Student life: We made our position clear, that we should be sensible and not having parties”

In the second of a week-long series, figures from music, art, food, sex work and education look back on a year that shook their fields. Here, Louise Hall, President of the Arts University Bournemouth Students’ Union, reflects on a year on – and off – campus.

In the initial phase of lockdown I was studying for my final major project. I went from being in the studio, making work, surrounded by my classmates and colleagues, to suddenly being back at home in Watford with mum and dad.

Luckily they let me take over the kitchen table, doing sculpture work and textile dolls. It was really terrifying, not just because we didn’t know what was going to happen but because suddenly this planned future I had of a graduation show, then a graduation, had gone. Could I even get enough materials to finish this work I’d been working towards for three years? And I really wanted to get a First. So I had to push through that.

The uni shut the Friday before lockdown began, so I went and grabbed all my stuff, some of my friends’ stuff, loaded it into my car, and we drove home. We thought we’d be back in a month or two – as it turned out, it was more like July. There was this weird emotional scattering for everyone. And it felt ominous.

I got a First, and we got our certificates, but there was no cap and gown, or photos of us walking across the stage, and our graduation and degree shows have been postponed to this year. So it was a bit anticlimactic, and a really jarring experience.

Once I became President of the Students’ Union in July, we had to work out what the autumn term was going to look like. Then, how can we support our students who’d had to leave campus and missed out on so much? And for freshers, what would the uni experience look like with restrictions in place?

As a Students’ Union, we stayed neutral on whether students should or shouldn’t come back to campus. For new students we sent out packs, like a cooking workshop, so that you could join in wherever you were, because we knew some students didn’t feel comfortable coming.

Throughout the year it was really difficult for us and students to understand all the rules and what was going on across the country – at one point, if students came back before Easter they couldn’t have gone home again, so it was important to have conversations with them so we could offer support.

In terms of partying, we made our position clear: that students should be sensible and not having parties. We ran our events online and made sure they were about making friends rather than partying. We had a policy where we hired Community Champions, and they helped with social distancing at lunchtimes and engaged with students in halls of residence and studio flats, to make sure they weren’t feeling too isolated. That was generally really effective.

But like all the SU’s across the country, we saw a massive impact on student wellbeing – particularly for our arts students, for whom there was such a detrimental effect on their access to equipment and resources. Learning alone and learning online was a massive change and was really difficult. We got a lot of emails from students saying they needed help, needed a chat. So we had to put in other modes of wellbeing so we could have different kinds of interaction. And it’s still a really difficult time for students, and I don’t think it’s going to change for a little bit.

We normally finish in May and June, but we’ve pushed our term back to the start of July, to allow students extra time to finish their work. At least last year we’d already started our making stage – but this year, the third national lockdown came bang in the middle of that for our third years.

Right now we’re planning a double graduation over three days at the end of July, and how to best make that Covid secure. If the roadmap continues, we should be OK. But we have to always think: What if?’ So what happens if that goalpost of [all restrictions lifted on] 21st June moves?

And beyond that, we’re thinking about when the roll-out of the vaccine will impact the majority of our student body. Then, what does a Freshers Week in 2021 look like – and how can we best support those new freshers?

It’s hard to describe how difficult it’s been for students. It’s affected them financially, mentally, emotionally, academically, how they view their job prospects, what skills they think they’ve achieved at university. But I cannot be prouder of them and how resilient they’ve been.

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