Our virtual world: how has Welcome Week been affected?

Whether the decision involves bidding farewell to family and friends in an entirely different continent or country, moving to a new area nationally, or even choosing to stay living at home, University is a new and daunting chapter for everyone.

While the University experience is largely determined by each individual and only truly realised when that individual is immersed in it, there are certain presumptions and expectations that incoming students have.

One source of particular anticipation is the famed Welcome/freshers’ week. With a key purpose of introducing or welcoming new students to the University of their choice through ceremonies, fairs, and events, freshers is perhaps on top of all else, a prime time for students to emerge in one of the most thrilling aspects of University; the unextinguishable flare of intense social life.

This year, as we are all aware, is different. The global pandemic has made it impossible for institutions to operate as they did in previous years, and the virtual welcome week planned by the University of Edinburgh is definitely not business as usual.

So what has changed for incoming students in autumn 2020? And how are these differences making freshers feel? Though everyone is trying to make the transition to a ‘virtual world’ as smooth as possible, it’s not all laughs and jolly good times for the newcomers.

Speaking to some of the newly enrolled students, it was easy to identify the major concerns circling around in regards to the differences in this semester’s university experience.

A couple of students joining us from abroad expressed worries about settling in and becoming part of the University community with the increased restrictions and classes confirmed to remain online for the semester. “Moving to a new place is hard in the first place and I feel like spending so much time in my room will take a toll on my mental health”.

Others mentioned feeling slightly at a loss coming into an environment where their studies would be void of the usual live interaction with peers and academic staff. They felt this would make a difference in the type of independence expected of them. “With everything going online I just feel like I’m missing a sense of structure and support I guess”.

But the most frequently recurring theme of the conversations was – to no one’s surprise – parties and nights out. “It’s annoying cuz everyone always goes on about how crazy freshers is and this year is just… not the same at all.”

This is a fair point to make. The wildness of freshers’ week is half the beauty of it. All the stress, fear, and excitement students feel about starting university is summoned during freshers and exhausted in the adrenaline-filled week of meeting new people and running about campus and town like madmen.

The government guidelines result in students being left to their own devices more than ever, which not only means that students miss out on gems like the legendary Big Cheese welcome party, but more importantly, the sense of immediate connection to the University that freshers’ week usually gives new students.

On a more positive note, the university is appearing to take innovative measures to make newcomers feel welcome and keep returners connected. There’s a lot of buzz around the student union making use of their outdoor seating area (the Teviot Garden) as well as the newly announced building of student villages around University-owned areas.

Though some have been more affected by restrictions than others, societies are also actively trying to engage students and encourage first years to join with a multitude of online and even some in-person events.

The times we are in are not exactly favourable for new students, but that does not necessarily mean there is no light to be found or fun to be had. The circumstances simply demand students to channel a little bit of extra creativity and stay proactive.

Image: Trouni Tiet via Badabing London