The New Normal: COVID-19 and Freshers

12 October 2020. Updated 13 October 2020.

by Charlotte Kirkham

What I will be discussing:

  • Why friends are important at university.
  • The impact coronavirus is having on making friends at university as a ‘fresher’.

Why friends are important at university:

As we know, university is not only a chance to broaden our academic horizons, but also an opportunity to meet new people and make long-lasting friendships. It’s safe to say, whilst being academically focused university also offers a large and vibrant social scene.

A journal article written by Tanya Kantanis (2000), named “The role of social transition in students’ adjustment to the first-year of university”, states that:

Social transition underpins a successful academic transition to university. This research highlighted that the development of a friendship network was a major contributory element in this process. The sample indicated clearly that not having friends made the whole process of transition to university more difficult, whilst having friends helped students to settle in quickly and make progress with their studies

Kantanis continues to reference a 1996 pilot study, which reviews the common expectations of a first-year student and the realisation of those expectations. The findings are written below.

Common expectations:

  • Meeting new and different people
  • Having fun
  • Enjoying the freedom of a learning environment that is not regimented in the same way as school
  • Being mentally stimulated by all the new experiences, and
  • Having the opportunity to explore greater and more interesting subject choices.

Here we see the…

Realisation of student expectations:

  • That making friends proved to be more difficult
  • Disappointment in discovering that university was not as interesting, exciting or as much fun as they expected it to be, or had been led to believe
  • The staff were not as accessible as expected
  • A much heavier workload than expected, and
  • The unexpected complexity of some subjects

Although written in 2000 with a reference to a 1996 study, I believe that these findings are still relevant today. As we can see from the pilot study, the common expectations show that social interaction underpins a large proportion of what university freshers are excited about for their time in higher education. And even with the introduction of social networking, students still enjoy offline interaction and events. When we look at the “realisation of student expectations”, 69% of the sample were clearly struggling with issues related to social interaction, such as making friends, or an underwhelming experience. This leads to question, with COVID-19 making a drastic change to our way of living and socialising, how will this effect university freshers?

The impact Coronavirus is having on making friends at university as a fresher:

I carried out some primary research in the form of a survey with 38 Keele University freshers, asking them the question: Have you found it more difficult to make new friends at university whilst obeying current COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines?

From the graph you can see a large majority of 33 students (87%) said “Yes”, with only five students (13%) responding with “No”.

After looking into the 2020 study from Apostolou and Keramari, I wanted to see if my data would be able to be divided into their “Six categories of why it may be hard to make friends”. For reference, the six categories they found were:

  1. Low trust
  2. Fear of rejection
  3. Introversion
  4. Lack of time
  5. Being too picky
  6. Pragmatic reason

After asking my first question, I proposed a second: “If you answered “Yes” to the previous questions, please give a reason(s) why.” I was overwhelmed at the answers, where 100% had some form of pragmatic reason behind them; the most common being:

  • You can’t socialise in person outside your bubble unless it’s socially distanced with six people.
  • Being a commuter student who can’t meet anyone in person.
  • No freshers, cancelled social events and opportunities.
  • No parties/clubs/nights out.
  • Fear of repercussions.
  • Online lectures stopping you meet people you sit next to, there’s no chatter or opportunity to stop for a quick chat afterwards.
  • Scared of the virus.
  • Everyone’s in their own rooms.
  • Everything shuts at 10pm.
  • The SU and other large social spaces are restricted and the one way system means you can’t walk up and talk to people.

There were also a couple of responses which indicated that along with Covid-related pragmatic reasoning, they also have some introverted personality traits; saying they find approaching groups “intimidating” or find it more difficult because they already “struggled” without the COVID-19 restrictions. This leads to the question, how are those who struggle with social interactions pre-Covid going to cope when given more barriers by pragmatic reasoning? I am inclined to say that although their survey response can be categorised by Apostolou and Keramari’s study, that perhaps due to the unprecedented circumstances, COVID-19 possibly falls into its own sub-category.

An article written in 2017 for the Times Higher Education website, suggests five ways to make friends at university and these include:

  1. Join online freshers’ groups
  2. Take the plunge and say hello
  3. Join a society
  4. Keep your door open and have some treats on hand
  5. Don’t assume you’ll make friends for life during freshers’ week

It is worth pointing out however that societies and teaching are currently online, so taking the plunge to say hello is perhaps more challenging than normal. Interestingly, the respondents who replied “No” to my survey, said the reason why they aren’t finding it as difficult making friends is because of online interaction and flatmates. However, if you don’t have particularly talkative flatmates, or don’t have a large social media presence, this could make your only options to socialise much harder.

So, how do we combat the issues of making friends during the pandemic? Well, by increasing your online presence on social media, you could make some friends at least temporarily. You could turn microphones on during class discussions to make communicating more personal. Whenever there is an opportunity to attend an in-person event, seize that opportunity! And go exploring with your flatmates. At the very least you’ll get to know the campus better. In conclusion, we must be mindful and help to aid the social well-being of freshers, which will subsequently help their academic achievements.

Charlotte Kirkham is a fresher at Keele University

References:

  • Kantanis, T. (2000). The role of social transition in students adjustment to the first-year of university. Journal of Institutional Research, 2-4
  • Apostolou, M. Keramari, D. (2020). What prevents people from making friends: A taxonomy of reasons. ScienceDirect, 1-5
  • Bhardwa, S. (2017). Five ways to make friends at university. Times Higher Education
  • Kirkham, P. Yeadon, M. Thomas, B. (2020). How Likely is a Second Wave?. Lockdown Sceptics
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