The last year on campus

A bit over a year ago, our campus has completely shut down. It’s been quite a stressful situation with lots of changes and uncertainty. Lots of countries around the world have started their lockdowns much earlier while we have kept coming to work for considerable time longer. I was working on a few ambitious experiments and finally started gathering some results for my PhD. And then, almost out of the blue, the university shut down within just a few days.

The university actually shut down slightly earlier than the national lockdown came. I received a special permission from the head of the department to finish my running experiments. But most of work stopped within 2-3 days. A few days later, I needed to stop my experiments too as the national lockdown prevented having PhD research not directly related to the COVID vaccine. One of my colleagues actually stayed in the lab, all alone, and worked on the vaccine (although that stream of work didn’t end up in the final vaccine version).

I had a few extra challenges as someone who works in student halls. Our hall was chosen to provide accommodation for NHS workers due to our proximity to a hospital. We were receiving mixed messages about the future of our accommodation. For a while, it seemed they would move us all to halls on campus. In the end, it was decided only 2/3 of our building would be used for NHS workers and the remaining students and workers were moved to the other part. Belongings of students in the other part were securely stored.

Then, we have all spent lots of long weeks sitting at home. It’s been very challenging time not knowing what would happen, when are we allowed to return to work and how that would impact our studies. I had very hard time adjusting, being already slightly overworked and very tired, I couldn’t keep up with work and having any sort of leisure to compensate it wouldn’t be possible. That probably sparked some of my later problems. I actually stayed in bed with some virus illness just 2 days after I have finished moving. A few people I have spent time with had something similar and some typical symptoms of COVID-19. But we wouldn’t get tested back then. Luckily, I recovered quickly, and got some food left in front of my room door. I was OK after 2 days but needed to isolate for 7 which was for the most part an interesting contrast with the hectic weeks beforehand. On the other hand, the last 2 days were already quite frustrating on a tiny room with little natural light.

After 2-3 months, my work started reopening. Week by week, the supervisors could recommend more people to be given access to work. Our department was one of the first ones to restart work. It wasn’t as difficult as some other departments as we still had people working on the vaccine keeping the basic facilities going. I was luckily one of the first ones as I needed to get lots of experiments done. There was a lot of rules. We had to wear masks everywhere, wash hands a lot, book benches spaced 2m apart, keep 2m from everyone else. Lift would only take one person, staircases were divided into two halves. Office time needed to be minimised to a quick lunch. Lots of things were trialled and feedback taken. But those ground rules stayed pretty much unchanged till now. We got some breakout spaces we can use for lunch, we rebuilt the lab to create more 2m-spaced workplaces. Luckily, our research could continue through the further lockdowns. After many months, even one person who does a computational project was allowed to return. That was because he barely had functioning internet at home.

This way, we have battled through all the lockdowns. Not much else was going on on campus. Some cafés and food shops could open. For a brief period in autumn, student clubs were allowed to train sports outside, lend equipment or meet up outside in small groups. That was then quickly closed again in November. Now, finally, we are starting to see more reopening also from the student union perspective. Recently, our student clubs started cautiously meeting again for sports and casual chats in small groups. It seems we will be able to go to a pub in mid-April together and sit outside. And maybe the final 4-5 weeks of this final term would even host some usual caving weekend trips I love so much. Who knows, but there is some optimism. Our caving club traditionally goes to a big caving expedition in the summer for 5 weeks to Slovenia. For a long time, nobody dared to even think of it but now discussions emerged that maybe we could go for a short one in the later summer. Getting abroad for it will be a big challenge but with the good vaccination rates and restrictions lifting, we are starting to see a lot more optimism around. Let’s hope it’s justified and we can already enjoy our summer. For me, I am looking forward to a bit long break somewhere outdoors!


Cover photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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