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Peter: Coordinating university support for students during COVID-19

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Peter's university, Carnegie Mellon, reached out to him as the President of the Student Representative Committee to find out how they could best support students. Peter and his colleagues spoke with fellow students to develop recommendations which the university swiftly adopted.

We spoke with Peter to find out how he's managed to keep up with his studies and help his fellow students during this time.

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Tell me about the start of 2020 for you.

Over the Christmas break, I didn't go home to the Philippines. Instead, I went to New South Wales to visit friends and ended up getting caught up in the bushfires in Bateman's Bay.

The first week we were there was great. It's a very beautiful place for a vacation. But the second week felt like we were in a disaster movie. There was no power, no phone signal, and the fires were approaching. We were ready to evacuate, but thankfully we didn't have to. However, the fire got quite close to us. We did make some tips to the evacuation centre to deliver food to the people there.

It was intense, but we were safe. As soon as the roads opened again, I was able to get back to Sydney and return to Adelaide. I'm actually using my experience to develop a bushfire monitoring solution as part of Gov Hack. I hope we win!

After such a dramatic start, it must have felt good to get back to your studies. How did you feel when everything moved online because of the pandemic?

Going online wasn't a big transition because we've been doing online modes of instruction for some classes, such as some lessons out of Carnegie Mellon's Pittsburgh campus.

Though we were used to being at the computer, it wasn't easy to go all online because of the state of the world. We didn't know how safe it was. And there was anxiety about not knowing how long this would take or how dangerous things would get. It was hard to concentrate on studies.

How did your university support students during this time?

Because I'm the President of the Student Representative Committee, the deputy head of the university asked to meet with the committee to get our views. I convened the committee team to interview our fellow students to get their feedback on how they were doing and what they wanted in terms of support from the university.

We presented our list of feedback to the university, and they were swift to take our recommendations, including for emotional and mental health support. They also relaxed some things, such as allowing us to pick team members for group work rather than assigning the teams. This meant we could select teammates we knew we could work with online. And the university started holding Zoom meetings to make sure all students received important information and updates, which didn't always get noticed on email. I think students were appreciative of the efforts, especially as the head of the university himself was the one who gave us a lot of updates.

With so much going on, how did you look after yourself during this time?

In the first month, I got pretty burned out. I'm a workaholic, so I forgot to take breaks to stand up and exercise. When you don't have to go anywhere, it's easy to just sit in front of your computer studying and doing homework.

But the student accommodation team at Atira, where I work as a student ambassador, has been wonderful. We used to have events to help the residents get to know each other, study and socialise. That didn't stop. We just went virtual. We came up with online ideas and activities like trivia nights, online exercise and online games. They were strict about visitors and social distancing and put hand sanitiser everywhere. We felt well looked after.

How do you feel about being in Adelaide during the pandemic?

I love Adelaide even more now. Back home in the Philippines, I'm used to seeing a lot of people in crowded spaces. But in Adelaide, there's so much space, and now you really appreciate it. I love how beautiful it is in Adelaide. We're pretty safe here, and the government is doing a good job, so I'm happy to be here.

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