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South College in the Year of Covid

When Durham advertised for five new Heads of College, I knew instantly that I wanted to be Principal of South. As a seventeen-year-old at a Scottish comprehensive school in 1980, I applied to study History at Robinson College, Cambridge. Now, I wanted to help shape the personality of another new college. The wonderful experience of being one of Robinson’s first full intake of undergraduates fuelled enduring inspiration. I was determined to make South as thrillingly special for its first intake of students at this great university.  

First term – not quite as expected

Of course, when we planned South’s first Michaelmas term, we did not know that our students would choose to call themselves Southies. We certainly did not know that they and the superb South College Pioneer Scholars who have done so much to shape our College’s spirit of innovation and inclusivity, would have to build a new community during a pandemic. None of us would have chosen the challenge, but we agree that it has brought benefits alongside the frustrations.   

A wonderful alchemy that enhances unity in the face of adversity first showed itself during arrivals weekend. Pioneer Scholars in South College sweatshirts adapted brilliantly to the need for social distancing and welcomed every new arrival in person. Scholars who had learned the geography of their college only days earlier, showed each new Southie to their flat or town house. It was as if they had lived here all their lives.

‘Southies’ ready to welcome new students

Liberty, Equality and Global Citizenship

As they carried bags upstairs, opened doors and reassured anxious parents, the Pioneers explained our ideals. They explained the origins of our House names and the importance of the Pitcairn Building. Crucially, they revealed the central role our college mascot, Oswald the wooden owl, plays in our communal life. They displayed with immense pride our crest and college motto: ‘Libertas, Aequalitas, Civitas Totius Mundi’.

In the first weeks of term, new Southies swore loyalty to the College and these values in socially distanced matriculation ceremonies in The Hub. At equally distanced freshers’ formals, they toasted Oswald with a rousing oath of loyalty to Liberty, Equality and Global Citizenship, in the original Latin of course. Sadly, a few could not attend these occasions because they were self-isolating after a household member tested positive for Covid.

Freshers formal and Oswald the Owl

Amongst my favourite early memories of South was walking through the Plaza, South’s central public space, to see gowned students in their kitchens waving at me. Students in isolation had organised their own remote household formals so as not to be left out.  In windows throughout the College, images made from post-it notes appeared celebrating South College, Oswald, the value of free speech and the outstanding work of my colleagues Vice Principal Lee Worden, Assistant Principal Lynn Preston, and College Administrator Dr Steven Beckett.

The spirit of South College was vividly alive and when lockdown became more intense, we improvised with gusto. Few who attended will forget our Mad Hatters Tea Party in the Plaza. A social life was only possible in the open air, so we gambled on the weather and bought every luxury cake Tesco could offer. And fortune favoured the brave.  The sun shone brightly. Some hats on display deserved a place at Ascot or on a Paris catwalk. To mark Halloween, every member of the College team dashed to deliver a bucket of candy to each household before the ghosts caught us. On Armistice Day, we marked the moment the guns fell silent on the Western Front in 1918 with a short service of remembrance in the Plaza. First year Southie Charlotte Ward demonstrated her exceptional talent as a trumpet player with flawless renditions of the Last Post and Reveille.

Socialising had to be done outside

Locked down but looking ahead

We had hoped to crown our first term with a prestigious Durham Global Lecture in the Hub. John Ryley, multiple award-winning Head of Sky News and a proud Durham alumnus (Hild Bede 1981-1984) had accepted my invitation to deliver it. John’s only request was that he be able to join us at a South College Formal.  We were all looking forward to welcoming him. Of course, Covid meant he could not come. Instead John delivered his excellent lecture from a studio at Sky News. I interviewed him from the Principal’s office in the Pitcairn Building. The formal invitation stands. So does John’s acceptance. 

The end of term was marked by an unpredicted but astounding bonding ritual: mass lateral flow testing in the JCR. When we agreed to test the entire College by household, we anticipated long days, encased in PPE, supervising meticulous cleansing, and growing cold as frozen air flowed through the open doors.  It was chilly, but the joy of meeting students we had not seen for weeks reinforced our pride in South. Their commitment and sense of belonging were palpable. A college that tests together stays together, as the biblical phrase does not quite say. We all entered the Christmas break confident that Epiphany Term would be better.

There is no need to rehearse the disappointment that greeted news that rising rates of infection and new variants meant lockdown must continue. It was felt everywhere. However, in South, as in sixteen older Durham Colleges, the community has simply worked harder to maintain morale and take care of each other. With our community now spread beyond college to the rest of the UK and the wider world, huge pressure has descended on our welfare team and our superb JCR Executive.

Lynn Preston and her team have done sterling work to reach out via Teams, Zoom and, if necessary, by carrier pigeon. They have supported, consoled and listened. Our student welfare team led by Pioneer Scholar Haf Serajee has done superb work. Meanwhile, JCR President Richard Freeman has worked tirelessly and always cheerfully to organise and sustain an eclectic and engaging range of online entertainment.

Now, our eyes are fixed intently on two prizes: the first ever South College Day and South College Summer Ball. I know they will be superb. I know South will show that new really is best.  This community brought together in adversity has unique and valuable character. Now bring on that Summer Ball. With an Abba tribute band in the Hub, something a little gentler in the JCR/Café Bar and welcome drinks on the Principal’s glorious balcony, South will demonstrate that truly we have arrived.  On this, Oswald will not tolerate contradiction. And his claws are sharp.

Find out more

About South College.

Download our latest prospectus here.

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Professor Tim Luckhurst

Tim is Head of South College and Associate PVC for Engagement. Tim was most recently founding Head of the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. An award-winning journalist for BBC News and Current Affairs and former editor of The Scotsman newspaper.
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