A life lesson

by Tiara Sahar Ataii (MML, 2016)

I was just gearing up to go into revision mode, the Easter before my finals, when it became obvious that COVID-19 would soon be affecting our lives on a deeply personal plane here in Cambridge too. It took a while for the severity of the issue to hit me – I went on a walk with a couple of friends on what I later realised would be my final day in Cambridge, walking from Sidgwick to Maison Clement in Newnham, and that afternoon went to pack up my room. It was when I got home in London that evening and explained what had happened to my parents that I realised that my undergraduate life living in Robinson had come to an end.

At first, things seemed to proceed – almost uncannily – as usual. After initially struggling to concentrate on Arabic grammar and medieval Central Asian history I got into my usual revision routine, and my daily government-mandated walk in the park was all my revision schedule would allow me in any case. The realisation that things had shifted irrevocably was gradual, and with a member of my extended family passing away in Iran, or my uncle, an A&E doctor at Barnet hospital, one of the most affected by the virus, also coming down with the virus, things hit home.

Therefore, week 1 of Easter term was a welcome addition to my routine, seeing my lecturers, classmates, and tutors over Zoom, even briefly. I soon began to feel very lucky that the virus had caught me in my last year of university, since the friends I had hoped to make four years ago when I first arrived in staircase B in Robinson I now had, and knew I would hold onto. Ceremonies like graduation I’ve started to understand not as the celebration of my undergraduate academic career, nor a rite of passage, but rather as a knell to mark the return of normality when it comes at some point in the next few years.

Adaptation to this new way of life has been aided by SolidariTee. I began SolidariTee in my first year at Robinson, selling shirts off the side of my bike to raise money for refugee aid. Three years later, we’re now the largest student-led charity in the UK, with 42 teams across the UK, and having donated over £200,000 to refugee aid from the profits of our clothing line. When COVID-19 broke out, I had one (of my many!) calls with our incoming Executive Director, Lexi, also a Cambridge finalist. We decided that the situation was simply too dire not to act. We launched a COVID-19 emergency grant for NGOs providing medical aid to refugees in the midst of the pandemic, in addition to an open letter which the Warden signed, alongside Masters of other Cambridge colleges. It’s been an honour and privilege to be able to contribute in this way, but quite aside from that, it’s given me purpose when things have felt insurmountable.

For me, I imagine that the lasting effect of the pandemic will be a reminder that, despite the best planning and hard-work, sometimes things just won’t turn out the way you plan. Yes, this is a truism, but one that I have never really had to acknowledge – being at Cambridge is a daily testament to the power of hard work, and it’s unsettling when the dictum which I’ve lived by for my teenage and adult life onwards no longer holds true. Nonetheless, COVID-19 is not the great equaliser, and instead of dealing with much more severe consequences upon my life, I’m privileged to be able to emerge from the pandemic with a life lesson. The challenge now is to work out what to do with it.