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Durham University

University and City: Growing together

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Meet the Interns - Part II

(4 May 2020)

Lauren Naughton and Francoise Labode

Last month we introduced you to Francoise Labode and Lauren Naughton, two student interns in our Student Wellbeing & Community Engagement Team. In their first blog post, they write about coping with the COVID-19 pandemic and planning to recruit our new Student Community Wardens.

Navigating through the Coronavirus crisis

Working for Durham University over the next few months, within the Community Engagement and Wellbeing team, we will be helping to develop an entirely new Student Community Warden service to improve the relationship between student and non-student residents in Durham City.

The Northern Echo covered our recruitment in a recent article, highlighting how we have both returned from Durham to our home towns where, currently, we are working on the assumption that in October, the University will reopen, Lauren will be moving back to college to live in a cluster flat and Francoise will be moving into a house in the City.

We felt therefore that in this blog, we would talk about the ‘between time’, about some of the struggles that we have faced so far and also those challenges we may face in the run up to our next year of University – like how UK culture has changed and, more locally, how Durham is changing.

Taking a step back

Despite the figures reported day by day, the current community spirit of England shows the value of resilience. A word that we often see thrown around, but what does it mean to you? Does it mean adapting to changing circumstances? Taking a step back and evaluating the positives? Keeping going until life as we know it returns? 

Certainly from the perspective of two young people trying to fit everything in, achieve what we can, and get what we want, there are times that we have neglected the important things. The current coronavirus crisis however, is having an effect on what we value and our perspective has shifted. We both agreed when putting this together that we are more appreciative of those around us, and we are more careful to consider their health and wellbeing, following the prescribed governmental measures to protect our household.

For us, it has really restored that homely feeling where our parents’ jokes are slightly funnier than before and we enjoy each other’s company more. We have grown to realise how fortunate we are to have our family around us. We hope that you are also managing to spend time with others, be they family or friends, and whether you are with them in your house or connected by technology.

Changing perspectives

One thing that is certainly being talked about among families, households and between friends, is the shift of opinion on the value of different job roles within society. Career is such a huge thing at our stage in life and the usual narrative about jobs values those towards the top of the hierarchy, prioritising those who are paid more or those who do more ‘complicated’ jobs.

But for us, the pandemic has highlighted the positive impact that so many previously undervalued jobs have on society. Compared to how little thought we probably gave to the person behind the till in a shop or supermarket, we now have a vastly higher regard for them. They and their family will have made sacrifices to keep that job and support the community and we cannot fail to be grateful for the risk that such essential workers are taking. We hope that they are being given as much protection as possible by their employers. 

From a similar standpoint, how often did we really think about NHS workers previously? How often did any of us truly comprehend the potential dangers that all staff put themselves through to help ill strangers? With the news flush with stories about them and participating in the Clap for Carers movement, it’s safe to say, we now know that key workers are not the people who command the highest salary, and we hope that ours and the wider public’s appreciation continues into the future. 

Moving forward from lockdown

We think that British society has more self-awareness than before the lockdown was imposed but will we stay united in the foreseeable future? This is a question that we have discussed together, wondering what hostilities or distances will exist between community members as we move away from lockdown. Will we ever interact in the same way as before? Will we feel comfortable giving each other a hug? Attending concerts? When we hear someone is ill what will we worry about? Time will of course tell. But for the foreseeable future, we think that there will be apprehension.

If you were to ask us to go to a festival this time last year, we would not have hesitated as we had never heard of the concept of social distancing. We did not need to weigh up the positives of attending a social gathering against the possibility of contracting a dangerous and deadly disease. Similarly, travelling around the world was very much on the agenda for the both of us - yet now this is tainted with anxiety.

We of course hope this feeling for everyone subsides in time. We hope that as time goes on and we gradually get back to everyday life that the community’s regular interactions goes back to how they were. We also can’t help but think of those who may have lost a loved one due to this deadly disease and hope that, moving out of lockdown, they get the support they need to grieve and honour their loved ones’ memory how they would like to.

It’s study, but not as we knew it 

Lockdown has brought questions for everyone. What problems have you experienced, having to remain indoors except for essential activities? Have you changed the way that you work or do exercise? For us, lockdown has thrown up the common issues of motivation and structure. We have had to consider what time we should be sleeping and when we should be studying now that we are out of our normal schedules. Since the circumstances are so different to the usual revision routine, it’s been more difficult to put in the hours. There’s no library to go to, no study buddy to revise with, and no positive working conditions as families away from work aren’t sitting exams like we are. 

