Every year Msue Chiponda, an international student, joins her extended family at a house they rent by Lake Malawi to celebrate Christmas together. But, thanks to the pandemic, she won’t be going this year. Instead, she is facing Christmas alone in her studio bedroom at Nottingham University.
Across the UK, mass testing is under way at university campuses to allow many thousands of students to travel home for Christmas during the government’s six-day window, which started on Thursday. However, like many overseas students, Chiponda, who is in the third year of a pharmacy degree, says Covid has made it too difficult for her to fly home.
“The news coverage about all students going home has made me a bit sad every time I’ve seen it,” she says.
Owing to the unreliable internet connection in Malawi, she needs to stay in Nottingham for her last online exam on 14 December, which means her two weeks’ quarantine on arriving home would run into Christmas. With many flights being cancelled at short notice, she is also worried she may find herself stranded in Dubai or Ethiopia with no connecting flight home.
Christmas is “very big” in Chiponda’s family. “We’ve rented a house together for years now. I know I will see the photos. I’m so sad to miss it.”
She has already found this semester a lonely experience. The pandemic has meant she has not been able to do work placements, and she has missed face-to-face classes. “I live in a studio in a student hall and at the moment I rarely see anyone, as they are all in their rooms. The only time I see someone is if I am doing my laundry,” she says.
She is dreading being on a nearly empty campus. “I think I will find it tough. Hopefully I’ll meet a friend who lives close by on Christmas Day for some time, but I will be sad.”
Meanwhile, Georgia Grainger, a PhD student at Strathclyde University who lives in a shared house in Dundee, is also trying to prepare mentally for Christmas on her own. Grainger is from Belfast, but her mother now lives in France, and she feels it would be an unacceptable risk to go abroad to see her. “The current Scottish government guidance is no ‘non-necessary’ travel, and Dundee is in level 3. Seeing my mum at Christmas would be lovely, but I don’t think it’s essential,” she says.
She admits that she is going to struggle. “Logically I know it is just one year, and I had a really good Christmas with family last year and spent time with my nieces and nephew. But in the thick of it I will find it difficult. I am prone to depression, and I am expecting it to flare up.”
Nonetheless, she feels strongly that Christmas is not enough of a reason for the government to encourage people to take risks. “In Scotland, the way the government is presenting this is more cautious. If you need to meet up at Christmas you can. But the UK message seems to be: the rules don’t apply for five days. I think that’s really worrying. People will push things to the limit. They are forgetting that the spirit of this is we don’t want old people dying,” she says.
For some students, including care leavers and those estranged from their families, university is their only home. Chris Hoyle, a widening-participation analyst at the University of York, says media reports about a mass student exodus have been infuriating him, because of how isolated they make students feel who don’t have families. “A lot of these students dread Christmas all year. But this year is worse than ever, because not only are they constantly reminded they are different in conversations with their peers, they are also being reminded by all the news stories about students going home.”
Hoyle, a care leaver himself, believes it is essential that universities make these students feel they belong at this time of year. “We try to show them that we really care about them,” he says.
York is donating free Christmas dinner hampers to every student staying in the city over the festive period. Hoyle, known as “Jingle Hoyle” to his Twitter followers, has also crowdfunded £6,000 to buy presents for around 100 care leavers and students at the university estranged from their families.
Nottingham University will be opening student hubs with study spaces, food and “a place to relax when other facilities, including those in the city, are closed”. A spokesperson says it is also finalising Christmas and New Year’s Eve meal plans. Exeter University is hosting a Christmas lunch for students still on campus, although they will have to sit singly because of social distancing regulations.
Levi Pay, a former director of student services who advises universities on the student experience, says institutions should help to pair up students and suggest things they can do over the Christmas break. But with staff and student representatives “really burned out” after the extra pressures of the pandemic, he says it may prove even trickier than usual to staff university-run Christmas events.
“There is so much social pressure over Christmas,” he adds. “I’ve been travelling alone at Christmastime and you do feel – wrongly, of course – that everyone else is having an amazing day. There is a limit to how far universities are able to take away that pressure.”
Not all students left behind are feeling miserable, however. Lily Delamare, a fourth year microbiology student at Aberdeen University, will not be joining her family in France because she doesn’t want to risk catching Covid on the journey. But she is pleased to be volunteering in the university’s Covid testing centre so that other students can see their families. “Both my dad and my grandparents are older and at risk,” she says. “I feel OK about not going home. I took a decision which I think is best for everyone, and that’s enough for me.”
Delamare plans to work in the university community garden over Christmas, and says: “I am actually very happy to be able to help other students rather than just staying in.”
Michael Shie, a final year economics student at Durham University, will not be visiting his mother in Brunei, but is having a Covid test on Monday so he can spend Christmas with friends in London. “Meeting up with my friends means we will get that home feeling, just in a different place,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sabrina Skyba-Lewin, a student from Leicestershire who is studying biology at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, doesn’t dare come back to the UK in case a rise in cases means flights back are cancelled in January.
“More than anything I want to come back and see my family. It’s been a year since I saw them. It makes it much harder to focus on my finals,” she says. “Video calls just aren’t the same as being able to hug them.”