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Landlocked, lonely, left behind: An American student’s Belfast adventure

MORGAN MATTINGLY: MORGAN MATTINGLY: "Only silence remains."
By Staff Reporter

WEEK seven of lockdown. Many of us have adjusted to remote working from the kitchen table; home schooling from that same table while our healthcare and frontline staff continue to help loved ones and ensure we have provisions day and daily during the Coronavirus pandemic.

But what if we don’t have the luxury of being able to work from home, or be able to call – albeit, within a two-metre safe distance – to see if our family are okay or need anything? Well, that’s the situation facing 27-year-old Queen’s University Master’s student Morgan Mattingly, who is 3,500 miles away from her home in Ohio.

Queen’s University, along with Ulster University, closed their campuses to all but key staff on March 20.

Currently studying MA Conflict Transformation and Social Justice, Morgan made the decision to stay in Belfast, initially believing that in order to complete her Master’s dissertation over the summer that she needed to be here.

“There were a lot of factors to consider in the period when news of borders closing reached me, but first and foremost I was in Belfast to learn and thought I could do that best from here,” she said. “The situation has continued to change and, though I am concerned for my family, in the end it has been the right one for me. It doesn’t stop the worry, but making that choice for myself has helped me to deal with everything that has come since.”

Morgan spoke of how she hasn’t been inside any QUB facilities since lockdown began.

“In the weeks prior to the UK decision, I said goodbye to many international students who went home until this blew over. Since then, a lot of them have realised this isn’t temporary and have been trying to figure out the best way to send things home from the halls. The numbers in the dorms have just kept dwindling. That is one of the stranger parts of all this, as people leave we never are really saying a proper goodbye.”

Morgan said that even at the end of courses this semester there has been a lack of finality.

“We have continued courses online, but there is no definitive end – just a petering out as we focus on the final assignments. Since I am still in Belfast, occasionally I will walk through the empty courtyards near the Lanyon Building for my daily exercise. It is a peculiar feeling to know there should be students in the classrooms or sitting in the ‘quad’ soaking up the sun between finals, but instead only silence remains.”

Morgan said that she had planned to become more of a “tourist” of the city prior to lockdown.

“Belfast has been a great experience so far. I’ve enjoyed exploring the rich history of the city, but much of my experience revolved around the university. I had planned to do a few tours, hike Cave Hill and explore in-depth, due to lockdown that is all on hold. Compared to teeming streets prior to lockdown, it has been eerie walking through an empty city and university. It’s a relief to see people taking in the sunshine in the parks – it’s the first sign of normalcy, though we all still need to take care.”

When asked about a return to the lecture hall in the foreseeable, Morgan replied: “We are all just taking this one day at a time to ensure that the curve remains flattened.”

She added: “Even when things begin to open up again, we have to remain cautious. What that will entail – is hard to say. I know that all Queens’ library loans were extended to June – thank goodness, but I doubt the library can be the same hub it was before the lockdown.

“Perhaps a 50 percent less occupancy maybe in order, for the library and classrooms. Personally I think people learn better when they are in the real classroom setting, but being flexible with expectations is essential right now. Masks may become a new normal to facilitate that. However, it’s all speculation for now.”

Morgan said that her studies have kept her occupied during lockdown and is in the middle of arranging a postgrad led virtual international conference, ‘True Stories: Contesting Narratives of Violence’ through the Senator George Mitchell Institute for later this month.

“Everyday is different, and brings new challenges with it. In general, I prefer working and learning in a group environment, but with social distancing measures that isn’t possible without some adjustment. It’s been interesting transitioning everything online with the ‘Eventbrite’ sign up and all publicity and programmes being digital. The team has selected speakers from several different countries and time zones, and has kept up their enthusiasm despite the digital platforms – no signs of Zoom fatigue yet,” she laughed.

“We have been fortunate that Zoom, Canvas and Microsoft teams help us to stay connected with professors and peers. There are still days where I’d rather stress bake than write a paper, but I’m glad that my studies have kept me occupied during the lockdown.”

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