Shut Up And Write: A lifeline during COVID-19 (Sandi James)

Photograph by Tetiana Shyshinka on Unsplash 

A lot of you will know me, I am loud, talk a lot, and previously was, and am again now, ever present at La Trobe events in an online capacity. This year has been a crazy ride for us all. In case you missed it, I have been stuck in the UK since March after attending a conference in Dublin, on route to my field work location in Malaysia. I have just come out of hotel quarantine in Malaysia after being granted special permission to enter the country, and after being unsuccessful and unable to secure a flight back to Australia once it became evident this was a long-term pandemic. 

Anyway, hindsight is an amazing thing.

So here we are, official La Trobe 2020 version of Academic Writing Month, and I’m here to share with you my experience of the amazing lifeline that has been the #LTUSUAW, the RED workshops,  and all the people in those sessions who have been so awesome and tolerant of my, at times, craziness that comes from isolation in a country where I didn’t really know anyone. The last eight months have been something, a journey for all of us in various ways and each experiencing 2020 in a unique way. 

My experience

My experience is all I have to draw on so here it is.

In March, when this all started, I was stranded in the UK. I had my flights booked to go to Malaysia for mid-March but the borders there closed the night before my flight was due to land. The University I was meant to start work with recommended I hold tight and fly once borders opened again and they stayed in regular contact with me following this, assisting where they could to get the permission for me to enter Malaysia. 

I tried to get back to Australia a couple of times and eventually gave up and surrendered to the fact that I was going to be in the UK for some time. This was difficult to stomach. My supervisors were concerned, my partner and family incredibly so and even more so after the flight cancellations. I’ve been told how resilient and strong I am, I don’t see it quite like that. I had no choice. I had to find a way to function in the environment I found myself in. So, I turned to what I know best, which was finding a way to stay connected despite the distance, the time difference, and the fact that you were also all locked down. I have always been an off-campus student, through my Grad Dips, Post Grad Dip, Masters, and now PhD. I knew that I know how to do this. Digging deep, primarily because of the sense of isolation, lack of my established support network and usual self-care strategies, along with the huge time difference and the cold cold UK weather, I attended as many sessions as I could manage.

Gradually my ability to attend the sessions declined, as the length of time I was stranded lengthened and my mood declined.  I think there was a few months where I totally lost touch with La Trobe, other than on Twitter. The priority became survival mode to be honest. Much less than ideal. In maybe August, it was suggested by my supervisor that I take leave from my PhD as I wasn’t able to do anything to progress it.  This time I did as suggested. I continued to engage when I could with the La Trobe researcher community and so many people have been so amazing along this journey. I am incredibly grateful for the support.

Then, to my surprise, I was granted permission to travel to Malaysia. This is where my research is based, and where I was meant to be arriving in March. Some hope returned and I reengaged with the La Trobe community.

On arrival in Malaysia I had to undergo 14 days mandatory hotel quarantine, the same as if I had returned to Australia. This is where the daily, often twice daily, #LTUSUAW sessions became a lifeline for me. Malaysia is in a more amicable time zone with Melbourne and throughout the two weeks quarantine I attended every #LTUSUAW session I could manage, often joining two or three a day. 

I also found #SUAW sessions run through other institutions and some days found myself just moving from one to the next. The collegiality and support from my fellow SUAWers was nothing short of amazing. I was scattered, focus was difficult, and I talk a lot, yet these people where happy to see me and embraced me back into the fold. Maybe even missing the slight crazy I bring as part of my package. 

I have ADHD and as such, these sessions are the only way I have been able to focus. Prior to COVID-19 I had little access to this kind of support, yes there were SUAW sessions but they were less frequent and less people attended. The lockdown has been really hard for us all I think, but the RED team and my fellow Grad Researchers have been one of the things that have got me through. If you’ve never tried it, come join us. It is a warm and welcoming environment. I started a couple of my own SUAW with friends while in quarantine to help fill the time. Honestly, without the availability of these sessions I have no idea how I would have survived two weeks in a hotel room alone. I have never met any of my SUAW buddies in real life, and I don’t need to. These are my peers, my academic supports, and my cheer squad when I need it. And I really hope that at the end of this pandemic we keep this network going. Sign up to every session you can during Academic writing month, take the opportunity to try out different groups and see if this works for you, it has been the thing that has helped me survive the past 8 months. 

There really are no words to express my gratitude to everyone behind the scenes who works so hard to get all this up and running, and keeping it going!

Stay strong and stay healthy. If you are reading this you are already a rock star!!!


Sandi James is a La Trobe graduate researcher. You can find out more about her research here