needed to keep me going, so I’m holding onto hope!”

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Students and the pandemic

Since March last year, students have been plunged into the deep end, forced to keep up the same standard of work in very abnormal circumstances. It’s been difficult for all the university students finishing their degrees, but arguably even harder for those starting and moving to the city for the first time.

Not only were these ‘freshers’ trying to navigate their way through a strange city, meet new people and succeed in their studies, they had to do it all in the middle of an international healthcare crisis, exacerbating any feelings they may have had of feeling isolated and out-of-place.

Irene Bisoni moved to Nottingham from Italy in September to start her degree, but did not expect living and studying during a pandemic to be so isolating.

“I had a lot of hopes about moving to another city and starting anew. The first lockdown was bearable for me but during this lockdown I’m really starting to feel isolated and I’m incredibly homesick. Not talking to people in real life makes things incredibly hard at times.”

Irene also felt like the presence of a lockdown has severely affected another key aspect of university life.

“In terms of my student experience, it is virtually non-existent. I haven’t been able to truly experience university as a fully functioning student. I also feel like university students are forgotten easily because people think they’re older, more mature, and more able to cope with the workload, but I don’t agree at all. A lot of emphasis has been put on students partying and breaching rules during the pandemic, and although I am completely against the breaching of rules, there have been circumstances where we have been wrongly demonised. I’m hoping that after the pandemic is over I’ll be able to see Nottingham in a different light.”

University of Nottingham student Lauren McGaun has also just started her second year studying Politics and American studies. She expressed her discontent with the clarity surrounding the ever-changing regulations and understands students’ frustrations.

“I think the constant changing of rules is just frustrating for students as there’s no clarity around the decisions. We were assured that we would be given a relatively easy return to campus from September and that blended learning would continue throughout this year, but that quickly changed. I, and I am sure many others, feel that it would’ve been better to just continue with home learning so that students didn’t waste thousands of pounds on accommodation that simply isn’t being used.”

Lauren also went on to say that she feels students have been forgotten by the government, aggravating students’ frustrations over the past several months.

She said: “There’s rarely ever a mention of university students in government briefings even though we’re a generation whose futures will be most affected by this crisis. It seems that all students are grouped into one perception of all acting irrepressibly even though, for the most part, this isn’t true. The student experience has been hugely different this year but I do commend the university for taking the steps they did for keeping the campus safe and covid-secure.

Lauren added: “It has been very difficult to adjust as most of what was meant to be some of my best years at university have been spent working at home and struggling to focus which is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.”

Throughout this pandemic, the lives of students at university have been turned into a chaotic string of events, despite the fact that university should be some of the best years of their life. Students have been at the forefront of this pandemic, often for rule-breaking, but here’s hoping when we eventually return to normal, the scapegoating of students will return to normality too.

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Students breaking the stereotype

It feels like every day there are student stories in the news at the moment. Students are flouting coronavirus restrictions and holding parties in their flats. Hiding party-goers in their basements, attempting to evade police detection and avoiding hefty fines. Unfortunately, this is an illusion that some people have subscribed to and believed. But from what I can tell, it’s the minority.

Across our university campuses in Nottingham, students are raising funds and collecting food for our city’s residents who are in a less fortunate position, offering a helping hand to their community.

Max Adler, who acts as the charity secretary for the University of Nottingham football team, helped organise an initiative that provided children with free packed lunches over the half-term break, inspired by footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign. After teaming up with St Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, the team helped distribute over 200 free lunches in Lenton, using money from their own pocket. Any leftover food was then donated to food banks to prevent anything from going to waste.

Max said: “While students get looked down on, so do members of sports clubs – they’re often known to be quite loud and noisy. Following the government’s decision not to provide free school meals for school children over the half-term holidays, the University of Nottingham football club wanted to help the community. We understand the difficult times we are living in and we firmly believe that no child should ever have to go hungry.”

Zain Gillani, the football team’s equality officer, also said: “Getting involved in the community and helping out as much as we can has been one of our main priorities every single year. Whenever we see we can help make a change, we go for it.”

Alongside this, the Portland building on the University Park campus has also seen an increase in donations. An initiative was launched at the University of Nottingham to help support local food banks. Partnering with the local food distribution company Foodprint, university students were encouraged to donate food outside the Spar shop in the Portland Building, which would then be distributed to food banks and homeless shelters across the city.

Foodprint itself was a company founded by University of Nottingham students in 2017 to battle the amount of food waste in a society that also tackles hunger. To them, the latter should not coexist with the former. They have worked throughout lockdown, selling surplus food in their Sneinton store to avoid it heading to a landfill.

