Moving to a new city in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t particularly easy, but when that city offers access to open space in abundance it certainly has its compensations.
Just before the Christmas lockdown I moved from Glasgow to Aberdeen, ready to take up the role of Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Aberdeen in the New Year.
It was a very difficult time for universities – as it was for society in general, with families separated – but I joined a university focused on providing the best teaching and learning experience possible.
A global pandemic didn’t alter that commitment. But it did challenge us to be innovative in the way we delivered it, reducing student activity on campus to a level not seen before in the university’s five-century strong history.
Every September our students bring new experiences, insights and perspectives that energise our community and bolster the local economy. In 2021, welcoming our students back to campus will take on an added significance. Their return symbolises not just a return to life in our classrooms and buildings, but also the battle against the pandemic that the city and all of us have been on.
We have all learned important lessons during the pandemic
As a newcomer to Aberdeen, I am particularly looking forward to seeing the city come back to life as the vibrant and international place that first attracted me here.
I have already been captivated by the wonderful architecture of the city and the surrounding mountains and coastline. The last 18 months have made access to nature and fresh air more palpably important to all of us.
But while the return of our students brings benefits to the region and marks real progress, I am conscious that, like the resumption of major sporting events and festival, it will also raise concerns.
We have learned many important lessons over the course of the pandemic and a huge amount of time and effort has been dedicated to the reopening of our campuses.
Like last year, we will be guided by the Scottish Government, but teams across the university are preparing to support both our new intake and our returning students – ensuring they are fully aware of any changes to Covid guidelines, supporting international students to complete their quarantine period and providing facilities to ensure that any student who hasn’t yet had the opportunity to receive a vaccination can do so on their arrival.
Working with our local and regional partners will again be key and the university has recently appointed a Vice Principal for Regional Engagement and Regional Recovery to play a key role in the north-east of Scotland’s recovery and redevelopment from the pandemic.
Let’s continue to work together
The last academic year highlighted that bringing lots of people together comes with many challenges but it also showed us how adept our community is at meeting those challenges.
From providing laboratory space to the NHS, undertaking nationally critical and Covid-related research, to delivering food to those in need and sewing scrubs for the NHS, our staff and students came together in the most difficult of times.
“It is important that we all do everything we can to support our future doctors, scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and researchers of all kinds who will navigate our way out of not only this pandemic, but other future crises
As a mother with student daughters, I have experienced the pandemic from all perspectives. I am acutely aware of how challenging this period has been for our young people, the contribution that many of them have made as volunteers and in the NHS, and the worries that parents carry as students start the new academic year.
Our students continued to achieve last year and many of them took up opportunities created by the move to a more virtual world, engaging in online workshops with experts and finding new and creative ways to study and interact. However, we know it is the full Aberdeen experience – the fun and friendly campus experience – that draws them from all over the globe to this corner of Scotland, as it did me.
It is important that we all do everything we can to support them – they are the future doctors, scientists, innovators, entrepreneurs and researchers of all kinds so necessary to navigate our way out of not only this pandemic, but other future crises, as the Glasgow COP26 will highlight only too well.
Indeed, one of our former PhD students, Mustapha Bittaye, who came to Aberdeen from Ghana to learn from the expertise in our medical school, has gone on to play a key role in the development of the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine as part of the Oxford University team.
What better reminder that striving to help our next generation achieve its full potential is for the benefit of every one of us?
Tracey Slaven is Secretary and Chief Operating Officer at the University of Aberdeen