Missing out on the fresher experience


LEARNING CURVE Achill third level student Ethan McNea.

Anton McNulty

WHEN Achill teenager Ethan McNea decided to take gap year after sitting his Leaving Cert in 2019 he did not expect his first week of college would consist of him sitting in front of his laptop in his home bedroom.
The 18 year-old started his first week of a four-year course in Primary Teaching in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick last Monday along with over 400 fellow budding educators.
Instead of mingling among them and enjoying freshers week and all that comes with it, he was logging on from his home in Saula every morning looking at a screen as all lectures and modules have gone online.
Until recently, Ethan was expecting to spend one week per month on campus while the remaining three would be off campus. However, last week the college sent out a revised timetable informing the students that week two to 12 of this semester, which takes them up to Christmas, will be all online. In means Ethan won’t be experiencing campus life anytime soon.
“I was really looking forward to college just for the change really because I haven’t lived anywhere besides here [Achill] and I was looking forward to going down to meet new people and experiencing college life. That is what I am missing out on more than anything else.
“At the end of July when the numbers were really low I was feeling hopeful I would be there [Limerick] all the time but as the [Covid-19] numbers went up and up, the college dream drifted further and further away. Like any normal first year I had no idea what college would be like and to be honest I’m none the wiser at the moment,” he explained.
Ethan said he could not fault ‘Mary I’ for the preparation they have put into the online work for the students but he felt it was strange that he has yet to meet or see any other students in the course.
“The lectures are very well organised and set up really well. I feel good about the course, I have got my head around it ... but I haven’t met anyone on the course. The lecturer asked us to say what county we were from and there are a good few from Mayo but I don’t know who they are or where they live or anything about them - and I won’t be meeting them anytime soon. It is a strange one.
“You hear all these stories [of college life] so you expect your first year in college to be the same and then this happens and you are stuck at home,” he lamented.

A gifted musician and singer who has won numerous titles in Scór na nÓg championships as well as being a star performer with the Achill Musical and Dramatic Society, Ethan had hoped to get involved with different societies while in college but they too have also had to be put to the back burner.
Even work placements which were due to take place in the new year have been put in doubt due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus but the one saving grace is that end of semester exams have been replaced by continuous assessment.
Despite missing out on the college experience, Ethan says he has no regrets about taking a gap-year after the Leaving Cert and believes it was beneficial to him in deciding what course he wanted to study. With Covid-19 cases on the rise around the country, he feels the main benefit of studying from home is that he will be safer especially after hearing of outbreaks among students in other cities.
However as well as the lack of the social experience, studying from home has other drawbacks such as not having access to campus facilities such as the library and high-speed broadband.
“It is a lot more difficult in my house because I have three brothers and a sister so everyone can be on the internet at the same time. When I’m online, lectures run smoothly but getting into the different modules can take a couple of minutes. The other day I had to download Office 365 onto my laptop and what would have taken five minutes in Limerick took two hours here and that was at night time when nobody was using the internet.
“[Online learning] might be alright for people who live in Limerick or Dublin and have all the infrastructure on their doorstep but for the likes of us we feel more forgotten than anything else.”