How the pandemic brought us together

Not quite Coronation Street

They say distance makes the heart grow fonder and up until now, I’ve been fortunate enough to never truly understand the gravity of that statement.

I’ve felt that stomach-dropping pain of absence more regularly in the last 18 months than ever before. I haven’t seen my dad in 8 months (which seems even longer thanks to his cancer). I haven’t seen my sisters in over a year. I haven’t seen my best friends for that long, either. We spent our first Christmas in our home without our family.

I’m not just missing the people still here with us today (albeit not physically), but also the ones long departed. It’s given me the time to really think about those closest to me. To appreciate what they add, or added, to my life: the joy, the laughter, the fun and the wisdom imparted on me each time I’ve been in their company.

So, how can we be closer together? Hear me out.

Each time I’m in the company of my loved ones – entirely through FaceTime – I’m conscious of absorbing more of their ‘being’. I listen a little more, ask another question, am more present in their presence.

It’s easy to take things around us for granted. I did this whilst living in Devon and now I’m away I can’t wait to get back to the small-town life I once grew tired of – to the things that so quaintly never change, to the people I’ve depended on forever.

On a wider scale, there’s so much I’ve learned that’s brought me more in tune with the world:

Young people have been given the chance to be grateful for education – and can acknowledge how much they don’t want to lose it

We appreciate the freedom of travel and our ability to explore the world at our leisure

The Black Lives Matter movement taught us to see life from another person’s perspective

The spotlight on the NHS taught me to truly respect the immense pressure our healthcare providers are under every single day

Our 17:00 briefings with the government – no matter our individual views – taught me the colossal decisions made on our behalf which dictate so much of our lives

My job in the Life Science industry taught me about the importance of intelligent individuals who push scientific development, and save our lives by doing so

I thought about the hundreds of thousands of elderly people who go weeks without speaking to another person

We admire the work of the brilliant people working in education and will never again undervalue the time it takes to educate young people

We understood both how much we rely on small businesses, and how much they rely on our custom

We became thankful for the stability in our lives: be it family members, our homes, or our jobs

We became aware of the journey our food travels before getting to our plates

We learned not to take for granted the pure joy we get from socialising

We thought about how much we rely on one another

We cherished the natural world

We value the life around us

I hope we continue to remember these lessons long after we’ve got ‘normal’ life back.

Back to university

An accurate depiction of lecture halls in 2020

When I started my Open University degree in 2015, nobody could have predicted that 5 years later, online study would be pretty much the only option across the whole of the UK. Open University must be leading the way for many other universities in how to move all lectures and activities online… Perhaps now OU will start getting some of the recognition it deserves.

The concept of online study always receives mixed reviews: some don’t class it as a ‘real’ degree, others think it’s easy. But when it comes to an employer interviewing one candidate with 6 years’ work experience and an OU degree in contrast to another candidate who spent three years sleeping their way through lectures, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who they’ll choose.

I chose to study Psychology and, by taking seven years to finish my BSc, continue to meander my way through all kinds of different sub-disciplines – much like a 7 course taster menu – to decide which area I could see myself pursuing a career in. I’ve also experienced three very different job roles since 2015, identifying what I do and don’t want to do in the future 9-5. By comparing areas of study and work that I love (and most definitely hate), I’ve got a strong idea of my strengths and weaknesses and where these are best utilised professionally.

Joining the OU just after leaving sixth form gave me the headspace to focus on developing a career but without the all-encompassing ‘university experience’. There was no way Freshers Week and I would have ever worked out. Instead, I worked in a beautiful local cafe in Devon before getting my first ‘proper job’ at a Sixth Form, so really, there was no escaping education at all back then. This role taught me so much about the education system: how teachers really are just people (although it was still weird having the people that were my teachers becoming my colleagues), the challenges students go through each day and how beneficial strong networks within an educational setting can help them, and also that educational psychology – where I’d envisioned my career taking me – most definitely wasn’t for me.

Moving through my degree, I’ve been exposed to subjects that have sparked a huge passion within me. This is the beauty of OU: you learn at a time of your life that works for you, and you have the desire – and maturity – to continue to do so. Right now, starting my fifth out of sixth year, I’m excited to continue to learn and cultivate the niche part of Psychology that I’ll stay excited about.

