Going Back To University During A Pandemic

So, as of next week, my university classes start again and given that the pandemic is worse than ever in the UK (when it comes to the number of cases, at least), I definitely have mixed feelings about it. Had this year gone ahead as expected, I would’ve been super excited to go back to uni but with all my anxiety about the pandemic, not to mention the state of my mental health in general, it feels like an almost impossible feat. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage it. But before I start thinking about that, I thought I’d document how I got to this point…


When the pandemic hit the UK and the lockdown went into effect, I only had two or three weeks of online classes to contend with before my final assignment, which was a piece of coursework. Once that was turned in, I was done, with only unstructured time ahead of me. As a part time student, I didn’t return to classes until late September so, although I’d planned to do a lot of things (I made a post about that here) in that time, I didn’t have to try and manage university alongside all of my anxiety about the pandemic. I didn’t have to think about university for a long time and since we didn’t know much about Covid-19 at the time, it seemed pointless to speculate. So I put those worries to the side and just tried to manage day to day (with varying levels of success).

When August rolled around, the anxiety about what I was going to do started to build. I’d thought about deferring but I really didn’t want to do that: I didn’t want to delay my education more than it already had been with years off to manage my mental health; I felt like I’d be at a real disadvantage in the second year modules, having potentially forgotten skills I’d learned in the first year; we don’t know how different things will be in a year anyway and I’d rather be working through the modules with people I know, whether that’s the case or not. So if I was going to do it, I had to figure out what felt safe and manageable.

Eventually I got an email from my university with some information about how they’d planned out the module, trying to balance safety and getting the best out of our education. My first module of the year was going to be 50% online and 50% onsite: the lectures would be via Microsoft Teams and the practical workshops – where we put the musical skills into practice – would be in person, although there were various different rules about whether anyone could actually perform what they’d written, depending on the number of students present. That all felt very uncertain and anxiety-provoking. Plus commuting to London (using trains and the underground) for only two hours of classes felt like a lot of risk (especially with the number of cases on the rise) – and that’s without considering the effects it would have on my energy levels and mental health and how that would affect my ability to complete the module – for not necessarily enough reward. It all felt very risky and scary.

I spoke to the head of the module, a tutor I’ve known for a really long time and have a really good relationship with. I wanted to get a bit more detail about what was happening, especially as it’s the module I’ve been most worried about: music theory has always been a struggle for me and even though it’s more about experimenting with those concepts in our writing, I’ve still worried about it from the beginning of the course. It’s the module I’ve always felt I’d need the most support and clarity in. Unfortunately, this trusted tutor will be running the online classes and not onsite at all – not that I’d want him to put himself at risk but that plus the fact that my two closest friends wouldn’t be there either only increased my anxiety. In what was obviously going to be a very stressful semester, I felt like I had very few people that I could go to if I needed help or something triggered a meltdown, for example. It was all feeling more and more overwhelming and difficult.

There was the potential to do the whole module online and at the beginning of lockdown, I’d refused to consider it, feeling that I wouldn’t get the education I had chosen and was paying for, if all the classes were online, especially when it’s such a practical course. But if I didn’t want to defer, my only options were to do the 50/50 approach or move entirely online. And after thinking about it a lot and talking to multiple members of my family, we decided that all the stress of going into uni felt like a significant cost compared to the benefit. So eventually I bit the bullet and decided to transfer to being a fully online student.

For a while, everything was fine – or as fine as it could be. But as we started building up to the new year, everything started to unravel. I always find the start of the new academic year stressful but this year has been a special level of hell. One example was ongoing complications with my timetable, which only exacerbated my already high anxiety and caused multiple meltdowns. I could probably rant for hours about the problems in education around mental health and neurodiversity but I won’t. At least not here.

The last week or so has probably been the worst, mental health wise, since the early days of lockdown: there has been constant anxiety, sickening drops into the depression that I’ve been carefully tiptoeing around since the pandemic reached the UK, and many meltdowns. I’ve also fought with Mum, which almost never happens. You know I’m in a bad place when that starts happening. My emotions have been very volatile; my anger has been particularly explosive. Anger’s not an emotion that I usually experience, especially not to this degree, so that’s been really hard to know what to do with. I’m really going through it at the moment.

It’s been suggested and even recommended that I defer, given the state of my mental health and my anxiety around the pandemic but I really, really don’t want to. I don’t want to defer and I don’t really want to do the module online – neither feel like great options, if I’m honest – but we have no idea what the situation next September will be and of the two, I’d rather be moving forward.


Today my group had our induction session, which was helpful. And it was really nice to see my course mates and tutors again; it was a little glimpse of normality, even if it was through a screen. I don’t know if I feel any better about the whole situation – I’m still terrified that the odds against me are just too high and I’ll fail everything – but I’d rather try than not. If get a couple of months in and it really is too much then I’ll reconsider but I have to try. I just can’t not try.