We’ve also noticed that, since there are no lectures to wake us up in the morning, our sleep schedules have stretched later and later, and we’ve found ourselves at our laptops at 4am, feeling completely awake. We would like to say that some people are natural night owls and it’s fine for them to do their work in the evening, so please do not feel disheartened if you keep hitting snooze on that 7am alarm. If possible, your work structure should revolve around any time of the day that’s best for you, if it doesn’t affect other commitments.

Both of us are night owls, and we produce our best work after 8pm, so it isn’t bad to do your work then and shift around what would have been your normal schedule. If it is possible though we are finding that it is good to get dressed into the clothes we would wear to work or study normally and sitting down in a place that we don’t usually use for relaxation, to get ourselves in work-mode. 

Exams are another area that’s changed across the whole country for students of all ages. A Levels and GCSEs have been cancelled, and for university students, many find themselves doing exams at home. We have found that this arrangement has made exams seem unreal.

We know that we won’t be sitting at a wobbly table in a sports hall governed by a ticking clock - we’ll be at home with our textbooks, notes and lecture handouts at the ready. It’s easy to take a relaxed approach but we are trying to take our exams as seriously as we would have done if we were completing them in Durham.

We think though that there is an important thing to remember about exams. Especially since we are studying at an academic institution, it is easy to slip into the mindset that our efforts and education are based on the mark that we receive. But learning and educating yourself is an invaluable experience, irrespective of the exams. This might mean that students need to be kinder to themselves if they do not perform as expected this year. Or it might mean that students look back at the education they received this year with positivity, even if they are not being assessed on it. 

Going bananas

What have you done to stay busy in lockdown? We have observed the period really bringing out the culinary flare in people - there has been a lot of talk of banana bread and sourdough, so much so that yeast has become scarce! We of course recommend that you too make something you like, perhaps banana bread, or maybe that recipe out of the Jamie Oliver book that you have been meaning to try for years. Learning how to cook new dishes is exciting and can definitely be worth a social media post to keep your friends and family updated about what you’re doing.

Being cooped up indoors has been causing us to get a bit stir crazy, especially when the daily updates are playing on repeat and BBC News is making a frequent ‘ding’ sound on your phone.

We therefore cannot stress the importance of doing some kind of exercise or going outside if it’s safe for you to do so. For us, going out and just seeing the odd dog walking around provides us with a sense of normality - through exercise, we can increase our energy and let out any tension. For indoors, we have loved seeing how many people are joining Joe Wicks for his 9am morning routine, or Ryan Heffington’s Dance Party on Instagram Live. 

Even small things like spending some time practising gratitude towards others and towards our lives has been helping us get through. We are of the mentality that everyone has something they can be grateful for. Think about it or write it down. Maybe this is also a good time to reach out to old friends and family members? When was the last time you messaged an old friend out of the blue? During times like this where the future is so uncertain, getting a caring message from someone can mean the world. 

Practising gratitude 

Returning home for lockdown has taught us many important things, including a revised understanding of productivity. A real struggle that we have faced throughout this period is knowing how to use this time wisely. There have been days where we have done nothing, and days where we have ticked lots of tasks on our list.

Sometimes we feel like we’re gliding around just eating and wasting time on social media: these are our off-days! But it’s important to remember that lockdown will have affected the mental health of many people. Certainly the findings of an analysis by Kings College London attest to this. It is also therefore okay to take a mental health ‘off-day’ to look after your wellbeing.

We have found it helpful to spend time in the garden, and we think of those less fortunate than us that may not have access to the outdoors in the same way that we do. Some people are isolated in flats, and others in the shielding category cannot leave the house. We have found out though that no matter what you have access to during lockdown, you can follow Mike from the Botanic Garden as he blogs about his daily life tending to the gardens.

Time to think, time to learn

We think that lockdown has had a positive impact on us in regards to the amount of time that we now have to think. Normally, we are caught up in university or our jobs or our other responsibilities, but without these things, time is becoming more spiritually fulfilling. For people in lockdown, there might be more time to read or watch documentaries and do what they are really interested in.

