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COVID-19 highlights the importance of community

Rachel Wells

From virtual stand-up comedy classes to live-streamed yoga sessions, the RMIT community is sticking together even while apart.

Anne Sunil had barely had a chance to unpack her bags, let alone familiarise herself with the city she plans to call home for the next four years, when COVID-19 sent Melbourne into lockdown.

“I had only been on campus for three weeks when the restrictions came in. I knew no one,” said the RMIT software engineer student, who arrived from Delhi on February 20.

So when she was invited to take part in a virtual dinner and games night in early April, organised as part of Mates at RMIT – the social mentoring program she had just joined – she jumped at the opportunity.

“It has been such a blessing,” says Anne, of the regular Friday night Zoom catch-ups which have become much more than just a chance to play online Pictionary and trivia.

They have become a space for laughter and bonding and developing the kinds of friendships that can help stave off loneliness when you’ve just arrived in a new city, particularly one that has been all but shuttered by a global pandemic.

The sessions, which attract up to 20 people each week, are the brainchild of Raffa Pratama, a second-year communications student and mentor with Mates at RMIT – a program that connects new students with current students through social activities, such as movie nights and tours of the city.

They have become a space for laughter and bonding and developing the kinds of friendships that can help stave off loneliness when you’ve just arrived in a new city

When RMIT closed its campuses in late March, the program’s co-ordinator Nicole Lane was quick to ensure new students could still stay connected with each other and their mentors. She set up a Facebook page – Find your MATES online – and encouraged mentors to continue their social activities virtually.

“Seventy to 80 percent of the program’s participants are international students. Many of the participants don’t know anyone here, so it was really important they could keep up their social connections,” Lane says.

Anne says she has already made “many very good friends” through the program, “even though I have never met some of them in person yet.”

“The mentors call and text me all the time to make sure I’m ok. It is very sweet, and I feel very lucky to live in a time when I can video call both my family back home when I am homesick but also my new friends here in Melbourne.”

“I don’t know what I would do otherwise,” she says.

The Mates at RMIT program is just one of hundreds of programs and clubs currently adapting to COVID-19 to ensure the RMIT community stays connected while its campuses remain closed.

Daniel Hoogstra, President of the RMIT University Student Union (RUSU), says the organisation is currently providing training and resources to help more than 100 clubs that operate throughout the University “to transition to the new world we’re living in.”

“We understand how critical it is that students stay engaged with us and each other during this time. It has a huge impact on their wellbeing which is why we’re working closely with clubs to ensure they can continue that connection and engagement.”

RUSU has also adapted many of its own activities in response to COVID-19, including its regular “Chill n Grill’ sessions, which are streamed live from the living room of a Melbourne DJ.

I think singing and music is such a lifeline for many of us right now. It’s something that is really sustaining us.

Meanwhile, it’s popular Realfoods cafe is delivering more than 500 free healthy takeaway meals each week to major student housing providers in the CBD and Bundoora.

RMIT Creative’s performing arts officer Ben Andrews says many of its programs are now being rung virtually, including stand-up comedy classes, ukulele lessons and lunchtime choir sessions.

It has also launched the Big Video Thing – a video project that will see dozens of RMIT staff and students coming together in a virtual choir to perform Sing, the 2001 single by Scottish rock band, Travis “Music allows us to process our emotions and experiences and we’re processing a lot right now,” says choirmaster, Jane York, who was determined to keep running her weekly choir classes when the social distancing restrictions meant she could no longer continue them in person.

York now records video tutorials for class members each week and is also leading the Big Video Thing project.

“I think singing and music is such a lifeline for many of us right now. It’s something that is really sustaining us,” she says. “I felt it was really important that we kept them running.”

She says she chose ‘Sing’ for the virtual choir project because she wanted a song that was about resilience and also “highlighted the importance of singing and music as a way of helping us understand our world and lifting us out of the uncertainty and chaos we might be feeling right now.”

For 33-year-old textiles student, Stacey Carruthers, weekly stand-up comedy classes have helped keep her spirits up while she has been largely confined to her home in Melbourne’s outer east.

The classes are run weekly by RMIT alumni and comedian Elizabeth Davie, who says “humour is a great coping mechanism” in challenging times such as the ones we are experiencing right now.

“For my own mental health, the classes have been super important because we get to share stories and we get to laugh a lot,” Stacey says.

Stacey and her classmates have also been preparing material for a comedy event, which was due to be held as part of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, but was held online instead.

“My material is very topical,” she says. “And writing it has actually been a really good way to process and express some of the feelings I’ve been experiencing during lockdown.”

Stacey’s grandmother passed away while the strict social distancing restrictions were in place. It meant she didn’t get the chance to kiss her goodbye and she was one of just a handful of family members who attended her funeral.

For my own mental health, the classes have been super important because we get to share stories and we get to laugh a lot

“That was really tough but by using comedy I’ve been able to kind of express how that made me feel without it being a really negative thing,” she says.

“You know, if we had held our grandmother’s funeral at Bunnings, or in their car park, everyone could have attended. You can’t go to a funeral, but you can go shopping for nails,” she laughs.

“It’s been nice to be able to share that stuff with others and have a bit of a laugh.”

Other members of the RMIT community have taken it upon themselves to connect with and support their fellow colleagues and students despite being physically separated from them.

For Masters of Architecture student Lia Fernanda Grimmer Perez that means packing and distributing hundreds of free meals, several times a week, at Heaven at the Hill – a social enterprise that is helping to feed those doing it tough, including fellow students who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19.

“We get quite a few international students. Some of them are from RMIT… They’re just so incredibly grateful. They are like ‘my family back home just wants to thank you so much for helping us,” she says.

“And I think that’s why doing this has been so good because you feel so helpless in this whole situation, but at least this gets me up early and out of the house and I feel like I’m helping in some small way.” Alyssa Pullar is a campaigns co-ordinator with RMIT’s Industry and Engagement team, who graduated as a Vinyasa yoga teacher at the end of January.

At 8am every Thursday morning she hosts a live yoga class from her courtyard in Ringwood, especially for her colleagues at RMIT. She later uploads the videos to Yammer for those who missed the live stream.

“I know how fundamental keeping up my yoga practice, self-enquiry and meditation has been to me during this time… I just really wanted to share it with my colleagues,” she explains.

“And you know, even if it benefits just one person and brightens their day, that’s worth it to me.”