COVID-19 has cast a shadow that few of us could ever have imagined. Around the world, families are grieving, lives have been put on hold, finances are squeezed. The crisis is not yet over, but hopeful stories are emerging.

In a new series, we hear how individuals across the University community have coped with unexpected experiences, found new opportunities and are looking to the future.

Unable to set off on her MPhil fieldwork, Simone Eringfeld shifted her research to explore how students and academics at Cambridge could reimagine possible futures for the “post-coronial” university. She also hosts the Cambridge Quaranchats podcast, where she explores life under lockdown

“I was as ready as I could be to start my fieldwork in Uganda. Visa approved? Check. Flights to Kampala booked? Check. Malaria pills packed? Check. I had ticked all the necessary boxes, until the unforeseeable happened. Of all the potential hazards I had taken into account, I had never imagined that a virus called Corona would come along, like an uninvited party crasher.

The resulting global pandemic drew a big, bright-red cross through my perfectly ticked off to-do list. 

I was supposed to fly out on 21 March. Together with a local project manager, I had designed a collaborative, arts-based study to investigate issues around identity formation of young refugees within a Ugandan camp. At the end of the project, we planned to organise a large community exhibition.

Two days before my flight, I cancelled my fieldwork. In hindsight, it was the right decision. Soon after, the UK went into lockdown, coronavirus reached Uganda, and the Faculty of Education advised that any face-to-face research was no longer permitted.

I could hardly believe what was happening to the world. I also felt sad about losing my research topic. I wasn’t alone in feeling unsure how to move forward in my academic work, or stressed by the closure of the university and our Faculty buildings. Many of my peers had to leave in a rush, jumping on some of the last outgoing flights to reach home. Most of my classmates have had to make major adaptations to their research design, or even deal with full cancellation of their fieldwork, like me.

Yet amid this shared sense of chaos and confusion, my now highly dispersed student cohort has shown much resilience. During our group video calls, connecting us across the world, we take turns in sharing our feelings, worries and thoughts. There has been a true generosity in offering each other help to think through alternative research strategies, share resources and redesign digital methodologies.

"There is a popular Dutch phrase, which speaks of having een geluk bij een ongeluk. During the pandemic, I learnt the English equivalent: every cloud has a silver lining. I find it a surprisingly comforting image. Never before had I heard anyone use the phrase, but now they suddenly pop up in many conversations. Silver linings are everywhere, just give yourself time to start seeing them."

And so, I too have discovered new pathways forward. I took a step back to look at how the COVID-19 epidemic impacts not just my own master’s research, but education around the world and at all levels.

We are in the middle of some of the most radical, fast-paced shifts the field of education has ever seen, with rapid digitisation of teaching leading to new forms of teacher–student interaction, online learning and collaborative knowledge-making. Already we can see academic debates starting around the changed role of the university and the future of higher education in this new, digital context.

As a student and academic-to-be myself, I realised I am already standing in the middle of ‘the field’ without having even left my doorstep.

Newly inspired, I sent my supervisor a proposal to switch my topic to the COVID-19 crisis, which was approved. I am now researching and writing about the ways in which academia is experiencing the impact of COVID-19 on higher education, and how staff and students in Cambridge might reimagine the future of the “post-coronial” University.

Cambridge Quaranchats’ addresses a lot of these big questions. Each episode, I invite students and academics to talk about life, work and study under lockdown. The podcast is intended as a way of staying in touch and maintaining community, and hope and purpose have become important themes in many of the episodes.

What have I learned from my recent experiences? Research always comes with challenges, and at times they are simply beyond our control. Yet such limitations do not necessarily have to limit our creativity. On the contrary even, constraints can also serve as a source of new opportunities.

Adaptability, resilience and keeping a flexible mind are among some of the most valuable research skills in times of disaster. We should be proud of these skills – but developing them does not happen overnight. In an unprecedented crisis, we cannot expect ourselves to know how to adjust immediately, so be easy on yourself.

Prioritise self-care and take time to process your thoughts and feelings. You need headspace before new ideas can begin to enter."

Simone's personal website can be found here.

Simone has written a blog piece reflecting on a number of audiograms from various episodes of her podcast. Click here to read.

Words: Simone Eringfeld
Design: Zoe Smith
Photography: Nick Saffell/Simone Primarosa/Simone Eringfeld

Typography: Balvir Friers
Series Editor: Louise Walsh