The good, the bad and the just plain frustrating things about finishing an academic milestone in lockdown.
Like countless students across the world, my education has come to a startling halt with the spread of Covid-19. Cancelled exams and celebrations leave final submissions feeling rather anti-climactic, and the unconventional conclusion of the academic year has left students feeling anxious about the future of their education. Those who are perhaps most anxious are the students who have arrived at the end of their studies with no natural progression forward. I asked a number of final year students (at A Level, Undergraduate and Postgraduate level) about the ups and downs of finishing these important academic chapters in lockdown.
Ella Gilbert was supposed to sit her A Level Exams in May but will now be receiving predicted grades instead. She spoke to me about her concerns for those who may suffer from this decision.
“I am quite fortunate that I go to a good school with teachers who are likely to give fair grades but there will be many students who don’t get the grade they deserve as a result of this. Minority groups, such as those who have been off sick for long amounts of time or individuals whose tireless work is never recognised will suffer from the bias of their teachers, whether it’s intentional or not.” - Ella Gilbert
While some students may be impaired by these measures, the decision to cancel the exams has brought to light the question of whether or not final ‘all-or-nothing’ assessments are the best method of summarising academic achievements. It is certainly a question which needs to be addressed considering the detrimental effects which these mental and physical pressures can have on students at any level. A Level student Jessica Sharkey thought the announcement of exam cancellation was too casual.
“It still feels so surreal to me. These exams have been defining moments of the British educational cycle for decades. A Levels are the culmination of 13 years at school and one step away from university, so the sudden cancellation brings up a serious conversation to be had about the need for exams in the future.” – Jessica Sharkey
Beyond this, many students feel that they’ve missed out on school milestones which would have brought social closure to the sudden end to the academic year.
“I know they’re stupid traditions but “Leavers” and “Muck-Up Week” are events you watch throughout the years and you look forward to having your own one day. Everyone gets the opportunity to make those memories of their final days, but we were just told to hand in our locker keys and dismissed without a final hurrah.” - Rebekah Murray
The pandemic has left many university students feeling all the more intimidated by the unknown of life post-graduation. Despite this, many have managed to find a silver lining in this unexpected conclusion to their studies. I spoke to a number of students from Queen’s University who have described lockdown as a blessing in disguise. Without social distractions many students have used the spare time to stop procrastinating and improve their employability.
“I lost out on studio time for assignments, but I’ve had time to focus on other work. I’ve also been able to use this time to develop skills that will strengthen my independence as a freelancer.” – Lewis Murray
“It gives me a lot more time than I would’ve had to focus on my dissertation, for sure. I also travel for about 3 hours a day to get to and from uni, so having classes and working remotely has meant I’m able to set up a timetable that helps me use my time more effectively.” - Jane Corscadden
Queen’s University closed its doors for lockdown near the end of the second semester. Some students felt indifferent to the disruption which came in the final weeks.
“They’ve found a way around exams and we’ve only lost a week and a half. Realistically the only thing that’s really been affected is our graduation.” – Conn Thornton
However, for many, classes had already been affected by lecturer strikes across UK universities. Postgraduate student Madeline Raine worries about whether the disruptions from the protests and lockdown will impact her December graduation.
“My course is only one year long as it is, with both the industrial action strikes and the outbreak of the corona virus severely cutting my time short… I am so grateful that I was able to graduate from my undergraduate degree under normal circumstances and still have those memories to look back on.” - Madeline Raine
Final year graduates across the UK were undoubtedly disappointed to hear of the cancellations and postponements of their summer graduation ceremonies. Many look forward to the celebration in the hopes that it may establish a much-needed sense closure that eases the transition into the larger world of work. Undergraduate Maria McLarnon says she feels forgotten especially when the uncertainty of life after lockdown parallels the unknown of life after graduation.
“At least the younger ones are going back. We’re just sort of gone. I also feel like we’ve lost our last free summer and while we’ve got more time for assignments, I’ve got no motivation to finish them.” - Maria McLarnon
MA Media and Broadcast Production student Jessica Lawrence feels that the post-graduates are the forgotten ones.
“The focus seems to be on progressing current final years to graduation… We’ve been given so many conflicting details about our dissertations it’s hard to know which one is true… They could be delayed meaning that graduations for MAs would be held in the following Summer… 100% impacting post-graduation plans.” - Jessica Lawrence
Jessica also brought up a common issue which many students are facing right now - adapting to working at home.
“A home environment is not a work environment for me, and personal circumstances mean that my living situation is precarious… especially with the added stress of completing new assignments at home, not having a stable internet connection and the uncertainty around my degree…” - Jessica Lawrence
Lindsay Smith has been struggling with library closures.
“Not every book is online, and I can’t afford to buy many books - my dissertation is supposed to have 400 references.” - Lindsay Smith
Jane has found the new digital learning environment difficult. Alternative online examinations mean she has to download specific software to her laptop to ensure that she doesn’t cheat.
“We’re about to do our NTCJ exams remotely from next week. I’m really anxious about this - we were only given two weeks’ notice… My laptop webcam is broken meaning I’m having to rely on a family member’s.” – Jane Corscadden
Many students of all levels have been given the option to delay their plans for a year and sit their exams at a later date. For A Level students this setback will undoubtedly make next year’s university intake more competitive than ever. The unexpected changes to her academic year have impacted Jessica Laurence’s post-graduation plans.
“I’ve put off freelancing until I feel like it’s is mentally ok for me to do so, which may delay in me getting a job… it just feels like procrastination station while I wait for some news from our convenors.” – Jessica Laurence
Still, some students who may have been feeling anxious about the intimidating unknown of life beyond education have found perspective in the face of emerging from a global pandemic.
“I was really worried about the transition from uni life to home life in the summer before coronavirus came along. I was worrying over not having any plans for summer too, such as an internship or job. The situation now has put my worries into perspective - I will now just be grateful to see my friends and family.” – Lindsay Smith
Defining moments in our academic careers have been derailed and replaced in what feels like an instant. The measures which have been implemented to cope with the restrictions of our current situation have left students and educators alike nervous for the long-term consequences. By any means, it is certain that the impact of this academic year will surely affect how we approach the assessment of scholastic milestones from here on out.
Amy Murray is a final year student, currently completing an undergraduate degree in Music at Queen’s University. She is a rare NI individual who doesn’t wish to pursue political journalism, but rather is passionate about Cultural, Social and Solutions Journalism. She represented Northern Ireland at the British Council’s Future News Worldwide Conference in 2019.