What it’s like being on lockdown as a university student in the UK

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Rooke during a trip to London to visit some friends, before social distancing became a thing. Source: Samantha Rooke

You don’t have to be at the epicentre of a pandemic for your life to turn upside down, as 20-year-old Samantha Rooke recently discovered. 

Amidst the backdrop of the coronavirus outbreak, the Film and English literature student at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England described the current situation as a “scary and uncertain time.” At this point in time, it almost seems like an understatement. 

Since making headlines at the beginning of 2020, the coronavirus outbreak has dramatically altered the everyday life for university students. Things that were once taken for granted like a walk to the shops, and popping in to see your friend across campus now seem like quaint things of the past. 

Busy campuses have become quiet. Classes have shifted online, especially affecting students enrolled in courses that require a certain amount of practical and lab work. 

Major campus events, gigs and performances that were previously planned in the city, have all been cancelled or postponed. Restaurants in the UK have been asked to close to halt the spread of the virus, affecting the part-time jobs of many students.

Some parents have been put out of work as a result of this global health crisis, and students who depend on their parents financially have been left worrying how they’ll be able to cover next semester’s tuition fees.

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The coronavirus outbreak has unleashed a new normal for many, but it has never been more important for university students to reach out to others for help when needed. Source: Samantha Rooke

These are just some of the issues Ms. Rooke is all too familiar with as she adjusts to a new normal.

While the UK has just entered a stay-at-home order on Monday (March 24), Rooke, who is also the primary caretaker of her 60-plus mum, told Study International that she had actually started self-isolating before the order was imposed for the sake of her mother.

Classes and exams have shifted online, despite the university reporting no confirmed cases of coronavirus at the time of writing.

“We have been told to stay alert for more information on exam changes and such, but some of us are hopeful that we will be able to meet sometime after Easter in our small groups to film and to submit what is required for our assignments,” she said.

It’s been suggested that some of their practical modules and exams might still be able to be completed after Easter is over, but it all seems very uncertain at the minute. Students have been told to wait until then and watch as the situation progresses, she said. 

“In case we can’t meet, we have been given alternative tasks we can complete individually and have been expected to get on with our written assignments as usual and get in touch with our course leaders if we need any help and concerns. 

“We’ve been reassured their help will be continuously available which is comforting and I am simply trying to get accustomed to a routine where I feel motivated to work and ask for help when I need it,” she explained.

Meanwhile, Rooke’s father, who works in Bahrain, has been put out of work with compensation pay as a result of the virus, putting her in a limbo over her tuition when she returns in September, despite having 25 percent off her fees due to a scholarship.

A cohort affected

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It can be a very lonely and isolating time for university students, with shops closed and the country under a stay-at-home order. Source: JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Some students in the UK had a taste of online learning when lecturers made learning materials available online following the second round of faculty strikes. Seventy-four universities in the UK were affected earlier this year over long-standing rows regarding pay, working conditions and pensions for faculty and staff members.

Rooke had been looking forward to returning to the classroom, saying that in-person learning motivated her more compared to “waking up to just sign on and download my work”.

“I get distracted quite easily and have put off more work as a result. For some of my friends, it has been more difficult or easy as we all learn in different ways. I like that I have additional time to go over things, but as previously mentioned, I am having trouble concentrating and motivating myself these days,” she explained.

It’s not just the academic aspect of life that has changed.

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Rooke also earns some side income from performing at gigs, which have now been cancelled or postponed. Source: Samantha Rooke

She has not been grocery shopping in just over a week and feels “quite anxious” about her next trip to the supermarket, hoping she won’t be met by rows of empty shelves. 

Rooke, who is also a musician, said her side income has also been affected after several of her gigs and performances in the city were canceled following the virus outbreak. 

Students of all backgrounds have been negatively affected by the outbreak. Many of Rooke’s friends who were study abroad students have been forced to return home prematurely, including those she performs with.

“I know classmates of other peers have also returned home abruptly on their own accord, and overall it has been quite a stressful time for everyone,” she said, adding that it was also upsetting for her third year friends who were expecting to graduate. 

A climate of anxiety for international students

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University students should reach out to their friends, family or mental health services for help, rather than to suffer in silence. Source: FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP

With the closure of shops and stay-at-home order in place, it can be very challenging for students to keep busy and remain focused on work, said Rooke, who considers herself blessed to have her mother by her side.

“Many international students are alone in campus accommodation, [and] many may have already been feeling very sad and isolated anyway especially if they have only started university this year. Many people, myself included, are also scared of xenophobia and [the] racism we may experience from people if we are of Asian descent with the current media frenzy around the virus originating from Asia, [with] Trump calling it the Chinese virus, etc,” she said.

Despite being a scary and uncertain time, Rooke’s message to other international students is: “Don’t be afraid to reach out to people”. 

This includes your friends back home as well as those in the UK and mental health services.

“Even though we must practise social distancing, it doesn’t mean we must stop socialising with one another and talking to each other. 

“If anything, this is very important for our well-being in these times of uncertainty, and it’s always better to know you are not alone and have places to turn and people who care about you. Take good care of your health, remember all those amazing healthy recipes from your family back home and put them into practise – I’m personally taking time to work on my cooking skills,” she said.

She adds that it’s also important not to feel the need to do something because others are being productive during these times.

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