Interview with The Pandemic Podcast

The Pandemic Podcast is a podcast organised by University of Leeds students and it launched its first episode on November 21st. The podcast is here to talk openly and honestly about student experiences as well as university life in general. I talked to its creator, Ella Matthews, to give us more info about this community built around giving and providing support for anyone who needs it.

How did you come up with the idea of creating a podcast for uni students?

This really is something I did not intend to do! I was on call to my course leader, Caroline, and I was asking what the university is providing for first-year students in terms of support. University is hard, without a global pandemic looming over you!

I also have a big interest in mental health. Currently I am trying to start up a charity called Care to Be Better (@caretobebetter on Insta) and part of its campaign is to care for others. So, I asked Caroline what we could do in order to care for these students.

I believe we form meaningful relationships by doing meaningful things. I struggled last year making nurturing relationships because a lot of them were based over social events. I wanted to offer these students a community where we could come together and do something meaningful.

I came up with this idea to help students find a supportive community. During our meetings with the podcast team, we have group leading discussions, with other students, on mental health and wellbeing. We have created a platform to share students voices and their honest experiences.

Lockdown has been difficult, but it has been especially difficult for students. From online university, to funding issues, loneliness and overall wellbeing concerns. Ultimately ‘The Pandemic Podcast: Student Life During COVID-19’ hopes to share this in an unfiltered way, binding people together over this experience.

Why did you create a podcast now and not during the first period of lockdown?

It goes back to what I was saying before about my concern for first years coming in and not being able to settle and find much needed support. Also, I did not really know what was happening with the first lockdown. Honestly, I thought the whole thing was going to blow over in 2 weeks… The 3 months part took me by surprise!

Doing something purposeful can really help your mental health – especially during lockdown – when life starts to feel pretty purposeless. Starting Care to Be Better, my charity, gave me a routine. It gave me a purpose. I wanted to provide others with this sense of purpose to show how much of an impact it could make on their wellbeing.

I listened to your first episode and was impressed by the amount of honesty and straightforward chat there was between the presenter and the first-year student Evie Mendoza. For future episodes, will you be featuring just students or staff from the University too? Perhaps some medical experts?

Thank you! We really aimed for honesty and transparency. Evie is, also, focused on showing her real self and not what she believes others want to see. People should definitely check out Evie’s instagram to see more of her #realrawself (@eviesbhappy).

So, the aim is to interview students and staff. We should be interviewing our course leader, Caroline, pretty soon. This is really important because it is not just students who have been affected by the pandemic, it is teachers as well. They have had to take on the role as counsellors, advisors and video editors (for all online teaching!). There is such a high expectation for them to deliver at this time, with extremely challenging circumstances.

I know many teachers feel this way. I catch up with my lecturers before individual one to ones to see how they are doing and, to be honest, many are struggling. Looking at a blank screens all day, knowing they cannot provide all the help they would like for students, must be really hard.

I am looking forward to conducting such interviews with teachers so other students can see this perspective.

Some students might not feel comfortable sharing their issues and worries about university life to family and friends during these unprecedented circumstances. What would you say to them? What can the podcast do in this case?

I would say that is absolutely fine. You know yourself best. No one is expecting you to come forward and say exactly how you are feeling. For many, this might be a coping mechanism. But, despite me saying this, I think it is important to say how you feel. Sounds corny but, ‘In order to heal, you have to feel.’

However, this doesn’t have to be to friends or family. I know that Leeds university offers a counselling service. As well, they have nightline which people can phone into and speak to someone else anonymously. If they do not want to speak to someone linked to the university, there are lots of other groups you can call (again anonymously and also for free) like MIND and Samaritans.

But, if people wanted to get involved in the podcast but felt afraid to voice how they feel publicly, we are offering a service where people can send in written accounts anonymously. That way, anyone can share their experiences, but do so with the knowledge of privacy and security.

I should add, if anyone wants to message me, to speak about how they are feeling, I am more than happy for them to do so. I am a qualified Mental Health First Aider and have a counselling qualification. My @caretobebetter DMs are always open for support. I am the only one running this account so people can speak to me with the knowledge of a safe and secure space.

Why do you think a podcast is the best platform to target and support students?

Because, traditionally, people would broadcast important information on air. It feels kind of special that we can broadcast our audio in this way too. If we were to do videos, people might start to focus on how they are coming across visually: does their hair look right, are their hands doing the right thing, are they looking at the camera etc. With talking audio, people can solely focus on what they are saying.

It has actually felt like a bit of a talking therapy in many cases. This is the first-time many people have been asked these types of questions. Questions which address how people are honestly feeling during this period. People have come out of the interview feeling lighter, as upkeep emotion has been lifted, and bonds have been formed between interviewers and interviewees over this shared experience.

How have you been during this pandemic?

Thank you for asking, I really appreciate it when people ask how you are doing and not what you have been doing. We always seem to focus on what other people have done and forget about how they are feeling.

Overall, I am feeling good. I am healthy, the people I love around me are healthy and I am feeling joyous to be out of lockdown (it’s the 2nd of December as I write these answers and I have celebrated this freedom with an oat milk cappuccino inside a very christmassy cafe!)

I also know what works to make me happy. It goes back to doing things to give you a focus each day. Lockdown has really helped me see what I want to do in the future. I have used this time to go on courses, find a mentor, network and start building on future plans.

As we’re out of a second lockdown and entering a new tier system, students may feel that they’re losing motivation and finding it harder to be productive when our lives are dictated by rules which are constantly changing week by week. What can students do to not lose sight that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel?

I would say set your own rules. Make your own routine. We are creatures of habits, after all, so it’s important to form good ones.

This is a bit of advice from Buddhist Philosophy: have the mornings to yourself. Wake up, read, exercise, mediate. The rest of the day is, supposedly, for acts of service. This translates as work, university, volunteering etc.

By setting up the mornings for ourselves, we are setting the day in the positives. As we go through the day we go into the negatives (ran out of coffee, we have university assignments, and, of course, the realization that we are in a pandemic!) A positive start to the day means still taking some negatives from the morning but seemingly ending the day in the positives.

Finally, I would say make gratitude part of your everyday routine. At the end of the day say three things you are grateful for (I practice this with my partner, having someone to do it with keeps you accountable!) Doing this makes you realise there are soooo many things you can be grateful for. Even if, like it is for us, food based!

What can students do to get involved and contribute to your podcast?

So, you can:

  1. Tell your account in an interview
  2. Send in a written account (anonymous or include your name or pic)
  3. Send in other forms of artwork to express how they are feeling (literal art, photography, poem). I think we are going to hold a prized competition soon related to this subject.

Also, follow the socials! We are really active on Instagram at the moment and do daily stories to help students (Mental Health Monday, Tips Tuesday, Workout Wednesday, Thoughtful Thursday, Foodie Friday, Suggestion Saturday, Soul Sunday). Please do follow the socials and write to us what you do for each of these days!

We want to build a community of students who are supporting each other. The more people who get involved, the more this can hopefully happen!

Where to find us:

Spotify – The Pandemic Podcast: Student Life During COVID-19

Instagram – @the.pandemicpodcast

Facebook- The Pandemic Podcast

Header image credit: The Pandemic Podcast