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Covid at Cambridge

Covid at Cambridge

Having completed an internship with our company, student of Japanese studies at Selwyn College (pictured) Helena reflects here on how Covid-19 is impacting her generation at Cambridge University.

It is undeniable that Covid19 has affected the way we interact with the world. With the rise of video conferences and webinars, the ever-present social distance can make it hard to stay positive about what is to come. As a third-year Japanese studies student at the University of Cambridge, Covid-19 has also impacted my degree and university life in different ways. I see this experience as a student during the pandemic as a chance to re-evaluate the negativity surrounding the situation by looking at topics such as opportunity, education and community.

For most language students in the UK the third year of their degree is a ‘Year Abroad’ which is spent in the country of their target language. As such, I was also expecting to move to Japan for almost 11 months to study at Rikkyo University in Tokyo. Unfortunately, Japan was one of the countries which completely closed its borders to anyone who does not hold a Japanese passport regardless of residency status. Navigating this situation was certainly a challenge as faculties worked incessantly in order to provide students with safe and suitable alternatives to their travels. In terms of language, my own faculty were able to introduce us to an online culture and conversation course with Akita International University, in which I met other international students and also Japanese students. We discussed topics such as how our lives and personalities differed depending on culture, but always reached the conclusion that Covid-19 had forced us to adapt in the same ways. Whilst my studies require focusing on cultural differences, the responses to the virus have been similar and widespread across many different countries, and it is encouraging to see educational institutions offer their solidarity to not just their students but those abroad. My plans for the rest of the year further underline this, as I am yet to begin attending lessons at a language school in Kyoto and university lectures from Rikkyo University.

This solidarity applies to other types of communities as well, which in my case is most noticeable within my Cambridge college, Selwyn. Usually bustling with activity from all the teachers, students and staff that live there during the year, due to lockdown it was required that everyone stay home during the final term. All lectures, seminars, events and even exams were moved online. Although classes proceeded smoothly, the sense of community was more difficult to replicate. Selwyn holds many events and has many active societies which help the students be engaged in life outside academia. For example, the Linguistics Society often holds dinners and hosts speakers who work in different language-related fields. This time it was the students who had to find solutions and alternatives. How were we going to make connections and decisions about our future plans from home? What skills are going to be more important from now on? Most importantly, how do we find the opportunities to hone those skills? A very useful answer to this lies in online internships. Being exposed as an intern to how different industries have tackled Covid-19 is a first step in learning what the future holds for us.

Personally, I was able to undertake an internship at Gideon Franklin Ltd. during the month of September, which allowed me to find out how different professionals were dealing with working from home whilst learning about the many processes involved in M&A.  I was also able to hear from those professionals how they had forged their careers, which showed me the diversity of paths that one can take in order to achieve their goals and how a Japanese Studies degree can be used to work in various fields. By the end of my internship, I felt that I had acquired new skills and knowledge, from business email etiquette to learning about the different stock markets in Tokyo. I was able to gain confidence and realised that opportunities such as this are still available amidst the pandemic, showing us how to learn and adapt at the same time.

We are used to reading about these kinds of crises in fiction books or academic articles as outsiders, looking to have someone explain the situation using reason and thought-out arguments. ‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus has seen a rise in sales during Covid-19, illustrating our reliance on literature to perceive the world around us. Now more than ever we have been forced to realise that we play a role in how these narratives will be perceived in the future. As such, a good literary analogy going forward is the common theme within Japanese literature of cherry blossoms. To quote Selwyn fellow Dr Vicky Young, ‘’the fleeting appearance of these flowers is regarded by many as a symbolic reminder of life in all its complex beauty and transience’’. Whilst uncertainty may loom above us for a while yet, this is a good chance to recognise the importance of seizing opportunity and appreciating the connections that we have and continue to make, even through our screens.


Author: Helena Santos Aleman


Pictures of Selwyn College taken by the Master