Student life in a time of chaos

posted in: Social innovation | 0
Beautiful view of colorful stairs of Batu caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Pivoting lifestyles towards a positive mindset

For the last three years I have been studying International Business; a subject which in passing may sound dense with its vague title, however, it holds extensive meaning within its context and our society. In September 2019, I chose to study abroad in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to fully understand international business beyond its theoretical realms – bound by an abundance of academic writers with differing perspectives. Here, I found true independence away from home comforts and its distractions, and with that I found new a type of comfort in the way I worked.

A Malaysian lifestyle to a pandemic stricken UK

Malaysia was a year of sunshine, surrounded by bright and friendly locals and a warming culture. After two years in bustling, cold Edinburgh, making sense of university and city life, Malaysia proved a place for me to reconsolidate the love for my course. The reasons I chose business were becoming blurred through what felt like a never-ending series of hoops to jump through. An unknown territory provided a lifestyle change; the opportunity of endless hours under the Malaysian sun to read and experience new cultures by travelling around Asia at the weekends revealed what I wanted to do after university finished by finding what I truly enjoyed learning distraction-free.

The outbreak of a global pandemic seemed to us international students a news story which would disappear into the ether; however, within days the control of the pandemic was deteriorating in the UK, and borders were shutting. Calm turned to chaos. Everyday normal was overtaken by a new normal, which was defined by the fear and predicted impact of COVID-19. Within days I had to pack my flat, terminate my student visa and return to the UK, an unrecognisable UK which regardless of our stresses and woes had developed into a state of apocalyptic uproar in its atmosphere and increasing in its severity by the day.

Isolation separated from our everyday routines occurred in a way that resembled a sporadic clean-cut breakup. Acclimatising back home in the Isle of Arran, an oasis away from the chaotic UK mainland, allowed me to recognise that with the uncertainty of how our futures I needed to endeavour to adjust my life to have space for the inevitable stresses.


The experience of studying and taking exams during a global pandemic surprised me. In a world of chaos, we are expected to find clarity and focus in a space that currently embodies none of these prerequisites of productivity. To excel in exams and to be in an optimal mindset to volunteer with an organisation on the frontier of changemaking, I had to find a newfound sense of focus to cope with an extreme adjustment across every facet.

The world was in a global crisis and adjusting to an alternate lifestyle, weather, time, and light, all things I had originally glazed over in its importance, I now found that in reality, it was these ‘mundane’ factors which are the foundations to our productivity. Part of working at home, whether it be studying or employment, is to be able to best utilise the time we have: I found that it feels like we have all the time in the world but the days are filled with distractions, ones we wouldn’t typically face. I found bursts of productivity in an otherwise hectic day, waking up at 6am for full focus and studying outside, to ground myself day by day as the effects of the pandemic affected our society.

In early January (pre-pandemic), I interviewed to be a volunteer intern at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. This opportunity would become invaluable to my graduate opportunities, enabling me to build new skills I had previously not been able to gain through university teachings. Lingering concerns amongst the student body was evident throughout the semester with an ever-flowing stream of interviews, online tests to secure summer internships, which to penultimate year university students are like gold dust. Feelings of angst surrounding internships and summer placement only intensified as industry-leading firms and businesses were cancelling placements and internships. Luckily, and rare in its occurrence, the Centre’s internship pivoted to take the form of a remote position where all training, operations, and tasks were on an online basis.

A first day in COVID-19

The trajectory of expectations for what a first day typically involves has changed for the foreseeable future. Indeed, anxieties of the first day like introductions to a new team and inevitable concerns over integration still exist, however, with new developments. Old considerations (planning the commute to work, etc.) have been replaced with new ones; now we consider how our Wi-Fi connection will hold over Zoom to facilitate cohesive communications, a challenging collaboration of family schedules, and the volume and the inevitable interruptions around the house like dogs barking at the postman! Trivial worries in the world, which is facing critical issues, nevertheless these fill our minds, in an environment where we have endless time to overthink. The expectations I had surrounding what volunteering would allow me to experience, resided in developing collaborative perspectives of social problems and the innovators seeking to create social change and additionally build practical skills in content creation to share such developments. In what followed was, I grasped, the fact that in times like these while emotional intelligence and practical skills are fundamental, morale is the fundamental base of a team.

Isle of Arran

By working in an inclusive team that thrived within a positive virtual workplace, I found – while located hundreds of miles away from the Centre – that I have never felt more motivated and encouraged in the workplace to research and create content to share newly pioneered, socially innovative ideas and practices. Through embracing the technological evolution of our roles, the team engaged in daily meetings and individual updates. I feel I am collaboratively adding to a bigger scale of change through content creation in comparison to achieving goals on an individual basis. Alongside a cohesive team spirit, striking a solid harmonisation of a healthy work/life balance, one which would more naturally occur in a pre-COVID scenario, was essential to find in our new routines.

The self-complexity theory highlights the importance of establishing boundaries between the social roles of an individual. The theory provides an understanding that on a psychological level the virus has restricted us in differentiating the various roles in our lives, by confining us to encompass them all in one space, our homes. Zoom is no longer just for interviews but now for meetings, communicating with loved ones, quizzes with friends: it is our workplace, our home, and our local pub. The theory underpins the issues faced by many of us, that when something negative happens in one aspect of our lives and the boundaries between our social lives are blurred, it makes the aspects of a person’s life increasingly vulnerable to the same negativity, a domino effect of negativity. An invaluable skill I developed during this unpredictable time along with its conditions was mastering the art of ‘switching off’ through mediating and truly ‘zoning out’ the background noise and news babble when needed.

Ineka Hogge

Ineka Hogge is about to start her fourth and final year at Heriot Watt University. She has spent the summer volunteering remotely with the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation’s engagement team.

Ineka Hogge

Ineka Hogge

Ineka Hogge

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