Blank time also gives us the opportunities to think about the projects that we will do when lockdown is over - thinking time can result in epiphanies about how to develop these projects, so they might be better than they would have been before. We have also found that it is periods like this where we have the most clarity about our values and goals.

We found out when talking that we have both spent significant amounts of time drawing out timelines and setting our goals for the near and distant future. What about you - where are you headed in the next few years? What have you learned about yourself during lockdown? We would love to know what isolation has taught you, let us know through community.swceoffice@durham.ac.uk

Life in Durham next academic year

For the both of us, Durham feels like home. Since becoming undergraduates at the University, we have had the chance to explore the town, take in the scenery, experience the infamous Flat White Cafe and become part of the diverse community. We love the feeling of the community, with its independent businesses and the delights of the annual Fire and Ice sculptures. We love that Durham has a real sense of belonging to it, that Durham alumni return to the city that has shaped their lives. 

But life in Durham next academic year may be very different to what we have experienced before. As well as concerns about our academic experience we wonder about our ‘Wider Student Experience’. With social distancing measures in place, will it still be possible to go to a cafe or play contact sports or watch a play in the Assembly Rooms Theatre? And can we be certain that the city will be full of students, like it normally is in term-time?

There is a possibility that some students may not be able to arrive at University on time. International students for example may face difficulty if there are restrictions on travel from their home countries. As one of the most international universities in the country, we can be sure that Durham will do everything that it can to help all of its students arrive, so we hope to see international students in the near future to help re-establish the Durham community.

When we start to move out of lockdown, one thing is clear. The virus will not have been eradicated. We are preparing ourselves for the prospect that it will be a part of our lives for the foreseeable future. With one of us living in halls and one of us living in private accommodation next year, there is an underlying worry about how seriously our housemates will take the virus.

For Lauren, who is living in college next year, there is the concern of sharing space with people she does not know, since there is no controlling others’ hygiene and habits - will they be washing their hands properly and cleaning surfaces?

There is another worry: every year, freshers’ flu is inevitable as people from around the world convene in a confined space. Students live close together in colleges, then visit clubs and lectures full of coughs, and then return to their corridors, where illness inevitably spreads.

Freshers’ flu is more than the innocuous bug this year, however. The expectation of another peak of coronavirus in Winter means that the virus may be passed around in the same manner. As I am sure you will expect to see changes in your work, home and childcare settings, so too do we expect to see vital changes in the colleges that prioritise the cleanliness of communal areas in the attempt to reduce the spread of any viruses.

For Francoise, all of the stuff she couldn’t take with her on the train is still in her Durham college. This will mean that upon her return, a real mission between her and her housemates will commence as it’s safe to say that she has left a lot of stuff there!

We’re seeing this played out across the City as well in Purpose Built Student Accommodation Blocks and Houses in Multiple Occupation with our Students Union launching a Student Landlord Pledge and writing to accommodation providers beyond the collegiate system. Move out and move in this year will certainly not look like previous years and there will be many challenges to overcome.

Recruiting the Student Community Wardens

Despite the uncertainties, we want to work to make sure that Durham City and its students are the best that they can be. Last year, the Community Engagement and Wellbeing Team coordinated the launch of the Student Pledge for all students, which aims to encourage good conduct towards themselves and others, and to commit their best effort to their education.

In the spirit of the Student Pledge, we are spending our internship working to improve community relations in our city. We are working with Durham University’s Community Liaison Officer, Hannah Shepherd, to set up a Student Community Warden service. Our hope for the wardens is that they encourage students to be more involved in life in the city, and that they engage students on community issues such as recycling and showing considerate behaviour towards their neighbours. 

We hope that you will continue to follow our progress in recruiting these individuals over the next few months as we will be working our internships until the end of July by which point we hope to have recruitment well underway. We know that some of you reading this will be involved in helping us to shape the role and we look forward to working with you on that.

In the meantime, it is safe to say that our university experience has definitely changed as a result of COVID-19. Although it is clear that the difficulties will be long-term, we hope that you, like us, try to find some positives in these unprecedented times. More importantly, we hope that you stay safe and look after yourself.

As ever, if you have any comments or would like to reach out to the Community Engagement and Wellbeing team, then please use the following email community.swceoffice@durham.ac.uk as we would love to hear from you!

Francoise Labode and Lauren Naughton 
Community Liaison Interns for Durham University