For many first years at University College Dublin (UCD) this year has seen an anti-climax punctured by a big sesh-shaped hole. Making friends is not what it used to be. The latest band of freshers left school in March, missed their graduation, Leaving Cert results celebrations, and what now seems to be the entire first year of college (socially speaking anyway). The College Tribune spoke to four such unfortunates to see how they’re getting on.
Jordan (18), a first-year Science student, has made one friend in college so far. “I can’t really talk about something that’s been non-existent,” he said on his social experiences. He was on campus twice for a lab back in October and made one friend. “As far as social interaction goes, that’s been it. Which kinda sucks, you know?”
Miriam Mangan (19) is repeating first year after being ill for most of last year. Studying Politics and Irish, she said this year was her “opportunity to make friends.” Following a “heated debate” in one tutorial, a girl emailed her to support her arguments and offer some friendship. Since then, the pair have chatted online and she has become Mangan’s only friend made in college. Like many, Mangan hasn’t had the opportunity to socialise with her peers in person. You need “a lot of courage” to make friends, she said. “[Even] if you feel like you vibe with someone in a class or tutorial, and you were having craic in the [Zoom] breakout rooms, it’s still kind of intimidating to message them.”
Wexford native, Emma Carberry (19), didn’t speak to anybody during the first few weeks of college. Getting a late offer from UCD, she was “really thrown in at the deep end”. A History and Politics student, Carberry is “doing [her] degree from the box room in the house.” She managed to get into some student WhatsApp groups and Discord chatrooms. Since then, she’s made some friends, but is yet to meet any of them. “It’s really strange,” Carberry said. She had plans to meet up with friends, but these continue to be scuttled by health restrictions.
Aoife Nic Fhlannchadha (19), a Science student living with her family in Dublin, is one of the fortunate ones. She made some friends during a Zoom call for first years. “I would consider myself very lucky that I’ve managed to make three friends, even though none of them are in my course.”
Mangan was particularly looking forward to joining the LGBTQ+ Society. “Where I’m from (Meath) there’s barely anyone who’s LGBT and I […] haven’t been able to make many friends that would be the same as me.”
Carberry joined several societies but hasn’t engaged a whole lot. “I just kinda felt a bit odd popping up in a random Zoom. […] It’s a bit daunting.”
Nic Fhlannchadha has been more successful than the others, joining both the Harry Potter Society and Cumann Gaelach. She said although the Harry Potter Soc was “very welcoming” and made “every effort to welcome the first years”, it was difficult at first but became easier once she got to know people.
“Oh my God it’s so bad,” said Mangan on her mental health. “Thank God I have supports. If I were relying on college counselling, I would be so, so much worse.” She said the latest winter lockdown has been “ten times worse” than the first one. “The lack of friends does really make [the lockdowns] worse.”
On the other hand, Jordan said it’s been hard not seeing people, but his mental health hasn’t suffered. His friends from school were “gone out the window last March.” Spending more time than ever before with his family, Jordan sees this as one good thing to come from the pandemic.
Carberry’s said she’s “just getting on with it.” She hopes that in September she’ll move from Wexford to Dublin and be able to make more friends. “That keeps me going.”
For Nic Fhlannchadha, the pandemic has really taken its toll. “Half the reason I wanted to go to college was to make friends and have fun. […] All of my expectations have been let down. It’s been really difficult staying at home just with my family all the time.” She said the latest lockdown has been “very detrimental” to her mental health.
Good Supports? “Not in the Slightest”
Jordan wishes the peer mentor scheme was pushed more by the university. “If I’m being honest? I’d say they’re trying but their efforts haven’t been received very well on my end anyways. I just feel like what they’ve done, isn’t enough.”
Asked whether UCD has supported her, Mangan said, “Absolutely not in the slightest. […] They’ve been crap.” Coming through the DARE scheme, she usually avails of academic supports but said she was forced to take the most recent set of exams without them. Mangan also sad the counselling service was poor. In one instance she was scheduled a check-up Zoom call, but it never came. “I feel like they’re super overwhelmed. They’re not getting around to people and giving them the proper supports.”
Nic Fhlannchadha also thinks the university could be doing more. Although somewhat “out of their control”, she thinks more of an effort should be made to help students get to know each other in Zoom breakout rooms.
First Year Swept Away
Having such an important and foundational year swept away by the pandemic, how do these students feel about it?
Jordan’s experience has been transformative for him, using the time for self-improvement and taking some online courses. “I’m learning things about myself that I never knew. I had skills within me that I didn’t know I had and I’m using them every day.”
“On the downside,” Jordan admits. “It’s the toll it takes on people’s mental health. […] I know friends from school who have really been going through it. They don’t have siblings. They didn’t really have any close friends. They’ve just been suffering throughout this whole thing [and] having all these bad thoughts.”
Carberry said it’s been like “living in a film. It’s just nuts. I had it in my head that we’d be on campus this semester – new normal and everything – but we’re literally back to square one.”
“It could be so much worse,” Mangan said. “I could be out in a nightclub right now, but honestly this year hasn’t been the absolute worst that it could have been. But God, I would kill for a pint in the Clubhouse.”
Conor Capplis – Senior Reporter