Students of the Covid-generation: 2020 made us

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After five months of online teaching and studying from home, SOAS students have overcome and adapted to the circumstances. While each person has their own way of coping and managing, I interview two current SOAS students to see how they’ve managed. Anna Christine Blanck, completing her MSc in Development Studies, and Yousef Abughazaleh, an undergraduate student who just finished his 3rd Year in Politics and International Relations. They were both enthusiastic for the coming autumn term and wanted to share some tips and tricks with other current and prospective students so that they can make the most of their time at SOAS, despite the current circumstances.

When asked if they’d been able to make new friends online, they were both very positive!

Anna: I’ve absolutely been able to make friends online, which is a totally new experience for me!  

Anna also shared a few tips on how to make new friends online:

There are two ways that this has happened. First, I’m part of a Discord server which a friend created in order to continue hosting her weekly pub quiz throughout the lockdown. She has cultivated a great sense of community, and we often meet throughout the week to play other games together like Jackbox or Codenames. Secondly, I’ve become more confident about reaching out to people who are doing interesting things to ask if they want to chat about it. It’s foolproof—everyone enjoys talking about themselves!

students on a zoom call
This was a fancy dress competition with Anna’s new friends via Zoom – everyone had 5 minutes to dress like they were climbing Everest!

Yousef had also made use of online groups, especially through Facebook:

Facebook groups are a great way to make friends online, especially for freshers and people looking to get involved with clubs and societies. Attend as many events as interest you, and never be afraid to chip in with an opinion or question. You’ll soon find yourself digitally surrounded by dozens of like-minded people!

Beyond making new friends, they’ve also both been able to still be social and engage with other SOAS students! Anna emphasized Yousef’s point of using Facebook, and other mediums such as WhatsApp:

This is pretty cheesy, but I love following SOASk Me Out on Facebook. I’m 100% lurker, but reading posts from my fellow students about love and lust and academic policies makes me feel connected to the community. We also have a PGT Dev Studies Whatsapp Group that helps with the same. I read all the messages even when they aren’t really relevant to me. I try to follow up with my SOAS friends fairly regularly, although we are all a bit pressed with the dissertation deadline is fast approaching. Fortunately, there are several great study/accountability groups that have been started by some of my peers.

Yousef brought out the true SOAS spirit, which is to continue striving for a better world:

Similarly to on campus, one of the best ways to engage with other SOAS students is by joining them in activism and advocating for change. The more you get involved, the more positive social interaction you’re going to have, and there’s tons of online activism still going on.

Managing good social distancing etiquette is very important these days, whether it’s on campus or at home. Both of them shared some good advice on how to do this:

Anna: I think that the most important part of social distancing is staying at home as much as possible. We’re all tired of our own walls by now, and I am no exception, but I try to consciously limit my excursions into the world and wear a mask when outside the house. I do large grocery shops for several days’ worth of food at a time and try to cook mostly at home. There is only a small group of people that I see in person. The good news is that this has been great for my budget! Plus, I can cook a lot of new recipes.

students have enjoyed cooking
A quiche Anna made from scratch.

Yousef agreed with Anna and stated:

Through following local guidelines and exercising common sense, such as physical distancing, mask wearing, and keeping most activities outdoors.

Managing mental health and wellbeing is also a very important aspect, and both of them had come up with a few ways to do this.  

Anna: The pandemic has been a journey for all of us, and my self-care has evolved throughout. I have come to realize that usually, I’ve changed settings when I’ve changed tasks. Since my life now exists in (basically) one room it’s been surprisingly difficult to find balance in my working/waking hours. It makes me feel like I need to work all the time so I definitely experienced burnout early on. Now, I have created a very structured schedule for myself and it helps a lot! I’ve also started a 30-day yoga challenge because working from my sofa was adding a lot of unnecessary physical stress to an emotionally challenging time.

Having a routine helps Anna stay productive while holding space for her wellbeing.

Yousef: I’m lucky to have a strong support network of family and friends, as well as a strong resilience to mental stress. I think looking after mental health is largely about picking your battles, fighting what you can and letting go of what you cannot. Find a technique or way of thinking that suits you, or follow your instinct, And remember, there is never any shame in asking for help.

Keeping up with studies while adapting to this new reality was a challenge for many, but there are many ways that SOAS students have come up with to manage. Anna further emphasised the importance of mental health and reaching out to others who are going through the same:

No one has lived through a global pandemic before, so we’re all learning at the same pace. I don’t think anyone has this figured out yet. There is a lot of trial and error involved, and you need to be kind to yourself through that process. Everyone is different and you will have to do some work and reflection to find what is best for you. Definitely share what you’re going through and find your support network. Remember, we’re all going through the same thing!

Yousef further mentioned the importance of space and to take advantage of SOAS’s wide range of resources:  

Have a dedicated study space first and foremost. I’m the type of person who needs a library, so I set up an office in a corner of my bedroom for work only and that helped a lot with procrastination. Aside from that, SOAS online resources and your teachers’ emails will be vital resources that you should take full advantage of.

Anna at her workspace from home.

Anna: It’s easy to focus on the experiences we’ve lost to COVID-19, but most of these things aren’t gone. From student life to life experiences, they’ve just transformed. You can now access opportunities all over the world! I relocated to Marrakech where I can enjoy the daily sunshine, and was still able to complete an amazing internship with London-based LIDC because it became a remote position. Now, I’m doing some part-time online work for Trust, a Turkish development consultancy. There’s never been a better moment to network with professionals around the world now that Zoom calls are a norm. Plus, there are many different and interesting events, panels, webinars, and online courses from all kinds of institutions. Much like being a traditional student, there’s so much to do it’s hard to know where to start.

Yousef: ENJOY SOAS! This won’t be the uni experience you may have dreamed of, but until that time comes you can still engage with your fellow students, get involved with the never ending flow of cultural and political events, and develop your opinions in a space accommodating to all. You’ll have a blast.

After speaking to both of them it is clear that we will still be able to have a fun, enjoyable and fulfilling experience at university this autumn. The SOAS spirit is strong and it‘s a privilege to be a part of such a vibrant community. 

Rut Einarsdóttir is a SOAS Digital Ambassador and Operations Manager for SCRAP Weapons, a project for global disarmament in the CISD Department at SOAS, currently pursuing a MSc in Violence, Conflict and Development.

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