Life

Freshers Week Diary: This Is What Uni Is Like Under COVID-19

Here's how "the best week of your life" goes when clubs are shut and parties aren't allowed.
October 6, 2020, 10:37am
Freshers week 2020
All photos: Izzy Copestake

For many, Freshers Week is a ceremonial rite of passage. The aperitif to the main meal of adulthood: three to four years of meeting your best friends, throwing up £1 shots in a club and probably sleeping with someone you will spend the whole of first year avoiding.

This year is different.

The pandemic has turned student halls into quarantine hell. Club nights and bar crawls are off the table. Many universities have staged virtual Freshers Weeks, while it’s been argued that vice-chancellors have let students down by promising a university experience they are no longer able to offer.

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But what is it like for university students beginning their first year during COVID-19? VICE asked first year English Literature student Izzy Copestake to document her experience at Trinity College Dublin.

Arrival

University halls in Trinity College, Dublin

Izzy's room.

All new arrivals in Dublin must isolate for 14 days before living “the best week of your life.”

I had a strict 30-minute slot to dump my bags in my room and say goodbye to my dad, but at least my flatmates were cool (they ask me if I like Lana Del Rey).

I spend the following 14 days of isolation treasuring my trips out for essentials (my only human interaction aside from my flatmates), constantly fearing that everyone was having a far better time than me and developing an unhealthy addiction to Hinge.

Monday

Trinity College, Dublin students during freshers week

Izzy (right) with a friend.

In hindsight, the first night of freedom was always going to be disappointing. Not only had my body developed a worryingly high tolerance to alcohol during my two weeks of forced quarantine but I had, inevitably, made the classic New Year’s Eve error: looked forward to it.

My carefully chosen little-bit-sexy, little-bit-cute tank top was my first grave error.

“New government restrictions,” the bartender barked at us. “Sit outside or not at all.”

I order a Guinness for €6 purely to say that I’d tried it. After forcing down half of the thick, dark, extortionate drink with shivering hands and insisting to my new friends that “it’s actually really nice”, the bartender approaches again.

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“What you eating?”

My second major lapse in judgement had become apparent. Due to level three restrictions, it is illegal to order alcohol in Dublin without ordering a meal. Fuck.

As we sat, shivering, with plates of Irish stew in front of us that we were too full to eat, I couldn’t help but be reminded of that Inbetweeners episode when Will orders plates of roast dinners to get around buying pints underage. Surely you shouldn’t have to make this much effort to have a drink in Freshers week.

Tuesday

A virtual freshers event at Trinity College Dublin

At a "speedfriending" event.

With little else on offer, I tried my very hardest to enjoy the virtual events before completely giving up. During quarantine, I had swallowed my pride and hit the “join” button on the Zoom “Speedfriending” event set up for my accommodation. This consisted of the host splitting us up into “breakout rooms” and forcing us to speak to each other. However, some people didn’t even turn their mic on and stared blankly at the screen leaving me asking “sooooo what do you study?” to the abyss.

Keen to actually meet people, I have taken to contacting strangers like a desperation-driven freak on Facebook Messenger. I think my tone is friendly and nonchalant as I begin the message with “Hey gal! 💞 I know we don’t know each other but I noticed that you were in the English Lit group!…” My tone is neither. I sound like I’m about to coerce her into joining a soul-destroying pyramid scheme against her will. She never responds.

Wednesday

A virtual freshers event at Trinity College Dublin

A virtual freshers event at Trinity College Dublin.

The irony of starting university during the outbreak of a contagious respiratory disease is that the only way to really meet people, aside from the “breakout Zoom rooms” which continue to terrify me, is by fucking over your lungs.

I leave my lighter in my room, deliberately, just so that I have an excuse to chat to people in the smoking area. “Sorry mate, you don’t happen to have a light do you?” Of course he does. He is a real smoker with a serious nicotine addiction, not a lonely fresher who spent 25 minutes rolling a cig in the kitchen. We start chatting. I tell him that I didn’t apply to Trinity just because I’d watched Normal People and fell in love with Connell Waldron but actually because “the English course looked really interesting”.

Drinking at a socially distanced freshers event

Drinking at a socially distanced freshers event.

He asks if I want to go to the Lidl bakery with him, solid evidence that this was a man of immaculate taste. Marry me?

Thursday

Trinity College Dublin

Trinity College Dublin without the tourists.

In spite of my cynicism, the uni appears to have really considered the needs of first-year students by pledging to make them a priority when it comes to in-person learning. It’s a far better scenario than my friends at Manchester Met who are imprisoned in their rooms and forced to pay full rent despite all learning being online and given few opportunities to make friends. Even though the technical difficulties of “remotely requesting my student card” meant that my carefully chosen photo was warped beyond recognition (see image below), I was at least able to go and have a look at the college.

This was possibly the only part of the week that lived up to my expectations. COVID meant that the campus, usually brimming with tourists from all over the world, was deserted.

Izzy's student ID.

Izzy's student ID.

For a moment, while wandering around the beautiful buildings in a long leather coat, I almost felt cool. However, I soon came across the arts block students (all of which were pulling off a heroin-chic vibe exceptionally well) and was instantly humbled.

Friday

Beer pong at Trinity College Dublin

Socially distanced beer pong.

At last, an event organised by my accommodation which wasn’t speedfriending, or worse still, a “Zoom DJ set” (the middle-aged man behind the decks with a glitching purple backdrop playing songs to unimpressed faces on tiny screens still haunts me). A beer pong tournament was the only in-person event that could take place while keeping to the government restrictions.

However, my visions of messily downing cups of lager while hurling insults at the opposing team were shattered by the sterile reality. The cups had to be filled with water and we were forbidden to drink from them in case of contamination from the ping-pong ball. Wild!

Saturday

Izzy at Trinity College Dublin halls

Izzy in halls.

COVID may have limited opportunities to go to bars, but it has not curbed students’ enthusiasm for getting intoxicated. Far from growing up and becoming independent, I appear to have transformed into my 15-year-old self. I buy a bottle of €3.50 wine (which smells like a mixture of vinegar and piss but isn’t too vile once you reach your final sip) and head to the park.

The meeting had been described as a “picnic”, but the closest thing to a substantial meal among the cans and bottles on the grass is a half-eaten packet of Skips and some chewing gum. I stumble back to halls, forget that I’m trying to be a vegetarian, make a ham sandwich and pass out with all my makeup on. Classy.

Sunday

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Making friends during a pandemic.

The shit thing about day drinking is that instead of sending your needy and misspelt drunk texts in the early hours of the morning, you end up texting “heyyy, you up? Xxx3xxx” at 7pm. My Sunday was spent watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians, wallowing in self-loathing and doing damage control on each poor soul I decided to message after two and a half bottles of wine.

Deep down, everyone knows that freshers week is always overhyped, but I think we can all agree that this year was particularly shit. My expectations were low due to the pandemic so I wasn’t left feeling entirely crushed by disappointment. However, I hope for everyone's sake that virtual events with the goal of “having fun and making friends!!” is soon made illegal.

@izzy_copestake