Sustaining your academic network in quarantine

Originally published on the University of Birmingham PGR Development Blog (May 11th, 2020)

With Covid-19, what was once the fate of a few students has now become the new norm. Everyone is studying from home these days. But being an effective remote student doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a while to adjust to this new way of studying. I have been a distance-learner Ph.D. student at the University of Birmingham for the past two years and, trust me, I am still learning a lot on how to effectively study remotely! Today I would like to share with you a few tips on how to build and sustain your academic network while studying remotely.

You are not alone!

The most difficult and common hurdle to remote studying is psychological. It is to associate studying from home with being alone. This may accurately describe your physical state – being in isolation at home – but it does not mean that you are on your own. Others are waiting to connect with you in the virtual world. If you are new to remote studying, a good exercise to begin with is to mind-map your existing academic network in the physical world (supervisors, academic support staff, mentors, peers, colleagues…) then match your entries with all the virtual social networks you use. Look for weak ties, and find ways to match the gap by potentially adopting new apps/software. As you transition from presence-learning to distance-learning, you’re not leaving your campus connections behind you! You’re just taking them with you to the virtual world.

Maintaining your peers networks

Getting together with other people in your field while studying remotely is key. At the two-week induction of my Ph.D. program, I started a cohort with a few students from my department. We decided to meet every month over Skype to catch up and exchange ideas. It has been a real blessing to my studies. The University recently set up the Common Room Project on Discord (if you’re a student at the University of Birmingham, you can access the page here). See how you can connect with your peers from the University and start your own cohort.

Making the most of your supervision

I am pretty confident in saying that most distance-learners do not make the most of their supervisory relationship. Supervision is not a “once-in-a-while” type of relationship. It is not a tiny window that we open one hour only and do not dare to reopen until the following month.

When studying remotely, you should absolutely be in frequent contact with your supervisor. Remember that he/she is there for you. Never hesitate to get in touch with your supervisor to ask questions or just to say hi. That’s the way it goes on campus isn’t it? You’re on your way to the library, and stop at the coffee shop to grab your morning latte. Surprise! Your supervisor is there waiting in the line. You engage in an informal conversation and start talking about the unusual sunny weather in England recently. The conversation naturally flows into your research area. Your supervisor read an interesting article recently, and will send it to you when back in the office. This is exactly the type of relationship that should not be lost when moving to remote studying. Try as much as you can to initiate these types of conversations and to be in regular contact with your supervisor.


1.Acknowledge their feelings on a frequent basis

Teenagers are at a funny crossroads when it comes to feelings. They have the verbal ability to share what they experience but at the same time they tend to think (especially boys!) that it is really lame to externalize what they go through emotionally. In times of crisis like the one we are facing now, it is fundamental to make sure you acknowledge your teenagers’ feelings. 

So together with your teenager, map out all the different feelings he/she has experienced recently. Complement it with a tool called a “wheel of emotions”. I personally like to use the one created by Robert Plutchik’s (find it here on Wikipedia), but I’m sure you can find other ones. Print it (big format) and pin it somewhere in your house. Make a mental note to look at the wheel with your teenager on a frequent basis. 

“It is fundamental to make sure you acknowledge your teenagers’ feelings”

2.Keep up with the routine. 

There’s no denying that your teenager is unsettled by this “new norm” of being confined at home all the time. We are all experiencing it, but teenagers are more sensitive to this due to their discomfort at processing feelings. This is perfectly normal. Don’t worry if it takes a little for your teenager to adapt to confinement.

But in this time of deep uncertainty, it is even more important to give your teenager a sense of routine, with a daily schedule of recurring activities that happen at the same time each day. Waking up in the morning, doing school work, eating meals with the family, exercising, and going to bed: try to keep those as “normal” as you can. A healthy rhythm of life will help your teenager to gain motivation. Your parenting skills will obviously be tested (sorry about that!) and your teenager might fight back when you try to set boundaries and put a healthy routine in place. Don’t give up, and be positive in your approach. Discuss the matter with your teenager. Try to make a list of ten special “weekend treats” you could start implementing, that would certainly cheer him/her up!