The DSA Process For My Masters Degree

Since the academic year is starting up again, I thought I’d write about my experience with getting support for my Masters Degree as a disabled student. The DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) process can be very difficult so, having been through it twice now, I thought I’d share my experience. I don’t know if I’ve had a good, bad, or typical experience but I thought that simply putting the experience out there might be helpful to anyone at the beginning of this process, to give them an idea of what may happen down the line. As I’ve already said, it’s difficult and tiring but that’s not to say that I would discourage someone from applying. I was just very naive going into it the first time and was blindsided by how complicated and stressful it was; I’m lucky to have had help going through this both times. Having support from sources such as DSA can be hugely beneficial but I wouldn’t want anyone going into the application process unaware so I thought I’d share my experience as I haven’t seen many accounts of the whole process…

I wrote about my first assessment in great detail here, so I suggest reading that but I’ll also sum it up here to make sure I’m sharing the full experience in one place. So… That first assessment was a complete disaster. The assessor was perfectly nice but when we got to discussing what support DSA was willing to offer me, it went downhill fast. They would offer me a laptop, but not one with an operating system required to run the programs I needed for my course because apparently that was a course specific need rather than a disability specific need despite the fact that I – a disabled student – needed them to do my course. They wouldn’t offer me any travel support towards commuting because I’d ‘chosen’ to live at home when I actually had to live at home because of my disabilities. And they have no direct contact with the universities themselves so they couldn’t offer any support through them. So, essentially, they weren’t going to offer me anything because my needs didn’t fit their guidelines, because my disability didn’t fit with their idea of disability. It was hugely frustrating and distressing and I left in tears. I felt completely let down and abandoned.

By the end of the assessment, I was so utterly distressed that the assessor told us that we could appeal, which we did. The second assessment was with a different person, a really lovely woman called Rebecca, and was much longer and in much more depth. We went through everything again in minute detail: from the necessary computer specifications to the exact details of an average university day’s travel. She went through all the possibilities and all the potential outcomes, as well as the potential roadblocks and the reasonings behind them. It was a lot of information but I did leave feeling more hopeful; I really felt like she was on the case, like she was really committed to helping me get as much support as possible. Her report went through several different people before reaching a senior SFE (Student Finance England). It was initially rejected but then, when we provided them with documentation proving I receive PIP (Personal Independence Payment), they changed their minds and granted me a new laptop, software and apps to help with my lectures, independent study, and mental health, and mentoring through the National Autistic Society (although it seems that, due to the pandemic, this service no longer exists). I didn’t get any support for the travel but I’m grateful for what I did get, plus the travel costs haven’t exactly been an issue over the last few months… From that second assessment, it was four months before I received the support I was awarded.

In my experience, the whole DSA process is very slow. It was slow when I went through it during my Bachelor’s Degree and it’s been even slower this time, presumably due to the pandemic. I started this process in January – much later than intended but my mental health was so bad that I couldn’t handle the in person assessment – and didn’t get the equipment until June. Then the laptop that arrived wasn’t the right one and so we had to spend another two weeks – and a somewhat ridiculous amount of emails proving that it was in fact the wrong one – organising the swap, insuring that I got the one that my DSA assessment had determined I needed. A couple of weeks later, the new laptop arrived but setting it up took much longer than it should have. This was due to how the people who’d previously worked on my laptop had set it up, making the transfer of all my files much more complicated and messy. It’s still not as sorted as I would like it to be but it is functional.

Factoring in all of this, had I been doing my Masters in one year rather than two, I would’ve had this equipment for less than a semester before I finished the course. Yes, this was affected by the pandemic, problems with the university Autism support person, and the late start in pursuing DSA but that was due to the reasons I was in need of support so it’s not the most efficient system in that regard: what happens if you’re too disabled by your disability to seek help?

The laptop and software that DSA have provided me with has been invaluable, especially since my laptop was dying a slow death around the time I received the new one. We didn’t get everything we were hoping for but it’s definitely better to have it than to not. So, having now been through this twice, I thought I’d offer some tips that would’ve been helpful to me before going through the process…

  • If you disagree with part or all of the final assessment, ask to talk to someone else – It’s not something you’re necessarily made aware of when you have the assessment but I was so distressed by the end of the assessment that the assessor told us we could appeal. My second assessment yielded quite different results than the first one so it’s definitely worth asking if you feel that you haven’t been heard or fully supported.
  • Ask what kind of documents act as proof of a need for support – The earlier you find out what paperwork might help your case, the quicker the process will go. We, unfortunately, didn’t know that the PIP documentation was helpful and the whole thing may not have taken so long if we had.
  • Take someone with you as it can be overwhelming and tiring – These assessments can go on for hours and there’s a lot of information to both give and receive. Plus, it can be a pretty emotional experience so having someone with you can make the whole thing easier; you have someone to lean on and two pairs of ears to take everything in.
  • Ask for everything that you would find helpful – You might not get it all but you definitely won’t get it if you don’t ask and hopefully you’ll get some of it. It’s also always worth asking what you’re potentially entitled to because there may be things you aren’t aware of that could be helpful.
  • If you’re told something isn’t possible, ask why – The assessors can’t know every relevant question to ask and you can’t know every relevant piece of information to give so if they tell you something isn’t possible or available, it’s worth asking why because you may have some information or some paperwork that changes the situation and what support you can get.

I hope this post is helpful for anyone considering or going through the process. I hope I haven’t made it sound too scary. I really do recommend it but I wouldn’t want anyone to be unaware of how difficult and stressful it can be. You deserve to get the support you need and I only want to make that easier, if only by arming you with information and advice. So, if you’re going through it, I wish you the best of luck and I’m rooting for you.