St Andrews Can Do: Meaning
Care in the community
"Students can and do have a fantastic positive impact in the communities that they are a part of."Dan Marshall, Association President
When Coronavirus hit, communities around the world made headlines in their support of each other, family and friends, essential workers and humanity at large. From small, random acts of kindness to neighbours and strangers to the people-led ‘clap for the NHS’, the importance of community became as vital as ever.
As a small community of less than 20,000, St Andrews was no different to the growing wave of community-mindedness, with locals and students working together in the spirit of keeping each other safe. From delivering essential doorstep supplies and cleaning up around town to students walking dogs for those unable to leave the house, hundreds of selfless acts combined to reflect the true spirit of the St Andrews’ community.
Clean up time
“I believe that it is important for St Andrews students to be socially responsible. I am grateful to be in St Andrews.”Julia Ashley, student volunteer
Set against the unyielding wind and rain of October 2020, dozens of spirited students braved the elements to support the local community in a host of public-spirited projects. As part of the first Community Action Day, students and staff took part in a range of activities, from cleaning the town’s bins, war memorials and benches to clearing up at Craigtoun Park.
The action day was another opportunity for students to spend time together safely, gain new experiences, and learn more about themselves and their community.
Students’ Association President Dan Marshall not only helped organise and lead the student groups, but took part in the clean ups too. He said: “Community Action Day was a great public statement of intent, proving what we already know, that students can and do have a fantastic positive impact in the communities that they are a part of.”
Two overseas students who helped Dan with the clean-up of the St Andrews War memorial were Alessandra Mitzi and Julia Ashley.
Julia, a first year Biology, Earth Sciences, Sustainable Development student from Arlington, Virginia, brought her passion for working with the community with her when she arrived in St Andrews.
“I was a part of many community service days back in high school, and I wanted to continue that here at St Andrews. I chose to take part in Community Action Day because I wanted to contribute to helping to maintain and upkeep St Andrews and the surrounding areas.
“I believe that it is important for St Andrews students to be socially responsible. Volunteering in the local community is a great way to become involved with meaningful projects and to meet new people.
“Due to Covid-19 restrictions, I have not left St Andrews since I arrived, so I have physically remained in a bubble. The Can Do concept is really vital, as our volunteer activities today were an example of some of the things that can still go on (safely) even with the current restrictions. Things have changed drastically compared to normal years… I am grateful to be in St Andrews.”
Alessandra, a fourth year Biology and Psychology student from Varese in Italy, is no stranger to taking a leading role in community-mindedness.
She said: “As Publicity Officer for the Community Relations Committee I am responsible for managing the different social media platforms to keep the students and community up to date with the latest initiatives and events across St Andrews.
“Being involved in the CRC and participating in Community Action Day is my way of giving back to St Andrews for making my time here at St Andrews nothing but amazing.
“It [the pandemic] has without a doubt been challenging and very different. But I think that the University has done an absolutely incredible job in helping and supporting us through these difficult times. I am even more grateful for my friends and I have learnt to appreciate the small things in life even more.”
Thirty-five giant love hearts, separated in adherence to Government regulations, mysteriously appeared in St Salvator’s Quadrangle in the late summer of 2020. Quickly becoming home to community solidarity event Hearts of Light (see below), the outsized shapes drew the attention of socially distancing students, passing staff, local children and tourists with one question on their mind: was it the work of aliens, community-minded students or particularly talented seagulls?
In fact, it was a secret Covid creative lockdown collaboration between the Communications team and Estates staff.
The original idea behind the initiative was to provide students with a safe space to sit outside – either individually or within households – in a creative way that expresses the spirit and values of the University. St Salvator’s Quadrangle was the appropriate starting point as it is the ancient ‘heart’ of the University, with St Mary’s Quadrangle following suit as weather and resources allowed. The hearts – painted with sports pitch paint – became a natural gathering point for students over the summer and remained in place throughout the autumnal months, until the winter weather caused them to fade naturally away.
The project was carried out completely in-house and was a low-budget team effort made possible with the work of CAD colleagues, who measured the space and planned the design perfectly, print technicians, who printed a giant cardboard template, and grounds staff, who meticulously hand-painted each of the socially distanced hearts individually.
Proving themselves popular on both an organic and organisational level, the hearts were utilised for photo shoots with Student Ambassadors and Sabbatical Officers to promote social distancing and appeared in the national media alongside Philip the lobster. So innovative was the idea, our ‘heart space’ also gathered the attention and support of our colleagues at Universities UK.
“Sometimes both my wife and I want to use the same room for our meetings – we’ve resorted to booking the sofa at breakfast.”Donald MacEwan, University Chaplain
Sometime late in 2019, after almost ten years’ service to the University, Chaplain Donald MacEwan decided to take the summer of 2020 off. In the event, his year had changes as well as a rest, conducting weddings ‘for two’ on the beach, hosting Chapel over Zoom, and finding himself uttering the phrase ‘it’s a wrap’ after service…
Reflecting on this ‘massively peculiar year’, which he shared with his wife Maia Sheridan (Manuscripts Archivist in the Library’s Special Collections), three cats and half a dozen hens, Donald believes that companionship, community and connection are more important than ever.
Pre-pandemic, the Chaplaincy had not conducted any virtual services, but with Government restrictions meaning indoor public worship could not be held, it was time to convert.
By March 2020, Donald was sharing worship worldwide live (or as live, as services could also be watched later) to viewers from Buchanan Gardens to Bangalore. With every effort being made to make services as authentic as possible, online services featured live music, organists and solo singers, as well as visiting preachers, either in person or via video link.
“We were all in our homes – chaplains, organists, singers, readers and congregation. Yet, for all the strangeness, it was often really moving to see each other on our screens, singly or with flatmates, families and four-legged friends.
“There were glitches – the perennial forgetting to unmute; video inserts which steadfastly refused to broadcast audio; and at least one domestic argument that was probably better not shared. But for people suddenly isolated, including students, staff and other chapelgoers, these online services offered companionship, community and connection.”
During this time, the Chaplaincy offered as much in-person support and events as possible, from weddings with up to 20 guests (as per Government restrictions) to a Graduation Thanksgiving Service in St Salvator’s Chapel and our annual Remembrance Service. Donald also spoke in the Can Do Marquee at the annual Transgender Day of Remembrance event.
At the time of writing, the last time Donald led a congregation in person was for the three Carols by Candlelight services held at St Leonard’s Chapel and, although he has missed leading services in person and with a congregation present, there were some benefits to virtual worship.
“Going online was undoubtedly new for us. Before the pandemic we had never held regular worship online, and when we had tried to livestream memorial services, tech problems made it immensely stressful. Now, even though we cannot gather as a congregation, we can livestream services from the chapel, thanks to a generous donation which covered the equipment. With student volunteers at the mixing desk and laptop, we are sharing worship worldwide. Little did I know when I planned the leave last winter how different everything would be.”
During these times, Donald and Assistant Chaplain, Samantha Ferguson, switched to online pastoral support to students and staff, listening to people explore issues in their life – from deadlines to health worries, bereavement to boyfriend issues.
“It works well, remains confidential, and allowed support when not in St Andrews,” Donald said. “Indeed, 2020 saw the largest number of pastoral meetings offered by chaplains during my decade in the University. Coronavirus wasn’t always the topic, but the extraordinary circumstances we are going through seem to have made anxieties that bit more present. Sometimes both my wife and I want to use the same room for our meetings – we’ve resorted to booking the sofa at breakfast.”
With Mansefield opening when allowed and safe to do so, one-to-one support in 3D along with Jewish services, Muslim Friday Prayers and a Quaker led gathering called Simply Quiet have still been possible. On the shortest day of the year, the University’s Honorary Pagan Chaplain Kitty Macintyre organised a candlelit labyrinth, attended by 300 (safely separated) guests in the gardens of the School of Economics and Finance.
In the virtual world, discussion groups also moved on to Teams, with the Chaplaincy hosting conversations about faith and society, spiritual readings, vocations and grief from their homes. Student group Thinking Allowed even named their Teams’ breakout rooms after Donald’s and Maia’s cats Tobit, Hephzibah and Poppy.
Donald’s emails – part of a daily Chaplaincy outreach intended to strengthen and cheer the Chaplaincy’s e-community of students, staff and alumni in self-isolation – shared everything from his thoughts on climate change to photos of his chickens.
“Coronavirus has been the story of the past year; climate change is the story of this century,” he noted.
But Donald, and his team, wanted to do more than write about the pandemic.
He explained: “The Chaplaincy’s approach was to say, Let’s do something – now how can we do it? (Rather than That sounds difficult – what will the problems be?).”
By the beginning of the Martinmas Semester in September 2020, services of prayer and worship were permitted in Scotland up to a maximum of 50 people. St Salvator’s Chapel can accommodate that number with households two metres apart, so they began offering worship in person on Sunday mornings and at a late-night Compline on Thursday evenings.
“We were conscious that physical distancing measures may well make people feel distant from each other: face coverings, spaces between us, not being allowed to sing. I’d seen spaces with taped off seating and laminated signs with ticks and crosses; instead, we simply put out orders of service two metres apart and student ushers showed people where to sit.
“We shared the peace every Sunday morning – unable to shake hands or hug, we’d wave at each other and wish them peace. We lit a new candle every week until, by December, the communion table was ablaze with candlelight, called Candles of Hope, a sign of growing hope even though the days were getting shorter.
“At the same time, we were looking for something we could do together to mark the loss, fear, love and hope of these times. I saw hearts being painted on the lawn in St Salvator’s Quad, showed a picture to the honorary team and someone came up with the name ‘Hearts of Light’. Every Tuesday (until December 2020) at 5.15pm for 15 minutes, we gathered in the hearts, holding lanterns, standing in solidarity with all affected by Covid around the world.
Different people led our reflections, from a variety of faiths and philosophies of life. Some students, staff and townspeople came every week; some occasionally. Attendance was never huge. But in a small way it showed that the University recognised the world beyond our particular concerns for learning, teaching and research, and that we belong to a single, fragile planet.
“This time last year I had never written a Risk Assessment to re-open a building during a pandemic; preached to my laptop; sat online with someone weeping at the amount of work to do; taken part in an interfaith dialogue on Facebook Live; conducted a wedding on Castle Sands; or said “It’s a wrap!” after a chapel service. Some things are helpful substitutes, but I long to return to the encounter of human beings unmediated by technology. Other gains will be with us for good, especially the ease with which people can be part of our community across the world.
“I’ve learned how global life is even when we are staying at home.”
For further information on the Can Do initiative, including advice on hosting an event, email firstname.lastname@example.org or join the Teams channel. Upcoming events – held under current Covid-19 restrictions – are published on the University events calendar.
The latest coronavirus guidance is kept up to date and published on the University website.
Words and photos throughout (unless otherwise stated) by Gayle McIntyre, Corporate Communications. Design by the Digital Communications team. Special thanks to Lauren Sykes, all interviewees, photographic subjects and contributors and the Can Do team.
Phone: +44 (0)1334 46 7323