My first party at university was a cheese and port party hosted by our college chaplain. It was 2008, and I was both smart and lucky enough to be at Cambridge. I have to be clear that neither “cheese”, “port” nor “college chaplain” are street names for anything. It was, very literally, a party of dessert wine, hard dairy, and a holy man, holding court in the middle of a small conference room, carrying out his God-anointed duty to ask us each where we were from and whether that was in the Greater Manchester area or just outside it.
At the time I thought this was a strange start to university life. But as this year’s cohort enter higher education in the midst of a global pandemic, I am willing to admit now that I had no idea.
Freshers of 2020, I salute you. At least I would if I weren’t trying not to touch my face. Coronavirus may have robbed us of our taste, but it hasn’t taken your hunger. Your hunger for knowledge and cup noodles. Classes are moving online, and socialising is a crime, but still you tread into the unknown, committed to your belief in the future and your faith in your wifi connection.
Like A-level predictions from a disadvantaged school, your social life has been unfairly downgraded. I hate to break it to you, but that crazy freshers’ week you were promised will be more bed than bedlam. Pub crawls will be done over Zoom, with everyone’s background image changed to a different bar when this one starts to feel “a bit dead”. But worry not, the classic freshers’ night out will be simulated to the best of your students’ union’s abilities: vodka shots left at your door when the Zoom’s really kicking off, along with a small vial of the fungus that causes thrush, which you can apply to your genitals whenever is convenient.
Freshers, I do not envy you. Having to take the first five people you meet as your social circle for the foreseeable future is a dangerous gambit. What if they’re no fun? The first five people I met at uni convinced me to leave the chaplain’s cheese and port shindig and follow them to the edge of town, causing me to miss out on one hell of a psalm and the last of the brie. What if they’re pretentious? One girl I knew at Cambridge was so posh she asked to see the wine list at McDonald’s. And what if they’re just plain terrible people? One guy I knew owned bongos.
But stay positive. Some changes may even be improvements on the old ways. With online teaching, you can now attend tuitions completely naked from the waist down with no one the wiser; before, that would have had you ejected from the philosophy seminar, or at the very least earned you a nickname from your course mates: Frie-dick Nietzsche, or Arist-butthole, or Immanuel Kant, which doesn’t even need adjustment. The University of Sunderland has even created an immersive 3D virtual campus like The Sims, finally allowing students to improve their French and Spanish skills by playing chess alone all day, and burn down the English department making a sandwich.
As infection rates climb nationwide, it is a precious relief to know that this generation of freshers is probably the most thoughtful in decades. Young people today are supposedly some of the most responsible to date. So I have the utmost faith in this year’s intake. There will be the odd illegal party, of course. Chaplains can’t help themselves. But the rest of us should be understanding. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that we were young ourselves. March 2020 to be exact.
Phil Wang is a comedian. He was scheduled to host the Guardian University Awards 2020 ceremony, which was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The winners will be announced on the Guardian site on 30 September.