By Jana Naskova, Zofia Majchrzak and Milan Matthes Kale
— Their time at AUC began with division and uncertainty. Students from non-EU countries were encouraged to self-isolate upon arrival, which in combination with a stressful and often delayed process of acquiring student visas, impaired their ability to participate in an intro week that was mostly online to begin with. We ask the “Lost Generation” of AUC, the current second-year students, about the consequences of having had a predominantly virtual first year of their lives as university students.
Is the “lost generation” a fitting description for the current second-years? Franco Del Bono Lonardi, a second-year Social Sciences major, replies that he “feels as fully like a member of that group as possible”. Although, he points out that the term has been historically used as an exaggeration to present a situation somewhat worse to what it actually was, he admits that he had a “fairly unpleasant experience of the first year of university” and a “terrible last semester of high school.”
Sasha Sushko, a second-year Social Science major, also has a strong response to the question of how lockdowns and measures impacted her initial university experience. “It was for sure terrible. Very, very hard.” Last year, Sushko attributed the difficulties she had with the workload to her own abilities. However, this year, with in person classes, she realised that her hardships were caused by online classes. “I’m having a much easier time this year, while putting in less work, just because in person you absorb information better.”
Part of the “lost generation” feeling is, according to several second-year students, that both their final year of high school and their first year of university were marked by lockdowns and heavy restrictions. Back in March 2020, with the threat of going into lockdown hanging over their heads, Lonardi’s school rushed the students into mock exams that they had not expected and which were later used to give out final grades. He says his heart was broken when their prom was called off. He sums up by saying that “we did not have a real graduation and that was particularly bad”.
For Agnė Čepaitė, second-year Science major, the loss of both prom and any form of graduation from her boarding school was upsetting. Having to go home in March 2020 and not going back also meant a loss of contact with many of her friends from school: “We were planning on traveling throughout the summer and had all of these post-graduation plans which of course could not happen,” she says. Although Čepaitė sees the 6 months she got to spend with her family as a silver lining; something she missed out on since going to boarding school at the age of 16.
Last year, Sushko had to spend around two months in self-isolation because she got COVID-19, had a COVID-19 scare, and due to mandatory self-quarantine travel rules. She says that she always had troubles with her mental health, but that self-isolating made her feel incredibly stuck, which together with the stress of starting university had a detrimental effect on her mental health. “It was a long time, It totally destroyed my mental health.” Lonardi also recalls the winter months as especially difficult for his mental health. “You would wake up and it would be cold, you would roll out of bed. And then when all the work was finished you couldn’t do much except maybe go for a walk,” he says.
Sushko says that she was very lucky herself to have made friends at the beginning of the academic year and had a relatively big friend group. However, she talks about feeling constrained by the infamous AUC bubble: “We couldn’t go anywhere, because of the curfew, terrible weather, and online classes. So everyone would smoke, do the same things over and over; we were just going down this spiral all together. I did have friends and they were very nice but everyone was depressed and everyone was piling up on each other’s depression.”
The pandemic impacted Čepaitė’s social life at AUC heavily. Being gone for most of last year gave her little time to make and cement friendships. “When I came back this year, I felt like a first-year student. I saw familiar faces, but I didn’t have any friends,” she says.
It took Čepaitė two months of struggling with her mental health and the transition towards all of her classes being fully online before she decided to book her flight back home. She emailed all of her professors, letting them know that she would be switching to studying fully online rather than her previous hybrid schedule. However, unlike the support she expected from the school and her teachers, one professor replied that “this was very disrespectful because you just informed me and did not ask to leave.” This ended up getting back to Čepaitė’s tutor and she ended up “getting a whole scolding session about how I handled it wrong.”
Sushko recounts that all of her teachers were “incredibly understanding” of her personal circumstances, which included her depression diagnosis that came during lockdown, a break up, and having to fly to Moscow because her grandmother got very sick with COVID-19. They gave her generous extensions which were not timed. “They basically told me to hand in assignments when I felt ready to do so.”
Lonardi empathises with the current first-years. He can imagine their experience to be somewhat similar to the one he had last year. Noting: “They are in a similar situation, with the exception that they had potentially two years of their high school education ruined by this.”