Updated: Oct 13, 2020
Transition into University life is often challenging. However, despite having a wide variety of past experiences, students are united by feelings of uncertainty, unfamiliarity, expectation and nerves. Most are leaving years of school, structure, friends and home life behind to start a new chapter.
Whilst COVID-19 has presented challenges to all of us, distance-learning and reduced social opportunities will likely have a unique impact on this year's new students, producing a cohort that is particularly vulnerable to feelings of loneliness and isolation. Existing students are in a similarly difficult position and will undoubtedly also face changes to aspects of University life, in the form of changes to course structure, exams and internships. It is therefore imperative that our University communities engage with PROJECT:TALK's key values, ensuring that they are aware, enabled, proactive, and well-resourced.
One of the more prevalent challenges is that of online learning. A lack of in-person teaching not only makes course-related communication more difficult, but also robs students of vital opportunities for casual, social communication. From small-talk when walking from residences to lectures to pre-seminar chat about weekend plans, all play a very important part in supporting the mental fitness of our student communities. We must therefore establish other ways to keep this conversation alive; keep talking, share experiences and speak up. We thrive together, now more than ever.
The first few weeks of University are filled with expectation: ‘Freshers week is the best week of your life’. Despite this, I have yet to meet a student who hasn't had a better time since, with a majority finding the sudden expectation to have copious amounts of alcohol-centric fun with people you've never met before to be more than a little bit intimidating. We therefore tend to spend most of our time worrying that we aren't having as much fun as we should be, and concluding as a result that we've somehow done it wrong. COVID-19 has only widened the gap between reality and this socially-imposed expectation. Freshers’ could well feel a bit underwhelming or disappointing, and the effect that this can have on one's mental state cannot be underestimated. We should therefore be clear to students, to each other, and to ourselves, that this may not be the start to University life that we expected, but there are just as many exciting opportunities and friendships to be made as before.
Moreover, we should not forget about the unexpected end to school life that the majority of the new first-year students have experienced. An abrupt end, absent or reduced celebrations, and altered or cancelled exams add a heightened feeling of loss to the mix. Many students may be grieving this unavoidable lack of closure. Some students will be grieving loved ones lost in this global crisis. These recent huge and unexpected changes in our lives is likely to lead to stress, anxiety, and an increased need for support among students in the coming months. We must understand and be aware of this in order to cultivate hope and collectively help one another.
The key to navigating these challenges is - of course - improving mental fitness. However, we must understand that the capacity to produce social change of this magnitude does not exist within a single individual, but within the community. We must all know the language required to speak up, be prepared to sit and listen, build knowledge and confidence, and be proactive and eager to both seek and provide support when it is needed.
At PROJECT:TALK, we feel that the best way to enable our communities to thrive is by changing the way we view mental health. Our PROJECT:TALK // SMALLTALK event and campaign (running this year in partnership with the University of Bristol) aims to facilitate this process by supporting students through this challenging transition. Whilst we do our best to work with and support our student communities, we are always eager and grateful for your support. If you'd like to join our movement, donate, or find out more, please visit projecttalk.org.uk/small-talk, follow us on social media at @projecttalkcic or drop us an email at email@example.com.
Co-Founder & Director, PROJECT:TALK CIC
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