Online classes instead of campus life. Walks instead of parties. Financial hardship instead of a part-time job. UNYA Aalborg asked students in Denmark how the pandemic has influenced their lives.

Waking up, taking a few steps to the kitchen, breakfast. A few steps to the desk, starting the computer, online class or self-study. For many students, a typical day during the lockdown of the universities has been following similar patterns but the individual experiences are nonetheless very different. To uncover the major challenges for students during the pandemic, UNYA Aalborg carried out a small survey of students in Denmark and talked to some students. Although the results of the survey are not representative, they point to some problem areas that many students struggle with: The contact restrictions have increased the feeling of loneliness and online teaching has contributed to a decline in motivation.

“I find it hard to stay concentrated during my classes and I am easily distracted when I am attending classes from home.”

“It has been very difficult for me to stay motivated and focused. I find it hard to stay concentrated during my classes and I am easily distracted when I am attending classes from home,” says Dragica, a 27-year-old student of Development and International Relations at Aalborg University. She describes Netflix and scrolling through social media as the major distractions. And Dragica is not alone with that struggle. Two-thirds of respondents agree that their motivation to study has declined during the pandemic and approximately the same percentage says that they procrastinate more when working alone at home.

Dragica experiences it to be challenging to actively participate in online classes and do online group work because assignments are hard to realize online or because instructions are confusing. Sometimes, there is not enough time to answer questions or comment on discussions. These new teaching conditions have affected the learning outcome of many students. In the survey, 61 percent of the participants state that their learning outcome has declined to some degree during the pandemic.

“My learning outcome is so much better with online lectures.”

But there are also some opposite experiences with online teaching. A Master’s student from the Czech Republic who prefers to remain anonymous says that her learning outcome is “so much better” with online classes. While balancing her studies and a job as a dishwasher with long evening hours had left the Master student physically and mentally drained before, her priorities shifted during the closure of restaurants. She has more time to focus on her studies and feels more relaxed.

Being at home in her safe space, she also feels more confident to speak up and participate in discussions that had sometimes been overwhelming when many students gathered in one classroom. Her online lectures are often more interactive and lead to great discussions. It was the hybrid times in autumn last year that she experienced as very confusing. She was still working and teaching was a mix of online classes and classes on campus. She felt disadvantaged as she preferred attending classes from home to limit contact with other people. “I was afraid and couldn’t choose not to go to work, so I decided not to go to campus that much,” she says. Being in a classroom with other students, the teachers sometimes seemed to forget the students behind the screen. They walked around in the classroom, away from their computer’s microphone, and had to be repeatedly reminded to stay close and avoid audio interruptions.  

Besides the challenge of adapting to online teaching, many students found their course of study affected by the pandemic. Students who had planned an internship or semester abroad, often experienced their plans being canceled or had difficulties finding an internship at all. Others refer to canceled project collaborations, the difficulty of finding interview partners during the pandemic, suspended classes or a delay of the end of their studies.

“People feel very alienated from each other.”

The social aspect of studying has also changed dramatically. More than half of the students who have started a new education during the pandemic said that they have had big or some problems making new friends. Dragica says she misses the campus experience and hanging out with new people: “It is very unfortunate that I still haven’t met most of my classmates in person and it is very hard to get to know people when everything is online.”

The challenging teaching conditions combined with the limited social aspect can lead to a lot of frustration. Nikolai Kragh Lybæk works at headspace Aalborg, an organization that offers conversations and counseling to young people between 12 and 25 who feel the need to talk. He says that a lot of students who contact headspace consider dropping out of their studies because they do not feel like they gain the knowledge they should. Especially people who started at university during the pandemic are disillusioned because they had expected to meet new people, lectures and parties. Instead, they see most of their classmates only on a screen. “People feel very alienated from each other,” summarizes Nikolai.

Isolation and loneliness are big problems during the pandemic. The survey shows that 71 percent of students feel lonely at least sometimes. Among those, 27 percent of all respondents said they feel lonely often or all the time. Dragica describes her social life as “almost non-existent” during the pandemic and the Czech student says that loneliness is a big topic during the pandemic, especially when you live alone as she does. Occasionally, she has been using the offer for conversation by headspace when friends didn’t have the time or it was too cold for walks. 

“Loneliness is a topic we currently see very often,” confirms Nikolai from headspace. He talks about young people with suicidal thoughts contacting headspace. They are exhausted from waiting for things to get better and suffer from intensifying isolation and hopelessness. While many young people with mental diagnoses had gotten better during the initial lockdown because they had been facing fewer obligations and less pressure, the prolonged lockdown and ongoing insecurity have made a lot of people feel upset and despondent.

“The pandemic is not a problem you can solve, you have to live with it.”

Frustration and hopelessness affect not only people with mental pre-conditions but many students. A bit more than half of the respondents say they worry more about their future since the pandemic has started and around 60 percent feel more stressed. The pandemic is a special challenge explains Nikolai: “A problem can be solved but something like the pandemic can’t be solved personally, you have to live with it, the problem that you can solve is how you live with it.”  

Many have found ways to structure their daily routines, have started alternative pastimes, organize online get-togethers with friends and family to get through these hard times. The Czech student describes how getting up early and setting up a morning routine involving Yoga has helped her have more energy and motivation but advises everybody to find their own patterns: “Take inspiration from others but be mindful of your own needs.”

However, some consequences of the pandemic lie beyond personal influence. The survey shows that several students lost part-time jobs during the pandemic or struggled to find a job in the first place. Consequently, roughly a third of respondents struggled financially due to the pandemic.

Another problem for many international students are the travel restrictions. Dragica who comes from North Macedonia says she was not been able to attend the funeral of her grandfather. The Czech student points to the planning uncertainty. Although she managed to go home to see her family for Christmas, she did not know if it was possible until three days before her departure because she wanted to avoid crowded trains and had to find an alternative mode of transport.

“I miss the carelessness of being out in a crowded bar.”

The pandemic has influenced the lives of students in many ways. While some have more time to focus on their studies as their part-time jobs have been suspended, others worry about their financial situation. While some appreciate the flexibility of online classes, others feel that it was hard to actively participate and focus. While some enjoy the lower social expectations, many feel lonely.

Whatever challenges students might be facing, most of them are looking forward to times with fewer restrictions and insecurities. “I miss the carelessness of being out with friends in a crowded bar until 3 am. Sometimes you just want to be spontaneous and crazy”, says the Czech student. And she is certainly not alone with that feeling. The constant consideration whether it is safe to meet friends. Not knowing how long classes will continue to be held online. Financial worries without a part-time job. The pandemic has brought many uncertainties into the lives of students. Who would not dream of a moment of carelessness?

Written by Daniela Weichselgartner, the volunteer of Journalism team