After more than a year studying online from their homes across India, a group of fully vaccinated Engineering students finally met face-to-face on a trip along their country's east coast.
After more than a year studying online from their homes across India, last week a group of University of Sydney students embarked on a road trip along their country's south-east coast to meet in person for the first time.
The students, all fully vaccinated against COVID-19, travelled from hometowns many hundreds of kilometres apart to meet for a five-day trip taking in the seaside cities of Chennai, Pondicherry and Mahabalipuram.
Most of the group began their studies at the University just as COVID-19 started spreading around the world. Some attended classes on campus in Sydney for a few weeks before the pandemic forced them home to India. Others never made it to Australia and have only experienced university life through online study, with no face-to-face contact with fellow students.
The friends – Adhip Tanwar from New Delhi, Shreya Kothari from Jaipur, Ananyaa Gupta from Ambala Cantt, Aashika Agarwal from Lucknow, Roshan Venkatesan from Theni, and Harshini Jayakumar and Pranjul Bokaria from Chennai – met through a WhatsApp group for Faculty of Engineering students. Initially, their online discussions focused on their studies and assignments, but before long, over social media and regular Zoom calls, they became friends. They shared memes, chatted about things they planned to do in Sydney when they finally arrived, and even held virtual movie nights. They supported each other through the challenges of studying remotely.
"This group of friends has become like a family. We've only met online but we've formed some of the best friendships we've had in our lives," said Ananyaa, who is 19 years old and studying for a Bachelor of Engineering Honours (Software Engineering).
We've only met online but we've formed some of the best friendships we've had in our lives.
The impact of COVID-19 in India has been devastating, with more than 30 million cases reported since the pandemic began. But a decline in case numbers in recent weeks has prompted Indian states to begin relaxing restrictions. Domestic travel is currently permitted, and all the students are grateful to have received full vaccinations. With experts predicting a new, though smaller, wave of cases could hit India in coming months, the students wanted to take what might be their only opportunity to meet for some time.
They expected their parents to resist the idea but, said Shreya, a 19-year-old Bachelor of Advanced Computing student, "they were more open to the idea than we ever thought they would be".
"We had Zoom calls with everyone’s parents so they could meet and discuss it," she said. "They understood that this trip was exactly what we needed to stay motivated through another online semester."
Shreya said she and her friends have been coping well with remote learning, but nevertheless, it has been a challenging time. The crisis in their country and communities was a constant source of anxiety and grief. They have felt lonely, and sometimes struggled to stay motivated.
Many in the group used the University’s support services for students learning remotely during the pandemic. Some completed the University’s online modules designed to help manage mental health during difficult times. Ananyaa took advantage of special consideration arrangements when she needed time out of class to be with a relative hospitalised due to COVID-19.
Through it all, they have supported each other. "Without this group of friends, I don’t think I would have been able to get through three semesters of uni online during this devastating situation," said Harshini, 19, an Advanced Computing student.
"There have been times when some of us would break down emotionally, but we got through it by checking up on each other and just being there for each other."
They are conscious of their good fortune in meeting for a trip while so many in their country and around the world are suffering.
"Seeing my friends in real life, hugging them for real – it means so much," said Ananyaa. "These are memories for life that we'll cherish until we meet again."