3.More screen is not the answer

I’m reading more and more alarming studies coming from the US regarding screen time and teenagers. There is a huge rise in social media participation and gaming. Some would say this is perfectly normal because teenagers are at home all the time now. I say we should not fall for this easy solution and fight back. Since when does being at home mean being on our phones all the time?

“Since when does being at home mean being on our phones all the time?”

With the mass-spread of virtual schooling, and virtual youth activities, your teenager is already spending way too much time on a screen. There is absolutely no need to add to these many hours of necessary screen additional hours on the phone or gaming. As tempting and easy as it is, more screen is not the answer. You will end up with a grumpy, hyper, and passive teenager. What to offer instead? The answer is not easy and requires tapping into your teenagers’ creative heart. Together sit down on the couch and list all the activities your teenager would like to do. Painting? Reading? Writing? Learning? You name it. Make suggestions without imposing anything. Try to get your teenager to find something on his/her own. Do not ban gaming and social media completely. It’s good for your teenager to keep in touch with friends and it’s ok to game a bit, as long as it is done in the right setting. Have your “family tech rules” ready. Haven’t written these rules yet? Now is the best time to do it!

4.Help them stay connected

In our current environment, it is really easy to be overwhelmed with everything that is happening in the world and go back to “survival mode”, whatever form it may take. Your teenager will be exactly the same – if not more. For some teenagers “survival mode” literally means going into emotional hiding and waiting for things to get better. So it is really important for you, parents, to help your teenager stay connected with the outside world and avoid solitude.

            The best way to do so is to map out the different social groups of your teenager and check which ones he/she is in contact with. Football friends, family members, church youth group, boy-scouts..? Do you know when and how often these groups meet in this new age of isolation? Don’t forget to include in your map the family members your teenager would like to get in touch with. You might find out – to your surprise! – that Uncle Bob emerges from the brainstorming. Organize a phone call with Uncle Bob straight away! One last note: remind your teenager that Snapchat (and other social media) is not the best way to authentically share with their friends. A phone call or a video chat is a much better platform to express their feelings.

5.Invest in their spiritual life

I was on the phone with my great-uncle this week. He was telling me about WW2 and how he still remembers the long queues to buy food. In times of crisis, we are stripped away from our jobs, health, wealth, comfort, food, social relationships and many more things. It awakens deep questions about the meaning of life. Covid-19, like WW2, is a historical moment that your teenager will remember forever. You might not notice it yet, but it will undeniably have a lasting impact on him/her. Your teenager is processing everything and has on his mind many existential questions.

“Your teenager is processing everything and has on his mind many existential questions.”

Start to listen to these questions. Don’t dismiss them because you’re too busy. Take them seriously. Help your youth to find answers to these questions. Now is perhaps the best opportunity you’ve ever experienced to share your own faith with your teenager. It might feel awkward at first, but your teenager craves to connect with you on a spiritual level. If you are yourself wondering about God in this turbulent time, that’s great! Why don’t you and your teenager explore what it means to be in relationship with God together? “Ask, and you will receive” said Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew. We are going through tough times. Your teenager needs to spend time learning about God and be comforted by Him. You can make it happen! 


Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions:

Article from Glossy about social media participation: 

Article from Polygon about gaming:

Ash Wednesday – A Meditation

“You are dust, and to dust you will return”

This is the motto of Ash Wednesday.  this sentence is always taken out of context. This verse is from the first book of the Bible, Genesis, chapter 3, verse 19, and is part of a speech given by God to Adam just after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God introduced Adam to his new condition of “fallen-human”, or “exiled-out-of-the-garden”.

Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition that started in the first centuries. At the time, only some Christians would be sprinkled with ashes as a sign of repentance from their sins. In the Middle Age, the church institutionalized this tradition and on Ash Wednesday all believers received ashes in the shape of a cross on their forehead. And it became a holy-day.

