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Pressing Pause on University

By Carmen Anderson

It's a warm, golden afternoon in late December. Days away from 2021, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was still early autumn, the weather at least, is benign. The year, on the other hand, has been unremittingly tough.

February and pre-Covid days seem a long time ago. I was studying hard. Covid 19 was something that was muttered about in the news, on the TV and on radio. It was something that was happening in the background of my life, something in the periphery of my vision while my focus was on A levels, coursework, the music composition I needed to finish, and my scripts. I am a drama student – or I will be once again when I re-join the student body – and my room is littered with scripts decorated with colourful highlights, post-its and margin annotations.

Among those scripts were those that I was working from for Gibraltar’s annual drama festival. We were rehearsing intensely; we are a tight-knit drama group and we love the event; the stage, the atmosphere, the applause and the rousing cheers after a powerful performance.

By March there were mutterings of restrictions and lockdowns. We worked on; classes, lunchtime revision sessions, piano rehearsals, composition recordings, practise essays, and on International Women’s Day, a speech to the school in my role as Head Student. My schedule was full to bursting and, more than anything, life was normal. Hard work, the occasional evening out with friends, and the thrill of planning for my eighteenth birthday.

Then it happened. Lockdown. No school. Given what was going on in the world, that all made sense. I’m a teenager; social media, video chats, WhatsApp, Zoom…these are all second nature. Continuing with studies at home was simply no problem for me, nor for many of my friends, and teachers were always at the end of an email or a message. Then came the news from UK. No exams.

Yes, there was some euphoria for a couple of hours. Then it dawned on me that all that work, and I would never get the chance to prove my skills. We had no idea how we were going to be assessed, what grades we would get, what systems would be in place for acceptance to University. But on the whole, I felt it was better to be safe. Health comes first, and when you’re young, you get the feeling that you have time stretching out in front of you and that there will always be a tomorrow to do what you can’t do today.

The problem with all that extra time on my hands that lockdown and no exams brought was the need to probe around all those issues that up till then had sat on the margins of everything else that had been absorbing my attention. Always fascinated with health matters, I Googled away at everything Covid, and in particular about how it was being controlled, or otherwise, in UK where I had expected to go to university. I was uncertain; by nature, a drama course is practical, face to face and physically interactive, yet the universities were planning to move to online teaching. That was not the kind of learning experience I had been hoping for.

By the time the A level results were announced, I had already decided to take a gap year. Not one of those exciting, travel the world with a backpack kind of gap years. It is a stay at home, get a job, and try to stay safe kind of gap year; I pressed pause. I still do drama, I write, I chat online to those of my friends who did go to Uni. I commiserated with those that were struck down with Covid, lamented the loss of the freshers’ experience with those who were locked into their Halls, and tried not to hug those who got home safe once they had spent their five days in self-isolation.

Covid has changed everything this year. Not just for me but for all of us. And as we close the year, I know that the golden sunshine of a warm winter afternoon is something to relish, because given the news of new strains of the virus coming from UK and the skyrocketing of cases, this is not yet over. For students, for everyone in Gibraltar, this year to come is going to be one of adapting. Our grandparents got through the evacuation and post-war hardships. Our parents got through the border closure and a new, open Europe. With the resilience that comes from our history, we will get through this. And that is one of the many things learned during this most unusual of gap years.