The covid-19 pandemic has completely flipped the once-vibrant student culture of universities on its head, impacting students’ social lives and identities in various ways.As the 2021 academic year gradually draws to a close and I near the completion of my fourth year of study at Wits University, I can’t help but reminisce about the countless memories I’ve made as a student on campus.
I fondly recall my first and second years of Wits student life, strolling across the bustling Braamfontein campus to my lectures, weaving my way through the swarm of fellow Witsies crossing the Piazza outside the Great Hall.
Spending lunch hours buying a R20 box of slap chips at The Matrix, the always-busy campus food court, and sharing it with friends in the shade of the Amphitheatre’s trees.
And the occasional pop-up events on the Library Lawns attracting students in droves with DJs pumping dance music, product promotions and giveaways by Red Bull and MTN, and Wits clubs and societies showcasing the exciting sporting, cultural and social activities on offer for students.
But as I snap back to reality – in which we are nearly two years into the continuing fight against the devastating covid-19 pandemic, which has completely changed life as we know it – all the memories of how student and campus life used to be feel like a lifetime ago.
Following South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s declaration on March 16, 2020 that the country had entered a state of disaster due to the rising number of national coronavirus cases, local universities announced the suspension of their academic programmes and urged students to remain home.
The following weeks saw universities rapidly setting up online teaching and learning solutions to ensure that the disrupted academic year could safely continue remotely.
Due to the immense risk of the virus easily spreading in large groups of people, universities opted to largely continue with remote learning for the 2021 academic year for degrees and courses that do not require essential access to campus learning facilities. The once vibrant campuses, fuelled by their unique socio-cultural fabric of students, are now being described as “ghost towns” by several of the students interviewed.
The covid-19 protocols additionally meant that traditional orientation week events were either not permitted to be hosted in-person or under very strict, limited conditions for the 2021 first-years. Although O-weeks are supposed to be a fun-filled way for students to ease into the campus environment and student culture through fun activities while building camaraderie with fellow students, the pandemic’s unavoidable conditions forced this year’s orientations to be largely or completely hosted online.
The deprivation of these normal in-person social activities at the very beginning of their university experience set an alienating and lonely tone for first-years, many of whom have been learning online all year without setting foot onto campus or meeting any of their lecturers or peers in person.
“I kind of feel like I’m not part of the university, to be honest,” says Derren Schoombie (20), a Wits first-year bachelor of arts student. Her online O-week hosted in February consisted mainly of Microsoft Teams presentations from welcome staff, and endless loops of welcome videos.
“There were no activities, or feeling like you are involved or part of Wits… I know I missed out on that and it does upset me a bit, because everybody raves about O-week because that’s where you meet people and get to know the place,” she says, a tinge of downheartedness audible in her voice over Zoom.
Hannah Quass (18), a first-year bachelor of data science student at Stellenbosch University (SU), says while she is thankful that her O-week was held in person and she got to make some new friends, she was disappointed that it was quite watered down from what it traditionally would be.
The finale of SU’s O-week is a cultural event called Vensters, where first-years are grouped together to produce and perform a 15-minute show following a given theme and incorporating dance and storytelling.
The event is traditionally held in person for students and parents to enjoy and vote for the best acts, with proceeds being raised for charity. However, this year’s event was live-streamed and groups had to perform solo, without a physical audience, due to social gathering restrictions.
“I’ve been watching the Vensters performances since I was quite young and been excited, like, ‘One day that’s going to be me!’ But then it was each group doing their little dance by themselves and it was a little bit underwhelming,” says a disappointed Quass.
Jerome September, dean of student affairs at Wits, says that to make up for the lost opportunity for the 2021 Wits first-years to authentically experience the introductory exposure to student culture and campus life, he is considering involving them in the 2022 O-week events.
“My heart bleeds for the current first-years… The current group have not had the full experience of what university life is besides the computer screen, so we do need to correct that into the new year as best we can,” says September.
The importance of student culture in shaping social identity
While sitting on a step under a blooming jacaranda tree overlooking the empty Piazza outside the Wits Great Hall, I observe how students now walk very far apart from each other, either completely alone or as an odd pair speaking very hushed to each other, beneath their face masks.
The social electricity between students that once energised campuses as the hubs of interactivity and congregation they are supposed to be, has now been completely “load-shedded” by the pandemic.
“Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on student life and culture… There is a craving for connection and to meet people,” says September.
Schoombie says she has only befriended one classmate online this year. She says her psychology classmates were telling their tutor on their class WhatsApp group that they’re struggling to make friends, because people don’t know how to break the awkward online social barriers of reaching out to fellow first-years they have never met in person.
This shows how vital it is for university students to be exposed to student culture and to interact with their peers from different walks of life, as well as learning more about themselves in the process, while avoiding social isolation.
The effects of students not being able to attend or experience campus this year have not only challenged the “student identities” of current first-years, but those of students in higher years too.
When asking Brad Leipsig (20), a second-year bachelor of commerce in accounting sciences student at the University of Pretoria (UP), if he feels like a university student despite not having experienced life on campus since March 2020, he responds, “I do feel like a student because I’m doing a lot of work.”
His answer shows that students who have not experienced authentic university campus life for very long, or at all, are missing the vital social element that completes their student identities. Judging by the emptiness of campuses, it is safe to say many university students have been holed up at home for the year and have been missing out on the fundamental social elements that make them holistic individuals.
The assumption is that university is all about work these days, and very little about play, which creates a skewed perception of what it means to be a university student during covid-19 for those who only know university through a laptop screen.
September is also adamant that the past two years of the pandemic have shown it is vital for Wits to remain a contact learning university as opposed to an online one, because of the important role that social interactivity and involvement in university student life outside of the lecture halls plays in shaping students’ individual identities.
“I believe that the co- and extra-curricular is equally as important as the curricular,” he adds. “It is outside of the classroom space that students learn to connect, communicate, team-build, appreciate diversity, push their self-boundaries and have the freedom to become the fullness of who they are.”
In a research article titled Assessing student culture by George D. Kuh, who is the founding director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment in the United States, he states that, “Student culture exerts a significant influence on many aspects of college [university] life, including what a student learns, because it determines the kind of people with whom one spends time and the values and attitudes to which one is exposed”.
Bringing back the culture
On October 29, 2021, the Wits SRC held a fun “De-stress Day” for students on the Library Lawns, which saw three large jumping castles blown up for students to jump on and blow off some steam before the exam season begins.
As I arrived at the lawns, a few students showed up, curious to know what the commotion was. Suddenly, as two students jumped on the one castle, a swarm of students raided the others. It was as though a kiddies’ birthday party for university students had just begun.
I couldn’t believe my eyes as hundreds and hundreds of students began to flock to the lawns and partake in the festivities. It was as though the abandoned campus we had all come to know had suddenly gone back to the good old days.
A week after the event, when walking across Wits Braamfontein campus and stopping to look out over the once-again empty Library Lawns, part of me questions if the hundreds of elated students and jumping castles I witnessed that day were all an illusion. But as I reassure myself by scrolling through the photos I took that day, I break into a smile behind my face mask, knowing that the “old” student life and campus culture is not completely gone, after all.
It is just a matter of time before it’s safe to completely bring the “Wits Edge” back again.
FEATURED IMAGE: The Wits Piazza used to be swarming with students before the pandemic. These days, it’s almost always completely empty. Photo: Matthew Nijland