St Andrews Can Do: Connection
Bubbles in the Bubble
“This event gave us a taste of what’s possible if we really work together to find safe ways to turn up for each other.”
Dr Monique Mackenzie, Assistant Vice-Principal (Provost)
More than 700 staff and students took part in a unique BYOB (Bring your own blanket) event, the first of its kind to be held on hallowed University ground. ‘Cocktails in the Quad’ marked the first week of Can Do events last October and was intended as a thank you to students and staff for the sacrifices they had made to protect the community since the outbreak of Covid-19.
The event, which saw St Salvator’s Quadrangle set out with socially distanced canopied mini-bars lit by giant fairy lights, was so popular that it sold out online within 16 minutes.
Guests – consisting of household bubbles – arrived wrapped up for the outdoor event, during which sparkling wine, warm non-alcoholic apple cider and cocktails were served. In order to comply with guidelines, and to ensure everyone’s safety, tables were fully disinfected between each thirty-minute setting. The special event was a typically team effort, led by professional staff in the ACE team (Accommodation, Conferences and Events), Environmental Health and Safety Services (EHSS), and the Security and Response team, in collaboration with the Students’ Association.
Even the inaugural signature cocktail, the ‘Spicy Scotsman’, was named via social media by one of our students, Isabel Remers.
She said: “I had a great time at the Can Do Cocktails, it really felt like one of the first University-wide events since the pandemic began, especially in the scenic location at the heart of the University.
“My friends and I found the event really safe and welcoming, a great end to our study-heavy Reading week.”
And even though the drinks were complimentary, more than £200 was collected for charities selected by the student body and supported by the Students’ Association Charities Campaign: The Scottish Association for Mental Health, Fife Rape and Sexual Assault Centre, and Choose Love Help Refugees.
Assistant Vice-Principal (Provost) Dr Monique Mackenzie, who attended the event with her two children, said: “This event gave us a taste of what’s possible if we really work together to find safe ways to turn up for each other. I’m amazed by the sheer brilliance and ingenuity of the students and colleagues who are making this happen. It’s an affirming adventure.”
“The offering of events and activities throughout the year has really helped people to feel part of St Andrews and helped to counteract some of the isolation, stress and upset caused by the current restrictions.”
Anna-Ruth Cockerham, SRC Disability Officer, Director of Wellbeing Elect and final year Maths student
“One of the main functions of our committee is bringing together a social community of disabled students, so we wanted to host Can Do events to give disabled students the chance to meet up in person. This seemed especially important given the social isolation so many of us have been experiencing throughout lockdowns and restrictions, so we wanted to make sure that disabled students could get out of the house and learn from each other.
“We hosted a few different kinds of events, including a documentary screening, an event crafting and learning about fiddle toys and stimming, and an event raising awareness of neurodivergent masking with Nightline. At first, we had a bit of difficulty coming up with ideas for things we could run within the social distancing guidelines, but later in the semester people seemed to be really enjoying our Can Do events and we collaborated with a few other groups like Nightline and the Wellbeing Committee to come up with some exciting ideas within the restrictions!
“People seemed to really like the opportunity to get out of the house and see other people, while learning about disability from each other. I think people especially valued the Can Do initiative because many disabilities can make it so difficult to communicate online or sit at a computer all day, so being able to communicate in person and get out of the house was very important.
“I attended a few other Can Do events, including some debates run by the Union Debating Society and some of the events run by the Wellbeing Committee. I found them all really enjoyable and it definitely helped Semester 1 feel a bit closer to ‘normal’. I especially liked the public debates because they were a great educational opportunity and I loved seeing some of our fantastic student speakers. The University Debating Society also committed to streaming their debates simultaneously online as well, which meant that students who weren’t in St Andrews could also watch along.
“Disability is wide-ranging and unfortunately many of us are at a greater risk from Covid-19. This meant quite a few disabled students weren’t in St Andrews or didn’t feel able to attend events in-person. This is combined with existing mobility difficulties and trouble getting around town that impact our ability to engage in society events in a normal year. Because of that, we felt it was important to run a combination of online and in-person events throughout the semester and this is something we hope to continue even post-Covid to maximise accessibility for disabled students (as well as other groups like commuting students or student carers).
“Some disabled students also have disabilities that make the current restrictions difficult, for example visual impairments which make it difficult to maintain social distancing, and various mask exemptions. We felt it was important to emphasise the support available for students in these situations and to work with them and other societies to ensure they could still get involved in all the activities on offer. We were really glad to see the University adopt the Sunflower Lanyard Scheme to support this, and we also got information from the Can Do team about the accessibility of the marquee which we shared with societies and students.
“I think it is easy to feel isolated or disheartened by the restrictions currently. Many students also might be struggling with the new style of learning, and this is a particular difficulty for disabled students. The offering of events and activities throughout the year has really helped people to feel part of St Andrews and helped to counteract some of the isolation, stress and upset caused by the current restrictions.”
Diversity in time of adversity
“The Can Do Marquee felt like for once, after months of needed restrictions to ensure our physical health, the University was also looking at the mental wellbeing of its students.”
Maria Rosana Correia, Events Officer for the BAME Students’ Network
In August 2020, The Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Students’ Network – originally formed in 2019 as an informal support group – became an official subcommittee of the Students’ Association. Already a close-knit community, the BAME Students’ Network decided to do what it could to support its members, who had been experiencing not just feelings of isolation but instances of racism in light of the outbreak of Covid-19.
Maria, a third year Medical student and Events Officer for the Network, spoke of the challenges facing BAME students and what they did to bring the community safely back together.
“These very uncertain times have had a toll on most students’ mental and physical wellbeing,” she said. “For students who flew in from all over the world back in September 2020, it has been extremely challenging to experience university – the teaching is remote, there is little to no contact with classmates, there are no spaces for safe socialisation or even to grab a coffee. For those who don’t have any contacts within town (and even those who do) it is extremely easy to become isolated, existing only inside our rooms and disengaged from the rest of the community.
“While integration into a new space is difficult enough (for new students), the current circumstances have particularly affected BAME students furthermore, and concerns of racism (particularly against Asian students in light of the pandemic) and isolation continue to affect students whether within or outside St Andrews.
“While being better than no activities or no contact, not everyone is comfortable or even able to join the events online and, from our perspective (as students who lived through the so-called normal times), it is quite saddening to think so many students aren’t able to experience what we had.
“The Can Do Marquee felt like for once, after months of needed restrictions to ensure our physical health, the University was also looking at the mental wellbeing of its students. I heard of people using it as a space to have safe socialisation and, as the Events Officer, I looked forward to taking full advantage of the facility with multiple ideas in mind.”
In addition to organising events – including a ‘crash course’ for BAME freshers – for the BAME Students’ Network, Maria attended an academic family gathering of her own.
“Having interactions that go beyond crossing paths in town felt extra special,” she said. “That was also the only time we got to truly ‘meet’ as a committee (even if in a partial capacity), and it felt so heart-warming to interact with other members who I’d been working with ‘virtually’ for months.”
Organising an event was a challenge, not only due to the pandemic, but also because the committee was only a couple of months old and had never previously met in person.
“There was this feeling of lacking a community,” Maria explained… “and with a good portion of the committee being from a minority background and having struggled to meet other diverse students, it just made sense to create a safe space to bring together our community. St Andrews is not known for its cultural diversity and for ethnic minority students it is through events targeting our demographics that we often get to meet other people we share experiences and interests with. Being physically apart only exacerbates the feelings of isolation.”
“There have been a lot of online events but these easily become tiring and in a weird way remind us the house and physically meeting other people – it offers a sense of normality and almost serves as motivation to get through the online lectures and all the work.
“For the freshers in our network, there is this common feeling of missing out on their first year and not being able to build friendships. For the students who are graduating, a lot of us had very high expectations for this year, it was meant to be the year some of us would get involved in more societies, club sports, go to all the balls and make the most of our time in St Andrews.
“The barriers to social life are only made larger for those who have not been able to return to St Andrews and are miles away from the ‘bubble’, often feeling excluded from all the little efforts we keep making to maintain our sense of community. As hard as we try, the different time zones in which many of our members are meant that there will always be people unable to join us (and we have to coordinate online events with our timetables).”
With everyone from freshers to final year students taking part in the BAME crash course on a cold and rainy evening, the feedback was ‘very positive’, with participants being surprised at the sense of community that was quickly created during the events.
“Within minutes there was a sense of familiarity and it was hard to get people to leave the space as everyone was so warmly involved in conversation and getting to know other students. This event was particularly rewarding because it really helped promote friendship and a sense of community that is particularly hard to come about as ethnic minority students.”
From general information about student life to specific help on where to get ethnic produce or braids, the session also showcased some of the cultural societies BAME students can get involved with, as well as general discussion around University culture and life during a pandemic.
“Almost everyone left the Freshers’ event as part of a group and having met new people – this was the most rewarding part and made the efforts to organise the event, publicise and run it feel 100% worth it,” Ananya said.
“Students knew that the precautions required to keep us and the wider community safe were in place within this space which really had an impact as we all feel responsible for those around us and ultimately the healthcare system. Being able to physically share a space felt like a little sparkle of hope in a year that otherwise was so abnormal and socially isolating.”
Ananya Jain, who shares Presidential duties with Aïda-Léna Ndiaye, attended two events organised by the Art Society; the first a jewellery making workshop and the other a revision week collaboration with the BAME Students’ Network called ‘Destress and Draw’.
Ananya, a third year Art History and English student, said: “We invited people to make portraits of strangers who attended and used that as a way to enable socially distant social interaction during a break from studying. The events also provided relief from the virtual space and gave people some time off from the chaotic routine [of study] by engaging in a creative practice. Both the events were lovely and went well, enabling us to see familiar and new faces after what seemed like an eternity.”
Can Do Crustaceans
“We thought the launch of the Can Do initiative was a great opportunity to show what the Museums ‘Can Do’.”
