College of Agriculture, Engineering
and Science (CAES)

Studying Science in the Era of COVID-19

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While ushering in more automated, user-friendly systems for students, the transition to online learning brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, has had an adverse effect on the mental health of some students, says second-year student in the College of Agriculture, Engineering and Science Mr Malusi Mthethwa.

Mthethwa is pursuing studies in the School of Life Sciences, inspired by a fascination with the natural world and its varied phenomena, and hopes to use this qualification to transfer to medicine to fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor.

The Crawford College alumnus enrolled at UKZN to continue the family tradition of studying at the Institution, because of its formidable staff and resources.

Pursuing studies in life sciences in the midst of a global pandemic has had the benefit of imparting an appreciation of what is happening on a microscopic scale.

‘Courses like bacteriology, immune systems, and viruses and fungi give you deep insight into what goes on in the micro-environment,’ said Mthethwa. ‘You learn to be wary of germs and take personal hygiene very seriously.’

Despite his interest in this field, and his predilection for an active lifestyle, Mthethwa says the experience of studying at his home in Durban rather than on campus has been a lonely one, with negative effects on his mental health as isolation makes it easy to be side-tracked and more difficult to focus on one’s studies.

‘Having battled with depression and anxiety, adapting from contact lectures to online learning posed a major threat to my mental health,’ he said.

Having started his studies on campus, Mthethwa said the challenge of adapting to a new routine led to procrastination, followed by a sense of panic about falling behind. Focusing on university work, coupled with the intermittent COVID-19 related closure of the gyms and sports facilities the avid tennis player relies on for relaxation, resulted in online learning becoming more onerous and less enjoyable.

‘Online learning requires more time and admin than attending class,’ said Mthethwa, singling out tests on online platforms as particularly difficult.

Keeping up with the workload, with a constant stream of assignments and seminars, also contributes to a sense of falling behind, with students like Mthethwa feeling that there are not sufficient opportunities to rest fully.

Despite these challenges, Mthethwa notes that there are positive aspects of online learning, including the more automatic, streamlined virtual systems where everything is available online. He is also grateful to have interacted with his lecturers and peers when he began his studies, saying that students who began their studies online missed out on this aspect of university life.

Amongst fellow students, Mthethwa has observed an aversion to online learning sparked by some students’ lack of access to data, laptops and reliable internet connections.

Looking ahead, Mthethwa advised other students to make the most of this challenging experience by studying smart, not hard.

‘Don’t procrastinate or leave things to the last minute,’ he said. ‘Start your assignments as soon as you get them, and find time to relax and unwind by unplugging from the rest of society.’

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied