September 14, 2021

It seems improvisation is another thing St. John’s College students have in common besides being international graduate students living together on the UBC Vancouver campus. 

After COVID-19 lockdowns swept through, shuttering the campus in April 2020, the 165 St. John’s students from 40 countries found themselves an isolated island of sorts on a mostly deserted campus. “The world around our table” is the motto this residential college, celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, lives by. That means meals together are central to the tight-knit community. But the new pandemic reality meant ordering dinner delivered or grabbing food and eating alone in individual rooms. Anxious, uncertain and worried about friends and family as far away as Brazil, Nigeria, China, Japan, Colombia, Moldova, Jordan and Syria, the students found themselves isolated and depressed.

A cadre of student leaders – including – realized a little improv was in order. Tapping into their ample smarts and resourcefulness, they whipped up a healthy dose of proverbial lemonade from lemons. First, as a way to connect, kitchen staff came up with a way to pick up to-go meals safely in the dining hall: masked, and armed with individual cutlery, plate and dishwash soap, and lined up far apart. Residents and volunteers arranged meal deliveries for those in quarantine. Then students organized a drop-in on a Zoom chat where people dined separately, together, in their rooms.

video: St. John's College (August 2020)

It unfolded organically, as things do at the college. St. John’s added a free meal on Saturday to the six-days-a-week breakfast and dinner plan so students didn’t have to worry about venturing out. Residents organized Zoom movie and gaming nights. Chatting on Facebook, they pooled dwindling TP reserves and shared grocery store runs. A team of resident volunteers organized by Edgar Liao started dropping supplies on doorsteps for those in quarantine. With Shams Alanzi and Fabrício Bagatini-Cachuço, Kirmizibayrak put together a video orientation series that incoming students could watch back home to ease the return-to-campus transition.

“Personally, it helped my mental health,” Kirmizibayrak recalls. “Our community made me feel like we are a team that will get through this together.”

And in place of despair, the St. John’s gang spiked and volleyed. Some 50 percent participated. Ali Pourzahedi performed Iranian Kamancheh concerts in the courtyard, the audience tuning in from their windows. Derek Stanyer played piano and residents organized COVID-safe dance shows. Physically distanced in the kitchen queue, folks caught up briefly, then joined a virtual wine tasting on Zoom or virtual trivia nights, Zoom workout, meditation and yoga sessions back in their rooms. It made all the difference, Kirmizibayrak says.

UBC St John's College students distributing candy to residents doors during lockdown in March

Fabrício Bagatini-Cachuço (left) and Shams Alanzi (right) distributing candy to residents doors during lockdown in March (photo: Fabrício Bagatini-Cachuço)

How it looks in retrospect: It was pretty incredible for what it was. We couldn’t even get out of our rooms in the beginning. It grew and grew to places I would never have imagined.

Biggest misconception: That little things can’t make a huge difference. For us it was: before volleyball – sad; after volleyball – happy. It was amazing how it changed our mood. It takes your mind off the things worrying you and you just focus on getting the ball to the other side, or hitting the ball as hard as you can. Playing releases tension. It was funny (because none of us are pro players), a workout, and a way to make friends and make the best of the Vancouver sun while it lasts.

UBC St John's College outdoors gaucho BBQ in April

UBC St John's College outdoors gaucho BBQ in April (photo: Nima Jamshidi)

Why dining together matters: We come together, eat together, share recipes and cuisine, and have chats about life and academics. We ask questions, lots of questions, and find answers. Maybe someone’s struggling with her thesis or some residents discover a new interdisciplinary research idea over a relaxed dinner discussion. St. John’s students have a way of connecting, no matter what’s going on.

What we didn’t know: The pandemic taught us how much impact social interactions could have on our wellness and community. We didn’t truly appreciate how much our events, our Sunday “chai parties” and the breakfast/dinner chats or simply just going out into town improved our mood, our friendships and our community until the pandemic hit. We also had to adapt to learning, research and teaching remotely all of a sudden – we had to learn so many new things about this along the way. For example, I remember talking to many residents about different tech gadgets or tools they use to teach remotely (one resident even set up a whole teaching corner with a green screen in their room) and telling them what I discovered. We had to keep learning how to adapt to this new way of life and work. There is still a lot to learn, but learning and adapting together makes it easier.

UBC St John's College volunteers on the way to face grocery store lines to get supplies for residents

From front to back, volunteers Shams Alanzi, Fabrício Bagatini-Cachuço, Mikko Paajanen and Parker Li on the way to face grocery store lines to get supplies for residents (photo: Shams Alanzi)

What we’re getting right: Allowing flexibility within the rules. For example, we came up with the St. John’s College Olympics. We did competitions that were physically distanced, like mini-golf, frisbee and a plank challenge – the winner went for more than two minutes!

Piece of advice: Get creative. Going through a difficult time together bonded our group. After lock-downs ended, we wrote down letters to our future selves, sharing our experiences during the pandemic, and made a photo album. It was very emotional and touching – something we’ll never forget.

Winning team with their awards on St John's College's socially distanced outdoor trivia night

Winning team with their awards on St John's College's socially distanced outdoor trivia night: Fabrício Bagatini-Cachuço, Kristina Parzen, Demet Kirmizibayrak and Oğuzhan Kaya, from left to right (photo: Nima Jamshidi)

What’s scary right now: Not knowing what will happen next. What I learned is: just take it day by day. See how it goes. And find people who can help along the way if you get overwhelmed. Like (BC public health figure) Dr. Bonnie Henry says, “Be kind, be calm, be safe.”

What the world needs: Hope. And community.

Find out more about UBC international graduate residence, St. John’s College.

Watch the St. John’s College 2021 COVID-19 etiquette video, (July 2021), organized by Tala Bazzaza and fellow residents.

Demet Kirmizibayrak, an astrophysicist from Izmir, Turkey and UBC St. John’s Residence Community Coordinator

Demet Kirmizibayrak, an astrophysicist from Izmir, Turkey and St. John’s Residence Community Coordinator


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