For medical student Gaia Ferrarin, having a friendly voice to speak to on the other end of the phone once a week has been a big comfort while she has been stranded in the US during the current pandemic.
Gaia, who is close to finishing a year-long internship at the Houston Methodist Research Institute, signed up for the Student Pastoral Support Programme after reading about it on the University’s Facebook page not long after lockdown commenced. The programme connects students with alumni, to provide enhanced pastoral support in these challenging times.
“I was mainly doing well, but I still would have appreciated talking to someone,” she explained.
“The University was keeping me updated on news outside the US, which meant a lot, but it was good to be able to express my feelings to someone who wasn't involved directly with my situation. I think everyone needs someone to talk to in times like these, and my alumni mentor was that person for me.”
Despite the pandemic, Gaia has continued to work at the Institute.
“It has been comforting to know that the University is looking out for me and other students, particularly at this time. For me, Aberdeen is a home away from home and, because of this, I am grateful that they are still trying to help their students how they can.”
Gaia first arrived in Aberdeen from her native Italy aged 19, when she began studying for an MSc in Biotechnology (Applied Molecular Biology). Volunteering has been an important part of her student experience.
“I have always volunteered during my university years, both as a class rep and later as a Students for Students mentor,” she explained.
“I fully believe in the idea that it is important to give back to the community as much as possible. Everyone I have met here - peers, professors and all other staff - always showed genuine interest in me and what I can offer. It is my wish to make others feel the same about this institution as I do.”
Gaia chose to study in Aberdeen for a number of reasons, not least the opportunities it has afforded her to spend time abroad.
“The programme I am on permits a year-long internship to get work experience, and I am currently working at the Houston Methodist Research Institute in the US. The whole experience has been fantastic and I love the way I can communicate and learn from the mentors I am working with. I also had an opportunity to study at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, for the winter semester of 2017-18.
“Aberdeen is a crossroads of cultures from all the world; classes are really diverse and the professors are genuinely interested in helping their students succeed. I have a learning disability, so some of the courses were challenging, particularly in third year but, nonetheless, it is definitely worth it.
“I enjoyed movie nights with other international peers in Crombie Halls in first year, the group presentations in second year with people I genuinely liked to work with, but most of all the School of Biological Science society’s balls with my friends. I also love both the campuses - Old Aberdeen's architecture is mesmerising and beautiful.”
Gaia’s internship comes to an end on June 30, when she hopes to be able to travel home to Italy if the current situation allows. She plans to complete her final year of studying at Aberdeen, when she will still try to balance volunteering opportunities and coursework.
She said: “It’s been a year since I left Italy and, although I somehow always end up travelling around the world, at this moment in time it would be nice to go back home and help there how I can. The reason I applied to do a medical science degree in the first place was to be able to use what I learn from my experiences for the service of the community.”
Nick Edwards, Acting Deputy Director of People and Head of Student Support at the University, described the response by alumni to support current students during the immensely challenging time that Covid-19 has brought as ‘amazing’.
“As an alumnus myself, I know that giving back to the University community is exceptionally rewarding. Even offering a short amount of time to speak to a student in isolation can make a huge difference to both parties,” he said.
“For many, experiencing the impact of Covid-19 away from home will have a massive impact on mental health and their experience in Aberdeen. It’s great to see our Aberdeen family come together to offer support when things are challenging for us all.”
Katrina Allan, Head of Alumni Relations, added: “Our alumni family always supports the University and our students in many wonderful ways, but the incredible response we have had, with such concern for the welfare of our students since the very start of the pandemic, has been truly touching. We are thrilled to be helping them play such an important role in the care of our students at this time.”