The time has finally come. On the 20th of March, every student and staff member at the University of Auckland received an email banishing them from campus. Evaluating the risk of COVID-19, the higher-ups decided to shift all learning online and get ahead on the inevitable national shutdown. The halls of residence also cleared out quickly, with many students heading home to spend some extensive, and potentially painful, quality time with their families. Within a week of the decision to close the university, Jacinda Ardern gave a dystopic address on national television, and the entire country retreated into their private dwellings filled with both anxiety and hope. UOA quickly shifted into online learning mode and Canvas became a desktop staple for students, who remained glued to their laptop screens for weeks on end, either vehemently avoiding their studies or branding the “Copyright University of Auckland” disclaimer into their brains forever.
Last semester was undoubtedly one incredibly different from any in recent memory. It was extremely long, with an added week to make up for staff prep and the mid-semester break turning into a hellish two weeks of assignment lockdown. All exams and assignments were held online. Grades were lifted in an attempt to pad the inevitable impact of COVID-19. Students were prevented from accessing library materials. Zoom became the number one app stealing our data. And, on a more personal note, Craccum ceased printing physical copies for the first time in 93 years. Working from home was different for everyone, in terms of access, family or flatmates dynamics, time spent on Netflix and stressing over the general state of the outside world. For some, the lockdown was a nice break from the overwhelming stress of a busy semester. For others, it was a difficult and isolating time, where uni either became an object of hyperfocus or a series of neglected, unimportant tasks. For some angels, it was put on the backburner as they navigated life as essential workers, in supermarkets, pharmacies and hospitals. In any case, the student experience at UOA was disrupted drastically, with the campuses no longer acting as a unifying force. Some would likely argue that UOA campuses haven’t been a unifying force for some time.
A hot talking point for disgruntled students at UOA is the idea that our university campus hasn’t really maintained or fostered any real student culture. The common complaint is that, unlike the raging student towns of Wellington and Dunedin, people are unfriendly and fiercely independent, making for a very different (and worse) student experience. Obviously, the student population of Auckland is spread much more sporadically across the city, with nothing that rivals binge-drinking central; Castle Street in Dunners. Thus, the UOA campuses also spread sporadically across the city, are left with the monumental task of engaging students in a welcoming community. AUSA (the Auckland University Student Association) commits to a lot of this work, scheduling endless quizzes scheduled at Shadows and filling the Quad with odd and wonderful things. Despite the work of AUSA, the perception that Auckland uni students are disconnected continues. It’s not entirely unfounded. Over my three and a half years on this campus, I’ve been to many, many lectures and definitely felt isolated in some of them. If you are continually attending lectures where people sit three or four chairs apart, don’t smile at each other and groan every time an exasperated lecturer asks students to converse, it’s very easy to fall under the impression that UOA is a lonely and cold place (especially if you’re a first year student shivering in the famed OGGB fridge and freezer).
Despite this perception, there genuinely are really great pockets of community hiding around our campus. As I’ve mentioned, AUSA works hard to create events where students can meet and widen their circles. There are plenty of specialised spaces and organisations on campus where you can meet like-minded people, many of them hiding just above the Quad (Womxnspace, QueerSpace, Hineahuone/Hine, Cultural Space, bFm, Craccum!). There are endless clubs that you can join, even if you have to grind your teeth through some awkward interactions. I also promise that, if you stick at it and don’t be discouraged by dropped semi-friendships, you will be able to make friends in lecture theatres. Basically, if you can escape the labyrinth of OGGB, you will be able to find a place on campus. After so long away from the cum smelling trees that line Princes St and the queue at the Mexicali stall, you might find that people are more friendly and welcoming. As we come back together, smiling like lunatics under our Castaway beards, it’s essential to find some sense of joy and solidarity on our campus. Make sure to treasure the view from the library and the awkward smiles from your classmates. We’ve done enough Zoom sessions to know the alternative is worse.