To put it into context, I have lost four of my uncles or aunts in the last four months. Although I am fortunate enough not to have witnessed war, the frequency at which these losses were happening is nothing short of a war-like situation, where there is no time to grieve between losses. Not seeing the loved ones for one last time made these losses even harder to handle and did not help with the natural grieving process. Such an experience is not unique to me for sure, although I wish it was not. At some stage with varying intensity, all the international faculty of NUI Galway might have experienced something similar in the past year. Unfortunately, these events and experiences tend to strain the already strained mental health and wellbeing of our international faculty community.
I sympathise with the family and friends who cannot attend funerals in Ireland due to government restrictions. I dare say I even understand the few families who occasionally broke the rules about the numbers allowed in a funeral, just to have the opportunity to see their loved ones for one last time. While I agree that a loss is a loss, where I think the experience of such a loss by an international faculty differs from an Irish colleague is in the absence of their extended families and their support. For an international academic such as myself in NUI Galway, I would like to think of NUI Galway as my extended family. Thankfully, unofficially, this extended family was as supportive as they could be over the years and more so in the last year, with many colleagues and friends calling and having virtual coffees as frequently as possible. Officially, initiatives such as the newly inaugurated NUI Galway International Staff Network last year gave us opportunities to network better and support each other better during these difficult times. I am glad that I was part of the initial meeting among ten or so international academics a couple of years ago to discuss the need to establish this network. We met at Moffetts restaurant in the Orbsen building (when sitting next to each other rubbing shoulders was considered a norm) over a coffee, which almost sounds like something impossible in the current climate. Initiatives similar to this are more crucial now than ever before, to ensure the feeling of community and oneness.
Of course, not everything is doom and gloom due to this pandemic. Working from home removed a minimum of two hours from my commute every day in the famous Galway traffic, thus adding more quality time to life. More often, it gave me the precious extra time I needed to call my family and friends around the globe. Like everyone else, I enjoyed staying up late in my bed, knowing that on days when there are no official meetings, I can still be in my jammies and work! Honestly, I had more international collaborations and academic publications than ever before due to the flexible availability of researchers worldwide, courtesy of COVID-19 and global lockdown. Undoubtedly our social experience has been reshaped considerably by this COVID-19 pandemic and is likely to remain the same for the foreseeable future. This pandemic experience taught me a valuable life lesson: that I must appreciate every little positive thing both locally and internationally. After all, an international academic is also an academic striving to learn every day. I am confident that the new connections I have established both within NUI Galway and beyond, despite being metres or miles apart, will continue to be a part of this beautiful new social journey promised by COVID-19 in my future. Like everything else in life, even this pandemic experience is a mixture of all emotions, which I can proudly say I lived through, giving me a once-in-a-lifetime experience. However, I am looking forward to having this behind me and never wanting to see it again in my life.