How are Laidlaw Scholars dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
In an attempt to foster a sense of community and to encourage each other to stay centred and connected, I caught up with a few scholars to see how the pandemic has impacted their research plans, how they are managing the stress and uncertainty of this period and what they have been getting up to.
Living in today’s globalised world can leave us, as a collective human force, feeling rather invincible. We can travel vast distances in little time, easily communicate with people on the opposite side of the planet and with just a simple click purchase products that land on our doorstep the very next day. But this pandemic has really changed how everyone feels about the agency they have over their lives.
"The COVID-19 outbreak has impacted everyone, everywhere."
The unprecedented circumstances we’ve all been faced with have led me to reflect on the fragility and uncertainty that all too easily get forgotten amidst the frantic bustle of day to day life. This time in quarantine has put the entire world on pause and forced even Laidlaw Scholars, characterised by their ambition and fast-paced schedules, to stop whirring around and be still. In an attempt to foster a sense of community and to encourage each other to stay centred and connected, I caught up with a few scholars to see how the pandemic has impacted their research plans, how they are managing the stress and uncertainty of this period and what they have been getting up to.
Sieun Lee is a UCL Laidlaw Scholar studying urban planning and management. This summer she was excited to explore immigrant suburbs of London and research diasporic culture through these urban spaces. She had already decided upon and visited the spots where a large part of her research would have taken place, but unfortunately the likelihood of her being able to do such fieldwork has been abated by the pandemic. In light of the COVID-19 restrictions, Sieun resolved to maintain the same research focus, only using film as the medium through which she explores urban space and diasporic culture instead. She explains that film is a particularly insightful artistic medium through which much can be learnt about the urban reality of suburban communities, and has already begun slimming down the list of potential movies to base her research on.
As her family lives in Japan and besides exams, she also has her six weeks of Laidlaw to complete over summer, Sieun has had to come to terms with the fact that she will not be able to go home until September at the very least. This was not her original plan, but the confusion surrounding foreign travel prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic made her realise that if she did go back home, she would not know how or when it would be possible for her to return to her life in London. Unfortunately, many international students have been struggling with the same problem. Sion-Lee suggests sticking to a routine and being around friends (if possible) as two helpful coping strategies. During quarantine, she has found massive comfort in the stability that comes with having a fixed schedule and stresses the importance of finding a work-life balance. Given the project-based nature of her summative coursework, Sieun has put to practice the leadership skills acquired on Laidlaw training days during her remote group working sessions, which, she confesses, have proved a bit draining at times. As a way of staying relaxed, Sieun has kept up her passion for freestyle dance, attending virtual UCL dance soc meets and recording videos of herself free-styling to share with the community. She’s made use of her spare time to try out a 30-day yoga challenge and has enrolled in an online dance program with Steezy Studio. Besides dancing and yoga, the unusual amount of time Sieun has spent in her kitchen, due to lockdown, has given her the opportunity to perfect her coffee cake and strawberry shortcake recipes, featured below!
Yufeng is a Laidlaw Scholar from the University of Hong Kong, although he was on a semester abroad at the University of Toronto, Canada when the pandemic broke out. Unfortunately, Yufeng’s time abroad had to be cut short as his family, University and even local government asked him to come back. Yufeng’s journey home from Toronto was long and tiresome due to suspended flights connecting Hong Kong to mainland china. A flight back to Hong Kong, transport to a nearby city called Shenzhen where he was required to quarantine for 3 days and finally Yufeng landed in his home city of Yu Nan province, where he was obliged to quarantine yet again, alone in a hotel room for 14 days. Yufeng’s complicated journey home gave him time to reflect on this unprecedented phenomenon of ‘international deglobalization that’s happening on an institutional scale’ which he believes is an indication that, ‘now more than ever, we need to remember that we are all global citizens.’ Upon arriving home, Yufeng has been treasuring this rare opportunity to spend time with his family and express gratitude and love for them which if things were normal, he admits he might not feel so inclined to emphasize.