I’ve met an incredibly broad range of people through studying with the OU – an experience somewhat limited at brick universities because you’re surrounded by people who haven’t really created their identities yet. Working with such different types of people is eye-opening and useful for understanding different perspectives: some students are in their 70s and bring a wholly unique perspective of the world than I could ever have thought of. Others are parents whose children have left home, who are looking to pursue a career at a time of their lives which is right for them. Some are disabled and not able to attend ‘brick’ universities. This diversity is incredible and a refreshing part of the university experience.

Nevertheless, OU study still has its challenges. There is little option to work with other students and the idea of brainstorming is almost non-existent because of minimised face-to-face interaction. Facebook groups and forums do help, but there are fewer ‘eureka’ moments that only truly come from engaging in literal discussion on a topic. It’s easy to forget that tutors and other students are people behind a screen, because – as we all know – words online can be taken in the wrong way. This becomes especially true when an assignment comes back with ‘constructive criticism’ that only reads to be harsh without the verbal communication needed to explain its meaning fully.

In the current climate where nearly all university students are interacting with their studies online, I hope there is a change of perspective of the hundreds of thousands of students – and tutors – who’ve always learned or taught in this way. I hope students consider how the convenience of OU study could improve their opinion of academia and perhaps open doors earlier than they’d be opened should brick university remain the only option. Mostly, though, I hope OU students get the respect they deserve from their brick university counterparts. Now, we’re all in this together.

Mental Health in Lockdown

It’s in your hands

As someone who has notoriously struggled to prioritise improving my own mental health, I’ve always been great at finding welcome distractions to ensure it’s never at the top of my list. But, deprived of interruptions through lock-down, I gave time toย think about the way I think.

What I found wasnโ€™t great.

Working in a high-pressure environment and generally putting high pressure on myself in life, I learned I thrive off nervous energy (and black coffee), only feel I’m succeeding when working myself to the bone, and had stopped giving attention to hobbies Iโ€™ve always loved.

Lock-down meant I had no choice but to slow down. Spend weekends in. Have hours with nothing whatsoever to do. At first this meant panicking about not being productive and definitely drinking too much wine. Lately though, I’ve made a conscious effort to get back to old hobbies and find excitement in doing things I’ve always loved.

So many people are going through hardship and I imagine many feel the way I have: burnt out, stressed, nervous of what this pandemic means for our lives long term. Without realising, these thoughts can take over, removing the ability to find the positive.

I wanted to share some methods which helped me re-focus my mind-set and seek to find something good in each day, no matter how small.

What’s helped me see the good:

 ‘Positive emails’ inbox: My job involves a lot of highs and a lot of lows, meaning appreciation always goes a long way. Since joining BJ in 2018, I’ve started saving positive emails into a folder. When having a hard day I spend time reading these and reminding myself of times my colleagues and managers have gone out of their way to tell me I’m doing well.

– The ‘good things’ list: I was recently reminded of some really great things that had happened lately which I’d totally lost sight of in amongst colossal negatives in the world. It shocked me how easily I’d let these positives pass me by. Now, I give 5 minutes a week to think of at least 5 things which have happened in the last 7 days which were positive or that I’m proud of.

 Look around: Maybe lock-down has given you time to redecorate. Maybe you cleaned the windows for the first time since moving into your apartment (guilty). Maybe you nailed a job application, or finished a first draft of a CV. Maybe you binge-watched the entirety of Money Heist in four days (also guilty). Remind yourself of what you achieve every day and high-five yourself for it.

– Gratitude: There’s been a lot of anger lately. But there’s also been a lot of thanks. I’m so grateful for my partner making sure I eat lunch everyday and I’m thankful for my big sister who makes me laugh with daily videos of her home-schooling my nephew. Remind yourself of the people who bring positivity into your life without even trying.

– Hobbies that are just yours: I’ve found a new love of jigsaws, rejuvenated the love I get from writing, and go barely a few hours without reading some of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five (yes I bought all 20 books). Find/rejuvenate a hobby that you only need yourself to do. My guilty pleasure is Wasgij puzzles and Talk Radio on a Saturday night.

These have been a small selection of things which have worked for me. In no way do I mean for this to take away from the impact of what has been a monumentally challenging few months, but I hope that it provides some support to those out there who need it.

For anybody struggling with their mental health, please reach out to one of the following resources: