Bouncing Back: Building Community and Fostering Belonging
By IOE Digital, on 10 August 2022
By Alex Wong, Social Sciences BSc
Starting my university journey in the middle of a global pandemic was not what I had in mind as I touched down (on a mostly empty flight) at Heathrow. I had never felt more out of sync in my life, lugging around my suitcases like a lifeline. The sharp contrast between reality and my ideal university life only served to magnify what I felt was missing from this new chapter – meeting new people, exploring a foreign place, while immersing myself in an academically rigorous program. Instead, the year passed by in a blur of lockdowns, zoom classes and monotony. One thing I did learn is that it is difficult to feel upbeat when the sun sets at 4pm as you’re watching from your window waiting for a takeout.
Another thing I learnt is that feelings of isolation and missed opportunities rarely just ‘go away.’ Returning to UCL as a Year 2 student, I was confident in the institution’s ability to reinstate the ‘new normal’ and felt emboldened to make the most of my time as an on-campus student. Through in-person activities, I strove to bond with my peers, many of whom I was meeting for the first time. More often than not, conversations would drift to our first year experiences, the amount of time that was taken from us to make new friends, connections and memories. I was amazed by the extent to which I could empathise with those accounts. This sparked a period of introspection, compelling me to aspire to make up for lost time not just for myself, but also for other students in the department.
My hopes came to fruition after reaching out to the Social Research Institute (SRI) departmental staff, who actively supported this initiative. They, along with the Year 3 students, pointed me in the direction of an existing departmental society that was started by even earlier batches of Social Sciences students, who started it in hopes of creating a communal space for students to socialise and collectively further their interests in the social sciences. Reviving the society culminated in a round of elections, in which I became the president. Along with my new team, we wanted the society to once more become a platform for all SRI students to reach out to one another. As the year progressed, it became evident that creating a sense of student belonging was even more challenging than anticipated. Since the department had expanded to include a new undergraduate course in Sociology the year I matriculated, we needed to redefine the former “social sciences” to ensure it remained inclusive for all.
Between classes and assignments, the society planned social activities for students, even collaborating with course representatives. The biggest – and most perhaps most daunting – project the departmental society volunteered to help with was the dissertation festival, an in-person event jointly organised with the department towards the end of the year for the first time since 2019, before the pandemic. Its purpose was to provide an opportunity for the entire department to come together to congratulate the graduating batch for finishing their dissertations. We invited these students to present their dissertations, while encouraging others to attend and listen in, perhaps even to draw inspiration for their own dissertations. The department planned for a full day programme: a keynote speech from an alumnus, a panel discussion with inspiring individuals and finally, a small celebration to mark the end of the festival.
Amidst university deadlines, the society spent their time planning decorations, food, and games with staff members. On the eve and actual day of the event, we recruited volunteers to help put up decorations and guide attendees around the main campus. The event was a heartening moment that marked the culmination of an extraordinary batch of undergraduate students, who overcame multiple obstacles throughout their time here at UCL. Personally, it was a privilege to be involved in the ups-and-downs of planning. Through it, my role in the society dovetailed with my personal goals of creating a community and sense of belonging within the department for both myself and my peers. Without the immense support of those around me, it would have been impossible to juggle both my academic and society responsibilities. It was a relief to know that I was never alone and through it all, many of my peers were willing to make sacrifices for this event. Be it cutting out letters and blowing balloons for half a day or coming to campus at eight in the morning to start preparations, the reality of the close-knit community that was created exceeded what I could have imagined.
I believe that more concerted efforts should continue to be made to create a supportive community within the SRI. My unforgettable experiences thus far with the revival of the departmental society and the planning of the dissertation festival has shown me that it is possible to bounce back from less-than-ideal circumstances. Together with other students, we have continued to put in suggestions to improve students’ experiences in the SRI. Without revealing too much, I am looking forward to the continued support that my department has provided and what my final year as an undergraduate student at UCL has to offer.