Ellen Fenton, Museums
Initially planned as part of the installation of Philips Colbert’s headline exhibition Philip Colbert: The Death of Marat and the Birth of the Lobster for the opening of the Wardlaw Museum in April 2020, the lobster made a special guest appearance to kick off the ‘Can Do’ approach.
Ellen Fenton, Head of Experience and Engagement for Museums, explained: “A lot of work had gone into getting the necessary planning done, and we thought the launch of the Can Do initiative was a great opportunity to show what the Museums ‘Can Do’, what the University ‘Can Do’ and what Philip Colbert ‘Can Do’. We wanted to surprise people, to cheer them up, to get them talking and to make sure they knew this fantastic exhibition was on the horizon.”
Months in the planning and led by Exhibitions Curator Claire Robinson alongside colleagues in Estates, the biggest challenge was ensuring a giant inflatable lobster with a packed weight of 200k was not carried away by unseasonable gusts of over 24mph. Happily, after lengthy discussions between Museums, Estates, Security and EHSS and onsite wind checks on the day of inflation, the wind dropped and the sun shone for opening day on 21 October 2020.
Ellen continued: “We had a real variety of responses – both in person and on social media – the main thing was it got people talking and it made most people laugh. We really wanted to surprise people – Philip’s work juxtaposes traditional art historical imagery with modern popular culture, and what better way to embody this than a giant lobster in the centre of an ancient University?”
Christmas in the time of Covid
“As word of free food spread, we started to have a (distanced) queue forming outside before opening each day.”
Tom Groves, Director of Events and Services (Students’ Association)
In December 2020, the Union Sabbatical Officers were approached by the University for some novel – and Covid-safe – ideas for how to use a significant donation. The donor had one stipulation: funds were intended to support students who remained in St Andrews over Christmas, whether by choice or through pandemic restrictions.
After a quick brainstorm with the Can Do team, with ideas such as an ice rink and a socially distanced street party on North Street raised, the answer was the simplest and most practical one: free food, served in a Covid-safe Union environment.
Working closely with the ACE team and Can Do colleagues, the approach required a significant amount of preparation, from tracking down student bar staff still in town to working out how to operate a takeaway service, which was a first for the Union.
Tom Groves, Director of Events and Services (Students’ Association), said: “We had no idea how many people would turn up on the first day, but we were well prepared – besides running out of onion rings. As word of free food spread, we started to have a (distanced) queue forming outside before opening each day.
“The response was very positive, with some students saying free food was the only reason they left their room over break, and we set up a ‘thank you’ wall for students to send a note to all the staff and donors who made it happen.”
Offering a range of options throughout December, including a full Christmas dinner, around 200 free meals a day were provided, with around 70 students spending their Christmas Day in the Union. As an additional perk, The Kilted Caricaturist was on hand to draw free caricatures of visitors to the Union.
In an anonymous message on the thank you wall, one student said: “This was my first Christmas away from my family, and your hospitality helped the holidays to feel more warm and cheery. I know the free meals have impacted so many lives for the better.”
Although the Association building was forced to close briefly due to Government restrictions, the service reopened mid-January, this time with Residential and Business Services (RBS) managing an outdoor collection point for an ever-increasing number of returning students. In just 11 short days, until the service ended on 22 January, an incredible 3200 free takeaway meals were provided to students.
One Piper Piping
As the temperatures dropped and students began their journeys home – where possible – a flurry of festive Can Do activities was arranged for those remaining in town.
One initiative saw local Piper Paul Webster play his way around town in the three days before Christmas. Wearing his finest Santa baseball cap and tinsel-topped pipes, Paul toured several Halls of Residence as well as a local care home, playing traditional music alongside some Christmas favourites. As well as attracting the attention of care home residents from the window of their dayroom, Paul managed to coax some postgraduate students outside into the garden of Deans Court.
Social Events Manager for ACE, Amanda Howley, was with Paul as he piped his way around town: “I have organised many events over the years, but never resulting in the pride I felt today. From the residents of the care home clapping along to the Christmas tunes on the bagpipes, smiling and waving at us, to students dancing at their windows, staff clapping along, students coming outside to listen to the pipes and waking up one student who came out in her pyjamas to get her photograph taken with the piper, as a team we have created such a positive impact.”
Meanwhile, at Gannochy House, one undergraduate student – Nevena Tsaneva – was inspired to write a poem:
this year equals seven
and not just for dogs
i spent them all thinking of leaving,
of rushing to arrive elsewhere,
since life here has turned on me
and into a rotating carousel for displaying postcards,
in robust yet sterile images
in landscapes and portraits of
well-known and recurring views,
in them i wake and it is the same season
i, a prisoner more than a subject
the same sky the same scents the same air
as time for the photographed only lags
believing in one’s youth does not make you entitled to live it
the universe does not have to deliver on what you decided was a promise
but when the year ends
and with it the seven it equals
the prophets say (at this point i trust
all carrying hope and signify them as sacred
for they have faith and that is hard to carry)
some part of me will unlock from the panoramas
from all the little photos hanging on my wall
no other choice but to remain impatient
for when life rushes in once more
and not letting myself forget
to be implacable is to be alive