As well as food donations, students at the University of Nottingham are also encouraged to donate the drinks from their meal deals if they don’t want them, and on Sundays, students can use up the remainder of their balance on their meal cards to spend on non-perishable food especially for the food bank donations. Whilst this operation was halted last semester as a result of cross-contamination fears amid coronavirus, workers at the Spar shop have noticed that food is once again being left for food bank donations so it is believed the initiative will start up again.

While sometimes students might be scapegoated, taking a further look can provide an insight into what students are really doing in lockdown, other than studying.

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Student retention and the economic effect

Following a recent report conducted by London Economics for the University and College Union, figures suggest that UK Universities are expecting over 230,000 fewer students in September as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This reduction could potentially decrease the incoming finance of universities by billions, putting an estimated 60,000 jobs at risk, both in the universities themselves and in the surrounding areas. Many universities in the country were struggling financially, even before the pandemic, and as a result, they could face serious long-term financial issues.

The University of Nottingham’s financial position has a strong influence on the economic fortune of surrounding towns, most obviously affecting that of Beeston. In previous years, Beeston has greatly relied upon the University of Nottingham to introduce a large number of visitors and students into the area, and to bring money to local businesses. Most recent figures suggest that over 3000 jobs in the Broxtowe area rely upon the University of Nottingham’s presence, whether they are directly linked to the University or not. Additionally, over 4200 University of Nottingham students and 1620 staff members live in Broxtowe, and therefore frequently provide the area with an economic income. International students to the University of Nottingham contribute £17 million to the Broxtowe economy annually, with the University supporting over 500 local businesses. Without the university or its students, it is clear that there would be detrimental effects to all surrounding economies if there were a strong decline in the number of students.

One of the biggest reasons behind the potential loss in finance is a lack of student retention, and university students opting to either study virtually and study from home, or to defer their place at university for the year. Both will have a negative effect on the local economy as students will fail to invest in the local communities and economies. For students starting university in September, the pandemic is still clearly their priority.

Jessica Croft, 21, from Nottingham, is due to start postgraduate study at the University of Nottingham in September but admits she has reservations: “I do have various concerns about attending University in September. However, I trust that student safety is the priority of the University; I am confident that I will not be put in a position where I am at risk of contracting the virus.

“I know of people who are hoping to start their first year in September, as an undergraduate, and a lot of them are considering deferring for a year. They don’t believe they’ll receive the full student experience during the pandemic and its repercussions. For that reason, I do believe that there will be a decline in the number of students attending University in September.

“I know that if I can work under these circumstances, I will come out of this academic year as a dedicated and adaptable individual – something which is invaluable to potential employers.”

“It will be a challenging year for me as a postgraduate student – particularly in terms of my mental health. However, I am trying to make the best of the situation. I know that if I can work under these circumstances, I will come out of this academic year as a dedicated and adaptable individual – something which is invaluable to potential employers.”

Whilst the University of Nottingham is busy making preparations and safety measures to welcome their students back in the new academic year, it is possible that their ‘blended approach’ could hinder the recovery of the Broxtowe economy. A spokesperson for the University of Nottingham said: “All of us at the University of Nottingham look forward to welcoming all of our students back to campus in September. We are committed to ensuring our students can remain safe and make the very most of the opportunities that studying for a Nottingham degree offers. We know that, in turn, our students will support our University community and neighbours in the city by following all government guidelines and local safety measures. Life at university, as much as everywhere else around the globe, will feel different for a while, however, our students’ time at Nottingham will be enriching and exciting, nonetheless. We have successfully welcomed more than 5,000 students back to our campus in Ningbo, China, and we are using that experience to inform how we approach things in the UK.

“We will use a blended approach to deliver teaching, using a combination of digital and in-person sessions to ensure students have every opportunity to engage with our world-leading academics. Social distancing measures will be in place across our indoor and outdoor spaces including dedicated entrances and exits, one-way and queuing systems, and distance markers that have become a familiar feature in other areas of national life.”

They continued: “We are working closely with the city and county councils, and landlords’ associations, to help bring students back to the city safely and efficiently. Lakeside Arts, our gallery and arts centre, is expected to resume its programme in the autumn, and will also put on its events and cultural activities in new spaces such as live-streaming performances on the Portland screen at the Students’ Union. The University and the Students’ Union is working with societies and student groups to develop safe and exciting opportunities to experience what our city and region have to offer.”

Regardless of whether students choose to return to the University of Nottingham this September, the economic impact on Broxtowe is almost inevitable and it is important we work together to mitigate the effects of this to the best of our ability.

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