Although Yufeng’s research project has been completed, he was planning on finishing the leadership part of his Laidlaw Scholarship at UCL this summer by partaking in the Common Purpose Leadership Abroad Programme. Unfortunately, this trip had to be cancelled due to the pandemic, but fostering a sense of community and remaining united through hardship seems at the heart of everything Yufeng does, from organising a Yale-Hong Kong university fellowship programme, managing the Effective Altruism Hong Kong (EAHK) movement chapter and advocating for micro-leadership. Yufeng explains that, ‘navigating our own emotions and choosing how to arrange our lives’ is also an ‘impressive act of leadership which should not go understated.’ He suggests establishing clear work-life boundaries as a way of exemplifying micro-leadership, and including enjoyable activities within your day to day routine, whether that be fuelling your interest in AI by doing a digital course (a few of his favourite include Stanford's 'Machine Learning' and Andrew Ng's 'Deep Learning Specialisation'), keeping your fitness up by following Tom Daley work out plan or simply ‘levelling up the cooking skills’, exemplified below.
Cynthia’s research project on why black students are deterred from universities like Durham relies heavily on the social component of face to face interviewing, which she was planning on carrying out over the summer. As a sociology student and POC, Cynthia’s fieldwork involves exploring how black students in London feel about education institutions like Durham, seeking to frame her investigation in a nuanced understanding of systemic racism which includes both overt and covert discrimination towards black students. Due to the psychological complexity of her investigation, Cynthia was reluctant to opt for phone call interviews, and briefly considered postponing the project until 2021, before deciding to move forward by conducting video interviews.
Cynthia came home to find out that she had lost her London job. Despite this, she counts herself lucky to be able to rely on her parents and stresses the importance of maintaining your faith during this uncertain period. She has found remaining ‘spiritually connected to something’ a really grounding and calming force during quarantine. She explains that accepting the uncertainty of the future doesn’t mean that you need to abandon all hopes of future structure. As a keen planner, Cynthia reveals that the pandemic has only reinforced this premeditative quality of hers, ‘Now more than ever you realise how uncertain everything is and how important it is to have a Plan B, C and D’ she says. In this sense, summative season has come at a good time for Cynthia, who has found the rush of tight deadlines a welcome distraction. Balancing academic work with creative hobbies such as drawing, painting and sewing has really helped her relax and find some enjoyment during lockdown, although she laments not being able to see her home friends. Some of Cynthia’s beautiful artwork is featured below.
I’m a Durham based Laidlaw Scholar with a background in Latin American, Italian and French culture. Last year, my research was focussed on subversive female writing under censorship in Argentina and Uruguay. This summer I plan to continue exploring female oppression and resistance in Latin America’s southern cone by analysing the way in which the trope of ‘motherhood’ has been represented throughout Argentine history and culture. I was hoping to inform my investigation of argentine culture and female identity by visiting Buenos Aires to speak with academic experts, conduct interviews, and gain access through the Biblioteca Nacional, the Memorial Museum and the Evita museum, to primary sources unavailable in Europe. Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this plan impossible, but I am considering postponing my travel until 2021, whilst using four weeks of this summer to do all the preliminary academic research that would inform and enrich my fieldwork. Luckily, this part of my research project involves a lot of reading academic journals, books and historical research, which means that I will be able to do most of it from home, although access to resources might prove slightly more problematic than last year, when I had access to the phenomenal Senate House Latin American collection.
To keep me sane during such an uncertain time, I’ve been working alongside two school friends on a satirical website ‘Quaranzine’ where we aim to provide satire for social distancing. We’ve also recently branched out into videography and made our very own Quaranzine First Dates’ episode, which features outrageously awkward blind zoom dating!! Arming myself with humour and a sharp eye for potentially satirical material has really helped to subdue the terror and panic that triggering news headlines often provoke. My top tip for everyone struggling during quarantine is to remember the importance of having a laugh, and to actively attempt to look at the absurdity of our current situation with a sensible dose of humour. I do this through my writing, in pieces such as 'Is Bojo giving you mixed signals?' where I playfully made fun of the prime minister's ambiguous 'shape of a plan speech' and through my photoshop collages which sprinkle everyday news headlines with a bit of irony.