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By Natasha McEnroe and Richard Phillips on

The loneliness of the pandemic student

Why is a foam stress ball now part of the Science Museum Group?

This small object captures two things that are often hard to find represented in museum collections – mental health and the emotional experience of being in a pandemic. The globe is one of a small selection of objects that each tell a powerful story of the loneliness experienced by young people during COVID-19 and is accompanied by a unique archive of handwritten accounts of university lockdown life, written by the students themselves

A globe stress ball included in a care package

Public health communications, testing technology and vaccination science all have objects attached to them that now form part of the Science Museum Group’s permanent collection. But Science Museum curators faced a challenge when collecting all aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic: one of the biggest issues that affected health in the pandemic was the emotional impact of isolation and loneliness, something that was not captured by objects. To address this, the Science Museum collaborated with the University of Sheffield who were conducting their own study: What was it like to be a student during the pandemic?  

The Sheffield Loneliness Project involved eleven university students at all levels – from first years whose introduction to university was interrupted by periods of self-isolation and lockdown, to third years and postgraduates, who had known student life before COVID-19. The work was carried out in May and June 2021, towards the end of the first full academic year of the pandemic. This was the time of track and trace – a text message could come at any time, requiring the recipient to isolate – and of restrictions on gatherings and social contact.  

University of Sheffield Halls of Residence in autumn 2020

Richard Phillips, Professor of Geography at Sheffield, contacted students through the University’s Geography Society and invited them to join the project. He realised that students would be more likely to give an honest response and reflection of their state of mind to their peers, so he asked the students to design and conduct peer interviews.  

The student researchers brought their own ideas and contributed pace and direction to the project. One thing the students brought was an interest in objects – in using things to explore, represent and archive their pandemic lives. Richard was aware of the COVID-19 collecting work from its widespread press coverage and got in touch with Keeper of Medicine Natasha McEnroe to see if there was potential to collaborate. Natasha then influenced the Loneliness Project by building on the interest that Richard and the students already felt in identifying physical objects that symbolised the pandemic. She suggested that the student research team collected objects that represented student experiences of the pandemic, asking students to write labels about them as a way of recounting their lockdown stories. This was with a view to add these objects to the Science Museum’s COVID-19 collection, something which has now happened.  

Natasha also suggested conducting their interviews with a difference: rather than digitally recorded or transcribed in the usual way, they would be recorded in handwriting. This would convey a sense of the person – with its crossings out, marginal doodles, untidiness or neatness, and hints of the individuality of the writer – that a digital record cannot capture. These interviews were recorded by hand by the students in a series of brown notebooks which are now part of the Science Museum’s permanent collection. They are also the only formal archive that we know of that exists of the student experience during the pandemic and will be a rich resource for future historians. The project methods are explained in detail in a paper, written and published by the entire team, which is free to download and read.

One of the strengths of the Loneliness Project was that it was shaped by the students themselves. Through this project, students – who had often been too cautious to turn on cameras during online learning, and who had yet to meet many of their classmates in person – gradually got to know each other. Two of the senior undergraduates helped the first and second years with research skills, and first years brought ideas and experiences to the mix. 

Here are some of the objects collected: 

  • Notebooks with handwritten interview notes. The students’ handwriting brings layers of meaning, which reach beyond their choice of words. Their handwriting reveals something of their personalities and vulnerabilities at this crucial time in their lives.   
  • The notebooks – full of details of student life during the pandemic – also provide very immediate, moving stories and chronicles of daily life at a time when students learned online and were stuck in residences and houses, sometimes with close friends, sometimes with strangers.  
  • A globe stress ball was included in a care package, delivered to a student who was self-isolating after a positive COVID test. She later explained that the object reminded her of her academic department and subject – Geography – and the students who had shown kindness to her without yet knowing her, when they delivered the package.   
  • Things the students made at the time – such as a macramé plant holder – speak to their resourcefulness and creativity, and the time these students had on their hands. The plant holder is an example of hobbies and other craftwork that became very popular during the population more broadly. 
  • A tin of yeast – saved by a student who made bread during lockdown – tells of intense and mixed feelings. The student shared the bread with his housemates – it was a way of connecting with them. Baking also reminded him of his mother, who paid for him to attend a breadmaking course, and who died during the pandemic.  
A tin of yeast used by a student

The notebooks – including the accounts of the objects collected and created during the pandemichave other stories to tell, which may be unlocked by researchers of the future when they access this collection. We hope they will use this archive to answer new questions as well as questions we have defined but barely begun to answer. Questions about the lasting effects of the pandemic on a generation of people who were young in the COVID19 pandemic, and who will bear its traces and perhaps its scars.  

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this blog post, help and support is available.  

The Samaritans offer support to anyone in emotional distress. You can speak to someone through the web chat service or call 116 123 for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

Student Minds offers mental health resources for students.

MIND also offers a guide to mental health crisis services as well as suggestions for managing feelings of loneliness.