University life is a little different for students this year – with a mix of online and on-campus learning and range of extra safety measures in place. Here final year Teesside University student Lauren Heslop describes her experiences of returning to campus for the first time since lockdown.

When people asked me if I was looking forward to going back to university, they were met with an awkward hesitation. Of course, I was excited to begin my final year, but the anxiety-driven by the overwhelming amount of unknowns throughout the pandemic had started to take effect.

Like a lot of people, I was suffering with FOGO, or a fear of going out, and my head was filled with so many questions. What would it be like? Would people follow the rules? Was everybody else as nervous as I was?

So, when the first day of term rolled around, I felt really nervous. It didn’t seem so long ago that we were in full lockdown and only allowed out of the house for 30 minutes of exercise and for essential shopping. But, despite this, overall I was interested to see how different things would be for the coronavirus generation of students.

Armed with my face mask and sanitiser, I made my way back to Teesside University for the first time.

To my relief, things were far better than I could have hoped. As I arrived on campus on a bright Monday morning, I was greeted by a huge sign on the side of the building which outlined safety measures and guidelines. Face coverings were being worn, social distancing was being used, a one-way system had been put in place, sanitising stations could be found in every building. We are now also using an app called Safe Zone to check into the buildings on campus, making it easier for the university to track where we have been and who we have been in contact with.

I already felt much more at ease and so went into my seminar session, where the tables were neatly laid out like a chessboard, two metres apart. The classroom started to fill up and the teacher introduced us to what the course would look like this year. All in all, once the session had started you began to forget about the face masks and social distancing and it felt just like the lessons we were used to.

We also had interactive online sessions which worked extremely well. We can join in the class from home and ask questions and engage with the learning materials just as well. I found that the best thing about these sessions is that our teachers can share their screen so we can see exactly what they are referring to as they deliver lectures. You can even virtually raise your hand, send messages and watch videos.

It’s true, things aren’t exactly the same. How could they be? Things are obviously going to look and feel different for the foreseeable future, but the university has clearly worked hard to create an atmosphere as close to what we were used to as possible, not only academically, but socially as well.

Meeting new people and making friends is a huge part of university life and Teesside made sure that there were still plenty of social activities on offer for new and returning students. Online we had a virtual Freshers’ Week where students could join in from the comfort of their own home and take part in fun activities, games and talks. The Students’ Union also remains open, serving food and drinks.

Student welfare has also been a huge focus for the university, providing additional support for students. The Student Support Hub has reopened virtually to provide a support network for students who need it. Staff have also been communicating excellently through emails, video meetings and seminar sessions during which we are encouraged to speak openly about our thoughts and opinions.

Overall, I feel that the university are continuing to do everything they can to try to make the changes feel as normal and comfortable as possible. They have all of the safety measures in place to best protect the welfare of both staff and students as well as offering as many extracurricular activities as possible for people to get involved in which is, of course, a huge part of what university life is all about.

Now we have all of the tools we need to create a safe and engaging learning environment and hopefully we can continue to find new ways of capturing the essence of what student life is really like, even in a pandemic.

Here’s what our students can expect in 2020-21