What happens when the ‘best years of your life’ are actually the hardest? The particular challenges faced by first-year university students during the pandemic
While the Covid-19 pandemic has raised many difficulties for all students in terms of access to higher education online, coping with mental health issues, and escaping economic precarity, those in their first year face particular obstacles. Indeed, this group has faced exacerbated challenges.
From the illusion to the reality
Higher education is often imagined by future students as a time full of experiences and discoveries. However, entering higher education amidst the Covid pandemic has led to a lot of desenchantement.
Many students have experienced a heavy load of stress and doubt about their future, as they feel more and more abandoned by states. Sacha, a first year biology student at a French public university, reports that she feels insecure and she has doubts regarding her future. She feels she’s not really doing anything with her life and says: “You feel hopeless realizing that ‘the best years of your life’ will actually be the hardest”. For Sasha, this feeling was intensified by the changes to in-person teaching, and the lack of clear communication about what was happening on campus. On a daily basis, she had to check on her online planning to see if she had to go to the campus or if her classes were on Zoom - everything could change at the last minute. Her university had to adapt for the in-person classes because they lacked material and there wasn’t enough space in the labs if social distancing was to be observed. They moved most of the practical work to the end of the semester, hoping that the situation would be better by then. This beginning in the ‘world of higher education’ definitely did not correspond to what she was expecting.
And she is not alone - in what has become a well documented intervention, Heïdi Soupault, a first year political science student in Strasbourg, raised the issue directly to the French president through a letter. "I'm 19 years old and I feel like I'm dead," she said, adding: "I no longer have dreams. If we have no hope or prospects for the future at 19, what do we have left?"
According to the newspaper Le Monde, a young person's entry into university corresponds to a moment of identity construction, a change in their relationship with their family, and a sudden confrontation with the question of autonomy. This means it can be a time of vulnerability.
In fact, many students are suffering from psychological distress. The youngest are more vulnerable: an article published by Radio France International (RFI) reports significant distress among the 18-20 age group, with a rise in new admissions to psychiatric wards. The article highlights the particular vulnerability of first year students and quotes Stéphane Jettot, a history teacher at Sorbonne University: “These first year students are the most fragile and the most in need of help”, he says. Ryan Kennedy, a 19-year-old first year law student in Montpellier, explained to the BBC how mental health issues are widespread: "I've lived alone in a studio apartment since September - it's the first time I've ever lived alone. (...) Not a day goes by without a friend calling me because they're struggling with their mental health." Like many other students, Sasha feels that the most difficult problem is the psychological one: “You feel alone. You feel abandoned”, she notes.
First year students are especially impacted by isolation as the shift to online classes prevents them from socializing. They were unable to take part in the activities that usually take place at the beginning of the year, to meet other fellow students or become involved in student associations. For Sasha, it was during the second lockdown that she realised how lonely she was in her studies. Because classes switched to online as soon as October, she didn't have time to build “true friendships”. She notes: “Students weren’t talking among themselves, apart from those that were already familiar with each other from high school.”
Similar experiences have been documented across French media: Le Monde records comments from Raoul, a first year student in an engineering school, who only saw the faces of other students through a screen. He said to the paper: “We didn't integrate, I found myself in Paris without knowing anyone. It terrified me”.
By being deprived of in-person classes, first year students also lacked the opportunity to learn the codes of higher education. Sasha explained that while first year students are supposed to learn all the new prerogatives and imperatives of what it means to be a ‘good’ higher education student, she wasn’t able to learn these rules. Problematically, in France a lot of students had to do in person exams without having experienced in-class teaching for more than one or two weeks throughout the year.
More and more first year students are dropping out because they haven’t been able to enjoy the full university experience such as meeting people, and being introduced to new ways of learning, working, and evolving, but also because they don’t manage to study and stay concentrated in this context. Again, RFI has documented how the difficulties first year students face with online academic study and isolation has led many of them to drop out, with some turning to paid work instead of studying.
In conclusion, while the Covid-19 pandemic has had wide ranging implications for students across the board, first year students are in a particularly vulnerable situation, and are affected by isolation and the major life change that further study reflects in a particular way.
This article is the third of six pieces in a series entitled 'Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective', which presents the impact of Covid 19 on higher education. Through the stories of Sasha, Iris, Fiona, Quentin, and others, we invite you to explore the wider pattern of students’ experiences, their difficulties, their distress and their doubts, in addition to the challenges faced by teachers and university staff. The article series is part of a broader project at the Sciences Po Law Clinic investigating inequalities in higher education in France, and is delivered by Inès Girard, Fiona Vanston and Elodie Faïd, three Master’s students at Sciences Po Paris working with Right to Education Initiative.
A new instalment in the series will launch each Wednesday. Find out more about our work on higher education here.
Impact of Covid-19 on Higher Education: the Student Perspective
- Article 1: University students in the time of Covid-19: the sacrificed generation?
- Article 2: Covid-19 and technical difficulties: the rise of inequalities in higher education
- Article 4: Grounded: the impact of Covid-19 on academic exchanges
- Article 5: Mental health: the silent pandemic in higher education
- Article 6: "All of my income disappeared overnight": economic precarity for students during the pandemic
Elodie Faïd - Master's student in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris
Fiona Vanston - Master's student in Human rights and humanitarian action at Sciences Po Paris