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Article

Connection in the Time of COVID-19

COVID-19 has periodically forced both official University events and various student organisations’ events online, bringing unique challenges to event organisers and educators. Despite efforts to maintain normalcy, these changes have undoubtedly changed how students interact with each other, for better or for worse.

 

COVID-19 has periodically forced both official University events and various student organisations’ events online, bringing unique challenges to event organisers and educators. Despite efforts to maintain normalcy, these changes have undoubtedly changed how students interact with each other, for better or for worse.

International students suffer uniquely from the disadvantages of online university. Tun Xiang Foo, a student currently based in Malaysia, participated in several online events, but was unimpressed. In an event that included group activities, he found that there was “no opportunity to get to know your teammates,” and that it was “too fast-paced to form connections”.

He found another event, a trivia night hosted by LING—Melbourne University Linguistics Society—to be better and more enjoyable. This is because it was hosted on gather.town, rather than Zoom. He felt that there were “certain spaces where you can talk to people,” and that it was “more like real life.”

However, he expressed grievance with the fact that he was still paying full fees for an inferior version of the university experience.

“The Uni[versity]’s official position is that the quality is the same, but it’s not.”

“Uni[versity] isn’t just for getting a degree… To me, you’re paying for the ‘experience’… Can you imagine paying the SSAF [Student Services and Amenities Fee], but then not being able to access events that are on campus?”

Another international student, Pavani Athukorala, experienced something similar whilst organising events for the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) Media Department. She found online and offline events strikingly different, saying, “In-person events were greatly popular… the online events only had about… four to five participants”.

“It’s so demoralising when so few people come to online events.”

Nishtha Banavalikar, another international student, organised events for UMSU International throughout 2020 and found speed friending events to be initially enjoyable. However, as the pandemic dragged on, she pointed out that Zoom fatigue “hit… coordinators and participants alike”.

This year, Banavalikar has continued to struggle with participation in her events, particularly due to difficulties in advertising online events.

“…It feels like Facebook event notifiers just get lost in a sea of identical ones.”

The experience has been disappointing, given that Nishtha sees social events as “integral” to university experience.

“The social element is huge… It’s truly a loss to the uni[versity] experience as a whole.”

The situation is more variable for domestic students. Secretary of the Publishing Students Society, Charlotte Armstrong, organised this year’s Online Publishing Crawl. Usually an in-person walking tour, Armstrong opted to move the event online. She found this new platform made organisation easier, the event “more accessible” and provided the opportunity to speak with publishing houses not based in Melbourne.

She spoke of some difficulties, such as the inability to participate in “interpersonal chats” and a “diminished” ability to network. Despite this, Armstrong was optimistic about the potential for online events to increase accessibility. She said they could “open up the university experience to… people who may not have been able to go before”.

Others have had different experiences. Harrison Langdon, a first-year science student, found that online social events were “not really worth [his] time.” As a college resident, he expressed great interest in “on-campus activities,” feeling that he was “more likely to forget” to attend online events.

It’s not just college residents who prefer on-campus activities. Elina Pugacheva lives an hour from the city, but prefers on-campus events, saying that online events were “just not the same,” despite the “convenience” of reduced travel time.

She shared the same sentiment as Banavalikar, saying that “uni[versity] is not just about getting [a] degree… the social aspect and the academic are both important.”

The lockdowns and restrictions that have characterised the past two years have undoubtedly had negative impacts on mental health. Despite their best efforts, organisers and participants of online events may be hard-pressed to find any positive mental health benefits from such activities. Psychological studies conducted on participants of multiple age groups across the world have consistently found that online communication pales in comparison to face-to-face interaction when it comes to improving mental health.

For Athukorala, this was particularly evident.

“Online uni[versity] events… do absolutely nothing… to help your mental health. What would help my mental health is maybe a tuition fee reduction… maybe being allowed back… into the country…”

 
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