Student life post-COVID-19: ‘Life on campus will continue to be resilient and adaptable to the challenges of this pandemic,’ writes UP Vice-Principal

Posted on August 03, 2020

Student academic success is underpinned by a range of comprehensive, holistic student support interventions that address their individual needs, leverage their strengths, and focus on professional development and personal growth.

When Lara Thom, a fourth-year law student at the University of Pretoria (UP), heard about lockdown and the need to vacate residences and other campus facilities, her first thought was about the logistical nightmare, at short notice, of ensuring the movement of students was without major hurdles. As Primarius of House Nala and one of two Chairs responsible for residential life on the Student Representative Council, she had to help ensure everyone got back home speedily and safely. She, together with the Sub-Council, had intense discussions with the residences’ management, house parents, students and UP’s executive management team.

Four months later, her worst part of being off-campus is trying to find answers to students’ questions, especially when she cannot knock on someone’s door for help. And while she is cocooned in the comfort of her family home in Johannesburg, she is deeply concerned about the well-being of other students in home environments not conducive to effective learning, mostly as a result of lack of internet connectivity.

She has not been worried about contracting COVID-19, although she is aware of the possibly greater risk to her asthmatic brother and her grandparents. However, she has been worried about the rising number of cases and the fact that students are not immune to this virulent virus. The health and safety of the students she represents is of paramount importance to her and other student leaders. For this reason, the Residences Sub-Council started a fundraising campaign to support needy residence students during lockdown.

Similarly, while her SRC President, International Relations honours student David Kabwa, is driving around with a tub of sanitiser at the back of his car, tries to avoid crowded spaces and doesn’t go out unless he has to, he too is not afraid of the virus. His main concern is also the plight of vulnerable students, such as the one who ran 8km from a rural community location to a site closer to network connectivity in order to use her cellphone to speak to him; and another whose entire family was anxious about the delay in his National Student Financial Aid Scheme meal allowance.

Thom and Kabwa’s concerns, as with all other student leaders, relate directly to those responsibilities, even seemingly taking preference over their commitments as students with academic responsibilities.

Yet their lack of paranoia about the pandemic ties in with what our Student Counselling Unit reports – “no student has expressed anxiety around the virus, which seems to be something surreal to them”.

It’s not as if students are not anxious. In fact, for the first time, our statistics show that more students are seeking counselling for anxiety than for depression. But the coronavirus itself is not the predominant reason. It’s the impact of how the resulting lockdown has disrupted the normality and structure of their university life. Uncertainty is their main preoccupation. They want to know: when can I come back to campus and continue with my studies? For first-years, it is as if they visited the campus for two months, and were then whisked away,  robbing them of our much-acclaimed first-year experience at UP.

Thirty percent more UP students are now using our counselling services. This is not only because of increased anxiety. Counselling is now virtual, and many say they were reluctant to go in person before. Now it is a faceless interaction; they can switch off the video option. In addition, there are online peer support groups where students with similar problems meet under the guidance of a trained counsellor from the university’s longstanding counselling partner, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). Some students have also formed WhatsApp groups to share struggles and tips.

While this anxiety might have a residual impact, lockdown is not going to be forever. Universities by their very nature are resilient institutions. They have been around since Al-Qarawiyyin, the oldest and still functioning university founded in Fez, Morocco in 859 AD, and later the University of Bologna in Italy in 1088. Universities are known to adapt to changing circumstances, and their resilience over time will overcome the current disruption.

A report by a London-based organisation, Advance Higher Education, based on a series of international workshops in May 2020, states how university leaders “need to be mindful that students choose university for the social and community experience as much as they do for the learning experience, and these too will be impacted if social distancing is in place”.

Student life isn’t only about academics but is about the holistic student experience. So it’s also about sport, culture, politics, leadership, residential life, entrepreneurship, leisure and other student social activities as evidenced by the 119 registered societies at UP.

Advance HE’s report points out “the value of serendipity”, those “all-important chances for chance encounters” which allow students to interact and find friendship groups – the moments that make university memorable.

None of this is happening as they should, but I have faith they will resume once we find a vaccine. It's a matter of time, but it will happen.

Until then, imaginative responses, coupled with technological interventions, will ensure societies – whether cultural, religious, social, academic or political – can continue to meet. We call on the chairpersons of these groups to keep the spirit of these clubs alive with regular online yet interactive activities; now more than ever students need the camaraderie and meaningful engagement they offer.

Sport is a bit more problematic. While team matches without spectators might become the norm, and other sportspeople can possibly maintain their general fitness while away from campus, lack of access to facilities, and no competition, will undoubtedly and regrettably lead to a decline in form.

Currently in South Africa, 33% of students are allowed back on campus. When we reach Alert Level 2 of lockdown, that number will double. While some miss residence life, which they find nurturing, others declined their invitations to come back, citing reasons such as: they will return to campus during the second semester; there were too few students in their respective residences; and the restrictions as a result of the protocols were too limiting. Some students returned to write examinations under conducive learning circumstances, save the frustrations about loadshedding that has recently kicked in.

As with these and other challenges, we will continue to support students in need by providing them with internet-enabled devices, data, telephonic tutoring and delivering study material to them, where appropriate.

Many of our students have enjoyed the flexibility of online teaching and said in a survey we conducted:

  • “I enjoy the online sessions, it makes me feel like we're all in this together, and it is so much like class! Quite funny, the same people asking questions – as always”; and
  • “I can go back on the videos or slides if the lecturer said something important and actually write it down where in class you can’t always write everything down because they talk too fast”.

The reality, however, is that South Africa is a highly unequal society and the pandemic and its lockdown have exacerbated these differences. Home life is not always conducive to studying because of lack of connectivity, turbulent relationships, and the difficulty of being a child at home again. The student comments are poignant:

  • “The learning environment is a complete nightmare! I hate it here, there's always something to do (house chores) and siblings to take care of. They don't understand that I am still schooling thus have a lot on my plate already.”
  • “Since I come from a village in Limpopo, I often experience network problems, loadshedding, which affects my academics so badly.”
  • “Where it takes others only 10 minutes to watch a 10-minute video, it will take me twice as long because of buffering or connection loss.”

Lockdown means there is little uniformity of student life. This is occurring worldwide, but is more extreme in South Africa given the triple challenges of inequality, poverty and unemployment. Many students go hungry, and although UP has interventions to mitigate this such as our Student Nutrition and Academic Success Programme (SNAPP), the academic success of our students is at risk until we achieve zero-hunger at UP. Although somewhat complicated by the lockdown, our Zero-hunger and Healthy Eating campaigns are progressing well.

Kabwa believes we have a “dynamic student cohort” who will strive to loosen the shackles of mediocrity to achieve success. Perhaps he is right. Students are indeed agents of change, and we, the universities, can only chip off the rough edges on their road to success. But we must ensure we lay the path to enable generations of students to navigate this terrain reasonably easily. Higher education will continue to transform lives and give hope to underserved communities, not only in this continent, but all over the world. Student life on campuses will continue to be resilient and adaptable to the challenges brought about by this pandemic.

Professor Themba Mosia is Vice-Principal for Student Life at the University of Pretoria. Professor Mosia serves on the subcommittee of the Ministerial Task Team advising Minister Blade Nzimande on the return of students to campuses under the lockdown regulations.

- Author Professor Themba Mosia

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