So in essence, for one day – Ash Wednesday – we take on the role of Adam and consider that we are the recipients of the sentence that God intended for Adam. We impersonate the “fallen-human”, Adam, who was kicked-off the garden Eden with his wife Eve.

“You are dust, and to dust you will return”

So in case you do not catch the meaning of this verse, this is what it means in modern English: “In case you’ve forgotten, you are going to die one day. You are not Superman.” So here we are: made out of dust, and condemned by God to a mortal life that will end when we will return to dust.


To be completely honest with you, I find this motto and this tradition a bit morbid. The emphasis on death is not really my cup of tea. Yes I know I am a mortal human being, thank you Ash Wednesday for reminding me. But I think I much prefer kicking-off Lent around the pancakes batter than looking at a small pot of ashes and putting some on my forehead. 

As a pastor, I once received the advise by a congregant that if there is one theological concept that we are all well aware, it is our finitude and the fact that we are all sinners. I don’t think we should spend too much time reminding people that they are sinners. We all know we are.

Also, it’s good to remind ourselves that Ash Wednesday is a Christian tradition, but not a biblical one. In the Old Testament, covering oneself with dust or ashes is part of a broader liturgy of repentance, but it is not literally the start of Lent (which by the way, is not in the Bible either).

But this is not the end of my message. 

There is a way to make sense of Ash Wednesday, without being lost in a “sin-focused tradition” that is rather depressing and morbid.

So here is the thing. Or as Jesus would say: now is the time to open you ears!

The bottom line is that Christians can only make sense of death in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And the only way that Christians can make sense of the rules that are present in the Old Testament is through the lens of Christ and the New Testament. Genesis and the many stories of the 1st creation help us to understand where we come from, which is great but not really helpful when it comes to understanding where we are heading.

We cannot talk, celebrate, or commemorate death like we do at Ash Wednesday, without a clear and explicit mention of the resurrection of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. For Christians death is not the end. There is more to come. And for Christians, death is not the beginning either, because now, here and now, is the beginning.

Life in Christ, and resurrection is much bigger than death.

Try this exercise today. Check with family, friends, and colleagues at work and ask around you who believe that death does not exist. Most of people will tell you “well yes of course you dummy, death exist”. But what about resurrection? 

I – along with many Christians – believe that when Jesus came on earth, he changed the earth in a cosmological way. Which means that the very essence of the earth was transformed. And because the essence was transformed, so our existence was, is, and will be transformed. 

In other words, things would never be the same after Jesus died for us on the cross. So today is the starting point of this journey – called Lent – that leads us to Easter. And today I don’t want just to repeat the words for the Old Testament.

With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it is not true that we are just “dust”. With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we became a lot more than dust.
With the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are stardust.

We carry in us the love of Christ, the mark of the Blessed, the trace of the Resurrected One, the sign of the new Creation.

So I invite you today to go into the world not with rounded shoulders, heavy with sin, guilt, and shame, but with a straight and healthy position, being reminded of the incredible worth that you carry deep inside you, as followers of Christ, and with the Holy Spirit living inside you.

Prescription for the loneliest-generation-ever

UCLA conducted a very interesting study recently. I summarized for you the results in one sentence. Watch out, it’s painful to read:

We are lonelier than we’ve ever been; and loneliness is now proved to be a cause of premature death.

There might be many factors to explain why the younger generations are suffering from loneliness a lot more than their parents: academic pressure, helicopter parenting, name it! But one will have difficulties convincing me that relationship with social media is not the predominant factor to explain increased loneliness among Gen-Z.

So my prescription for the loneliest-generation-ever is simple: force yourself to hang out with people. And by hanging out, I mean doing something with a physical person in the physical world. Texts to a friend, likes on Instagram, snapchats with new filters don’t count. We are talking of old-school real-world conversation here.

So call 5 people now. (if you are a parent, do it with your youth) Ask to meet up next week. Fill up your calendar with these 5 meetings. It might require to change your schedule a little bit, but that’s a good sign! Human relationships require sacrifices. But they are not a cause of premature death. Loneliness is.