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Student Identity: What has it become?

Writing by Kirsty Thomson. Illustration by Violet Colley.

Picture a typical university student. What comes to mind? In years gone by, in all likelihood we would imagine someone going through the best years of their life; parties every night, friends by the dozen, clubs, pubs, and grubs; the epitome of youth. Sure there is studying to be done, but these years are for creating who you are; find your calling and your people. Look to the current climate and the experiences of freshers so far and that image is fast fading.

All aspects of university life have shifted into the online sphere this semester, and likely will continue into the next. Whilst the overall benefits outweigh the risks of transmission, there is no doubt that the endurance of the necessity to upkeep a constant online presence is getting too many of us. Akin to a stage, a computer screen face needs a performance: without the nuances of body language, facial expression and tone, appearing sincere and enthusiastic requires a constant effort to appear interested. Manyu Jiang highlights in her article written for the BBC the many ways in which applications like Zoom and teams inherently will exhaust users. In conversation with expert professor Gianpiero Petriglieri they explain thus:

“Our minds are together when our bodies feel like we are not. That dissonance, which causes people to have conflicting feelings, is exhausting. You cannot relax into conversation naturally.”

Is it any wonder therefore that issues arising from mental health amongst students are this year at the highest they have ever been? The pressures and expectation to be present and more focussed than you would be in normal face-to-face conversation are significantly more damaging than have been given credit for. This doesn’t even bring into thought the anxiety-inducing silences which are inevitable in society, but more stark and noticeable when you’re talking to a screen of empty faces. Within this week there have been two reported student deaths, one of which already being confirmed as a suicide due to extreme anxiety resulting from university life.

Let it be understood, university being damaging upon mental health is no new thing; year upon year there are hundreds of cases of students experiencing suicidal thoughts and depression and at times acting upon those emotions. Little was done then in ‘normal’ life, less has been done during this period of a pandemic. With increased societal stresses on top of the stresses which come from university, does it really come as a surprise that these tragedies are happening?

So much is gained from being at university; meeting friends, living in a new city, making memories to cherish for a lifetime. While many are trying to make the best of the awful circumstances, it is certain the extent to which new students and those who already are at the university can continue to do this normally is considerably hindered in comparison to years gone by. So much of what it means right now to be a student is synonymous with the pandemic. It is incredibly important to ensure the safety for all society members, but at what cost to mental well-being will this be achieved?

Student identity and the understanding of what one can expect upon arrival at university naturally changes and evolves over time. No two student experiences and identities will be the same, but many reminisce on similar memories and joys. Many of those who have been at university this year have undergone something no one could have predicted, and the academic year is barely halfway through. Whilst the beginning has been difficult and has taken a toll on the mental well-being for far too many of us, new initiatives and charities are finally beginning to gain traction and recognition for the importance of their work. Whether it be CALM or Edinburgh specific initiatives such as NightLine, there are people and communities out there who are available and looking to help. Being a student right now is no easy feat, but we are all united in both our struggles and our successes. In our numbers, we have achieved change before. Though a different obstacle stands before us, we can and will overcome this, and the next, and the next afterwards. The one quality of being a student which has remained constant throughout this pandemic period is our resilience and our care for each other. It is through the support of one another that we will get out of this and in years to come remember our time at university as being one where we sought out change and made the best of the circumstances we were given.

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