By Francesca Lombardo.
I thought about it for a long time, and I concluded there is no right or wrong way to tell my experience because it is mine and therefore unique. I am a fourth-year student and amongst those thousands that expected anything but a worldwide pandemic and subsequent quarantine.
In the beginning, I was scared. The world did not know what kind of virus China was dealing with. COVID-19 seemed to have been spreading only there and thus was perceived as something far away from Europe. However, less than a month later, the outbreak in Italy happened. I did not know what to think. My family and my long-time friends lived there; my sister was working in Lombardy, the region where the outbreak started, and most of my Italian friends in Aberdeen were going home straight after the news broke. I tried to keep my usual routine at university with my friends and my partner, but to be honest, I could not shrug the worry and dread off my mind.
My family was at risk, and sooner or later, the virus would arrive in the UK as well. You could feel the shift in the air. The normal facade that everybody was trying to maintain while waiting for something to change. Then, whispers of a lockdown began to be spread around, and the university started sending us emails with daily updates on the virus situation. One of those emails was about the cancellation of the June graduation ceremonies. At first, I thought it was too much to be thinking so far ahead, but then came the realisation that, given the uncertainty of the worldwide situation, it was only fair to make such a decision. This only added to the stress that already built up from the pressure of studying for my final courses and writing my dissertation, all while making decisions about my future. What really hit me was that no matter what, no matter how many plans you make, there will always be unexpected events that are out of your control.
I had already planned everything for my last year. During the last term, I would be focusing on applying for Master’s and writing up my dissertation. I had already bought the jumpsuit that I would wear to my graduation ceremony; I was going to book my parents’ flight tickets and decide which restaurant to go to after the ceremony. I was dreaming about the day I would get to celebrate with all of my friends. Instead, I had to pack all of my things and leave my flat in Aberdeen within two days – and two weeks before the original move out date – and couldn’t even say goodbye to my friends before we were all gone.
The following weeks had been filled with rage at the government’s inability to take actions while watching my country pay the price of not having set up lockdown measures earlier. The worry over my loved ones and the feeling of frustration that it was not right that my final months at university had to go this way. The feeling of dread when deciding to stay in the UK, instead of going home, because I did not want to add to the risk of getting the virus while travelling and thus give it to my family once arriving at home.
Living in this constant fear and stress did not make it easy to write the thesis. Thankfully, the business school had previously granted me an extension and later changed the format of submission so that we could submit our thesis online, and no hard copy was required anymore. With that came the realisation that a thing as simple as taking a picture with your dissertation in your hands, usually taken in front of King’s College, like so many others have done before, was not a possibility anymore. Not even exchanging a proper goodbye with my friends. Leaving Aberdeen was quick, painful, and surreal. Even submitting the thesis online did not feel like the big accomplishment I expected it to be. Despite all the struggles, the challenge of always being at home and focusing on the work to do, I still managed, recognising the luck of not being in self-isolation alone but with my partner and flatmates. Some days, I would just check my phone every five minutes, as soon as a new notification came up, usually from the latest news on the increased number of COVID-19 cases. Other times, I would try to keep myself busy by reading a book, watching a movie or cooking. We are living in an unprecedented time. There have been numerous pandemics in the past, but they did not have the constant bombardment of news or the easiness to get the groceries and anything deemed necessary. They did not have the advancements in science and technology that allow scientists to work for the creation of a vaccine and people to keep in touch so fast and easy. There is still a bright side to look at.
I know this is a very personal experience, but by sharing this I hope to reach all those students who were left empty by this year at university, who felt their thesis was not the greatest achievement they expected or wanted it to be and who are alone and are worrying or grieving about their loved ones. Let me tell you, you did wonderfully. Under all this pressure and uncertainty, you still did great. For all of you that are alone and feel overwhelmed, please reach out. It is okay for our mental health not to be at its greatest, to feel anxious and worried. Let us all remember that this is not an everlasting situation. It will end, and we will get back to our normal lives, albeit slowly and maybe with some difficulties. Changed yes, but still carrying on.