Never be lonely: Keeping students connected during COVID

28 Oct 2020
By Jennifer Steadman, HE Comms Executive at Unite Students
COVID-19 has disrupted every part of the student experience, and the social experience in particular has been turned upside down for this year’s freshers. As part of our Unite Against Loneliness campaign, we look at how student accommodation can facilitate safe socialisation.

You’ve seen the headlines. With an estimated 110 universities having reported COVID outbreaks, thousands of first-year students across the UK have gone into self-isolation. Barely have they had a chance to meet their housemates or establish support networks before they’ve been confined to their rooms, alone. The potential consequences are obvious – ‘isolation’ is right there in the phrase.

Student isolation is by no means a COVID-exclusive phenomenon; ‘New Realists’, our 2019 report into students’ experiences of the transition to university life, found that over a quarter of first-year students often or always felt lonely. Just 17% reported never feeling lonely. The impact of loneliness on students is devastating: students who often felt lonely were significantly less likely than their socially-sated peers to report feeling happy, satisfied with life, or that their lives were worthwhile. There’s a growing body of evidence to correlate poor mental health with a higher chance of dropping out of university, so enabling students to build the social connections they need should be a key part of any university or accommodation provider’s strategy to support students’ mental health. 

But the already concerning figures will surely be compounded by the realities of studying in the shadow of COVID. Self isolation is just one of the obstacles to making new friends: social distancing, ‘the rule of six’ and localised lockdowns all mean limited opportunities for first year students to meet and mingle, as does virtual teaching. Our 2019 research found that physical lectures and seminars were students’ favourite forms of learning, in part because of the opportunity to socialise with course-mates. As more and more teaching goes online, students may only get to know their classmates by their fuzzy Zoom likenesses. 

While the challenges are clear, and the potential consequences stark, the good news is that there are plenty of ways for the sector to ensure that students’ social needs can be met in a COVID-safe way, and support those who are struggling.

As part of our Unite Against Loneliness campaign, our own students have already put forward ideas for how to break the ice and form friendships in the face of ever-changing restrictions. Forging bonds with flatmates will prove more important than ever this year; Alice, from Liverpool John Moores University, suggested that students join chat groups with others in their accommodation, as well as on their course. This enables flatmates to get to know each other even while self-isolating, as well as offering a diversion from the boredom of isolation and unrelenting bleakness of the news.

Virtual events became the norm during lockdown, and this is still a deep well from which universities and accommodation teams can draw from and use to break the ice between freshers. Quizzes, movie nights and Zoom lessons on origami or cocktail-making are great ways to ensure that those in isolation feel included in social events, even with their doors shut. 

In spite of your best efforts, it’s likely that some students will still feel lonely at this tough time – so it’s crucial to clearly signpost existing resources, both internal and external, so that students know where to turn. In addition to accommodation welfare teams and university wellbeing services, student mental health charities provide plenty of free (and often student-led) resources to supplement existing support services. 

UK student mental health charity Student Minds has launched Student Space, an initiative to provide information and advice to students during the pandemic, as well as text, phone, web and email support for those in need of it. The website includes a dedicated section for advice on friendships and social life, with tips like keeping in touch with friends from home.

There’s also the long-running Nightline charity, which offers a local, non-judgemental listening service led by trained student volunteers overnight – a valuable service for those who just need someone to talk to on a sleepless night.

The student experience has never been more challenging or alien than it is right now. But, more than ever, accommodation offers a plum opportunity for first-year students to make friends – even if making friends over shared supermarket trips and Zoom events is less glamorous than nights out at the SU. By working together with students, universities and student charities on loneliness prevention initiatives, accommodation providers can ensure that students’ COVID university experience will be better, and more of them will see it through. That’s what we call a Home for Success.

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Jen Steadman is a Higher Education Communications Executive at Unite Students. Prior to this, she was the inaugural Editor of GSL News, covering the student experience for the higher education sector. at Unite Students