So long Dunedin, it was fun while it lasted

For Otago students looking forward to a big year Covid-19 has turned the university world upside down, writes a reluctant refugee*

I’m writing this on my 19th birthday, stuck at home with just my parents and my blind dog. I share my birthday with two of my best friends and we had been planning a big dress-up party in Dunedin to finish off the uni week and celebrate. 

For pretty obvious reasons we had to can that, and any other plans we had for the rest of the first semester. Amazing what a difference a week can make.

At the beginning of February, my six flatmates and I had arrived on Castle Street and begun setting up our flat. When I say “setting up” I really mean watching – and helping, of course – our mothers clean out K-Mart and construct flat-pack beds, desks and chests of drawers in our respective bedrooms. 

The mum-and-daughter flat decoration experience has become a bit of a thing for second year Otago university students from out of town. We had spent our first year in halls of residence where you get a room and three meals laid on every day – kind of a half-way house to independence. So moving into a flat is a bit of a big deal.

I’m not saying there was a competitive element to all this, but I remember my mother saying she felt like she was in an episode of The Block NZ - the mother and daughter special. In the end, though, everyone’s rooms looked great.

After the mums left, the traditional Otago party season began. In first year you get to enjoy Orientation Week (O Week) – toga parties, concerts and all that. In second year, you get to start early with Flat O Week – or Flo Week – which is basically just flat parties. Naturally, this resulted in a week-long hangover – the traditional condition in which to begin the academic year since time immemorial.

Our first couple of months consisted of typical first-year flatting fun, such as learning to cook, learning to clean a toilet and learning to pay bills in a house that was colder on the inside than it was outside. Apparently Dunedin flats are better than they used to be before tenancy laws changed and made landlords insulate them – not that you’d know it, they’re still freezing.

I know people disapprove of students partying so much, but really we just do it to keep warm. 

So we were all happily settling into and enjoying the typical scarfie lifestyle. Even when the coronavirus became news we treated it pretty lightly, joking around in true Dunedin style, dressing up in hazmat suits and drinking – what else – coronas. 

Just before things started to seriously escalate, the traditional St Patrick's Day celebration was due to take place. This was just a day after the Government had recommended mass gatherings not go ahead. It was also the same day as the first Covid-19 case was found in Dunedin. In hindsight, like many New Zealanders, we were a little naive and probably still carried away with our newfound freedom. My dad messaged me the next day to say we should probably avoid that kind of thing from now on. 

But the fact is there was still no clear advice about what was happening. We were hearing that we shouldn’t be gathering in large numbers, but the university was also being told by the Government to stay open – which pretty much meant gathering in large numbers. Once we knew it was getting critical, however, we took it as seriously as everyone else.

When reported coronavirus cases started to increase and a number of uni and social events we had planned were cancelled, the idea of uni moving online seemed increasingly possible. After the Government announced the Covid-19 alert level system, all seven of us in the flat were bombarded with frantic calls from mums, many of whom had unilaterally booked us flights home. We now had the weekend to pack up our stuff and get home before the lockdown.

The majority of us were still reluctant to go, of course. Our big year was disappearing in front of our eyes. And it was difficult for my friends who don’t come from Auckland or Christchurch and couldn’t fly directly home to organise their escape. Expensive too – by the time the domestic travel deadline was extended we had all arrived home anyway. 

It was a pretty chaotic few days to be honest. We did our best to clean out the flat and lock up, but I still worry we left things in the fridge. 

I arrived back in Auckland with two days to spare before lockdown. After two months of complete independence I am now cooped up at home with my parents, trying to navigate online university and video-calling my friends every few hours in an effort to stay sane. We are left wondering when we will be able to see each other again, and when or even if we will be able to go back to uni this year. 

At this stage, online learning feels like a big experiment. While our lecturers and tutors are doing their best to make everything work, it's still all a bit vague. On top of this we are still paying rent for an empty flat. 

There was no doubt in our minds this was going to be one of the most memorable years of our lives. And that's how it has turned out – just not quite the way we thought it would.

* To avoid bringing herself, her friends, her parents and Castle Street in general into disrepute, the author has asked to remain anonymous.

*Made with the support of NZ On Air

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