Freshers 2020: Our first term at SOAS… in a global pandemic

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First term at uni can be challenging at the best of times – navigating new friendships, finding your way around a new city and getting to grips with your course. But, thanks to Covid-19, freshers in 2020 have had to deal with a whole new level of difficulty, spending their first term almost entirely online. I spoke to some of SOAS’ first years to see how they’ve found their time at uni so far, how they’ve coped with Covid’s impact on their mental health, and what they’re looking forward to in the new year.

All the freshers I spoke to agreed that, overall, they’ve enjoyed their time at SOAS so far. Natsai (18), who studies the Business, Management, Economics and Law foundation course, says that she has “especially enjoyed being at a university that discusses world history and other subjects I’m interested in accurately to how it happened rather than the white-washed propaganda I was taught at school.” 

Amelia (18), who’s studying BA Chinese, has also enjoyed her course so far – in particular doing research for her assignments: “during lockdown I’d spent so much time away from schoolwork that I forget how fun reading and learning new things is.”

An empty campus: SOAS during Covid

Sinem (18), a BA Development Studies student, is grateful that her department was proactive in creating online spaces for students to get to know each other. “We have several [slack] channels such as “introduce yourself” and “community” where we have somewhat been able to replicate the on-campus, close-knit community feel of SOAS.” 

Achu (23), who’s studying towards an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy has also found his course interesting, thanks largely to his teachers who have been really helpful. However, he acknowledges that “studying online is tough… it’s hard to learn online when you are stuck at home the whole day.” 

All the freshers I spoke to admit that online learning has its challenges, with motivation being a particular struggle, but Amelia brings up a silver lining: “being able to watch lectures at your own pace is useful, plus you only have to wake up 5 minutes before class starts!”

Meeting new friends has been a highlight of the term for everyone, even if almost all social events have been virtual.

“I have met some amazing people who have really helped me to fit into SOAS and I rarely feel like a newcomer,” says Achu.

Sinem has enjoyed meeting people through student societies: “Trying to make friends through WhatsApp group chats and awkward Zoom tutorials hasn’t been particularly easy. Luckily though, I was able to meet many people through the Student Union’s speed-friending sessions as well as the games nights hosted by SOASk Me Hangouts! I am also on the committee of the SOAS Turkish Society which has been such an exciting experience and has also been a way of meeting new people too through events.” 

Amelia has found another student-led SOAS initiative useful – the Peer Mentoring scheme. “I’ve found having an older student to ask questions and chat to is helpful in transitioning to university in a time when the idea of a campus and a student body seems quite abstract.” 

Online learning and Covid-19 more generally have presented a massive challenge to students’ mental health, so I asked our freshers how they’ve been coping. Natsai recommends finding a hobby you enjoy and sticking to it. She’s been reading, roller skating around her house and talking to friends.

“Do anything that keeps you active and mentally sound but don’t take away from your studies and try to enjoy and be interested in what you’re learning even if it’s tough.”

Amelia has also spent her free time on various hobbies, including painting and playing video games. Like many students, she’s found it difficult to study during such an isolating time, but says that “having a set routine really helps and I’ve found that timing how long I study helps me keep track of my productivity and be realistic about how much I can achieve on any given day.” 

Sinem suggests reaching out to your coursemates on social media: “once you start to connect and chat with them, you’ll very quickly understand that you’re not the only one who feels a bit overwhelmed with online learning. My biggest piece of advice would be to leave your comfort zone and to go to at least one online event. The good thing about online events is that, if at any moment you feel uncomfortable, you can literally leave the meeting within seconds. We regret the chances we don’t take in life, so just go for it!” 

Advice for new students – from SOAS freshers

The freshers also had some advice for any students looking to apply to SOAS in 2021.

“Definitely do your research on all universities you apply to and visit them if possible. Also don’t get too stressed about the application process like I did.” – Amelia

“Reach out to people on Instagram who go to SOAS and make friends! Don’t be afraid to DM people and talk to them. Join your seminar group chats and make them yourself if they don’t exist. Join societies! Everyone is different and enjoy everything as it comes. Be patient with admin, your student confirmation etc is coming.” – Natsai

“University is a big experience with many changes. It’s the transition into the real world and you will learn a lot aside from your degree. It is important to be patient and not rush things, you may find your best friends in your final year for example. Make sure that you look after yourself physically and mentally and test the waters. Take every opportunity to meet new people in societies etc. but do not have any expectations.” – Achu

“When searching for the degree that you’re considering to pursue, make sure to check the individual modules to get a real idea of what content you’ll be covering. Have a look at the recommended reading list and ask yourself whether you’d be motivated enough to read those books/articles/journals. You will be set several assignments (yes, even in your first year!) throughout the course of your studies and so you need to be sure from now that the degree you’re applying for is one that will truly pique your academic interest. Don’t hesitate to contact relevant staff members if you have any questions – if you don’t ask, you don’t get!” – Sinem (for more tips on preparing for university, you can check out Sinem’s blog post).

Looking ahead to 2021, everyone is hopeful that they’ll be able to spend more time on campus and see the friends and classmates they’ve met online. Sinem sums it up perfectly – “I’m excited to return to some sort of “normality” – no more awkward Zoom tutorials, no more Covid-19 news articles… oh, and to go to the JCR sometime – is that too much to ask for?”

Thinking of applying to SOAS? Register for our online open events.

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