Luka Gotsiridze (‘20) on Graduating Amid COVID-19
AUBG student from Georgia Luka Gotsiridze talks about staying on the AUBG campus during the COVID-19 outbreak, his work as an RA, and what it means to be a graduating senior in these unusual times.
As a graduating senior, what were your plans for after graduation and how has the current situation affected them?
After I came back from Work and Travel in August of last year, I was stressed because I realized that it was my final year at AUBG. Previously, I knew where I would be next year in August: on campus, conducting Orientation Week activities for first-year students as an RA.
I felt a bit scared this time. So, to secure myself from getting lost - I applied to many things in 2020: Master's programs, internships, jobs and Work & Travel. Unfortunately, COVID-19 affected all of it: Work & Travel is postponed, haven't heard anything from Graduate Schools and HR Offices can't sign my employment/internship documents because of the pandemic. I really hope that everything goes back to normal by May. Otherwise, me, as well as other seniors, should get creative to do something for living.
How is your online education going? What challenges and advantages do you see? How have the professors responded to this new way of teaching?
Online education is feasible. It's not the same as in-class teaching but it's not as bad as I expected. One of the biggest challenges that the online education brought is the problem with paying attention. At first, I found it hard to concentrate, focus and being fully present - I was distracted and felt scattered. However, I believe, when you find what the problem is and keep it in mind, it's easier to deal with it and keep going. One of the advantages of the online education is that we're getting used to learning and teaching online. 21st century: technological development, distance learning - we had to explore and use these innovations. AUBG shifted to it smoothly and easily but a bunch of universities or high schools had to put some effort to implement online teaching. My first class that I had on Canvas was Calculus I and honestly speaking, I didn't really expect it to be running so well. Of course, there are some technical difficulties from time by time that both of us -- faculty members and students – face, but overall, the classes are going well.
I know that you are currently doing your Capstone project. What is the topic and what do you hope to achieve with the project? Has the COVID-19 outbreak had an impact on your work?
My Capstone project is a hybrid-documentary podcast about a woman who was executed for witchcraft and sorcery in the 17th century Germany. Generally, more than 60,000 women were killed for this reason in those times and nowadays, historians state that witchcraft was definitely a gendered-phenomenon. After the outbreak, I changed some parts of the script. Since people in the 17th century thought that witchcraft was a disease and it could infect others (that's why they were burning bodies), I decided to expand the project, so the podcast could echo the social stigma that COVID-19 brought with it: Some people started to discriminate against others and impose labels on certain groups of people who share the same characteristics. So, my Capstone will address this issue as well as the issues that surround gender, belief, human rights and otherness. Other than this, because of the outbreak, some people left the campus and among those were the students who were enrolled in my Capstone. It was nerve-wrecking to find other students so fast and deal with the project while being pressured from external circumstances but it's interesting and fun at the same time.
What is the atmosphere on campus? Have your RA responsibilities changed and how?
The atmosphere on campus is strange. None of us have experienced this situation before, so it feels different. About 90 international students are on campus now: those who couldn't leave for many reasons - transit flights, expensive tickets, border closures, having elders in their households, etc. We try to keep ourselves healthy and safe, to minimize the time spent outside of the residence halls and to keep sane at the same time. It's not easy, but if we zoom out from the situation and don't look at it in the close-up mode, it's interesting to observe ourselves and figure out how we respond to these challenging times. As an RA, I can say that it was crazy for us the first few days: the residents were confused and they would approach us with many questions. Our emails and inboxes in Messenger were constantly bombarded with more questions. Obviously, we didn't have all the answers, so we had to address all of them to the administration. AUBG reacted earlier to the outbreak, even before the Bulgarian government announced the state of emergency, and so did we, as RAs: we started tracking people's temperatures, arranging the storage, assisting the residents with their questions and helping them to overcome the anxiety and stress.
You recently organized the Storytelling and Poetry Night online. What was the community’s response to it? Why is it important that we stay connected in times of social distancing?
Two years ago, I organized the first Storytelling Night on campus. We had it on the stage of our theatre, the distance between speakers and the audience was very little and the atmosphere felt magical and intimate. Prof. Laura Kelly, who teachers Storytelling at AUBG, came up with the idea to organize the Storytelling and Poetry Night online. I helped her with the execution of this project. We gathered over 30 participants in Zoom, it was also broadcasted LIVE on AUBG's Facebook Page and all of us shared some stories and read poems. I think this event was very important to us. As one of the professors at AUBG says, "humans are social animals:” we need each other to survive. It's great that we read books, watch movies or tv-shows during quarantine but also, I believe that it's essential to interact and socialize. That was the goal of our online Storytelling & Poetry Night - we believe that these two components set the mood, create emotions and connect people on deeper levels. Frankly speaking, our participants loved the event. The responses on Facebook Live were also positive. We are thinking to continue having events like this, so that people have a chance to engage outside of their classes and have informal conversations with one another.
You also took part in the 4th Bard International Network Debate Conference. Tell us a bit about your experience with it.
The conference was organized by Bard College Center for Civic Engagement and Central European University. The conference is called "Get Engaged: Student Action and Youth Leadership Conference." AUBG became a part of the Open Society University Network and as an AUBG student, I applied to this conference to present my Capstone project. The conference is about civic engagement and young people who are trying to use liberal arts as tools to develop solutions to address some challenges in their communities. Since my Capstone covered some of the human rights issues that are echoed in today's world, my Capstone project was selected for this conference. Initially, the conference was planned to take place in Budapest and me and my supervisor from the JMC Department, Jason Murphy, were planning to go, however, it was cancelled due to the outbreak. But the conference organizers decided to host it online and divide it into different parts. It started with a relaxing session that allowed us to reflect on the current situation and think of the ways we show resilience. For this conference, the Office of Communications and Marketing at AUBG helped me create a video about what civic engagement looks like on our campus. Since the physical conference is canceled, this video will be put up on the webpage of the Open Society University Network and therefore, we will have a watching party sometime soon. There are many more people who are involved in this project but I want to wholeheartedly thank two friends of mine, who are AUBG graduates: Fatme Tsiko, who designed the poster for the Get Engaged poster exhibition event and Dovlet Shyhmyradov, who is creating music for the podcast. Right after the conference kicked off virtually, all of the students from the partner universities shared with each other how the situation looks like on their campuses, how they’re coping with the pandemic and what tools they are using to keep people mentally and physically healthy and engaged. Also, this conference offers its participants microgrants, so that our projects can be expended.