Abi Kelly, Director of International Engagement and External Relations at RCSI University of Medicine and Health Science, Dublin, Ireland, looks back at how the institution handled the unprecedented challenge of Christmas holidays during COVID-19 and how they looked after their international students. The piece follows Abi’s session at our virtual conference which explored the growing importance of student experience during the pandemic.

As a university of more than 70% international students, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Sciences has faced an unprecedented challenge in supporting students to stay in Ireland this Christmas.

In a typical year, only a minority of our students would stay in Dublin at the end of this semester, but this year, the vast majority of over 1,500 students were with us for the holidays.

Because of the health and safety risks of overseas travel and the possible impact to their academic progression were they to get sick or need to isolate, we strongly advised our international students against travelling to their home countries.

While we couldn’t mandate this, we instead impressed upon students their professional responsibilities as future healthcare leaders to make this difficult decision for themselves.

With so many students making this tough choice, we needed to give them something to look forward to during the two weeks when the University was closed.

The starting point was to bring together a working group of staff from across the university who could plan and get creative to devise a programme of support and events within the restrictions of Covid-19.

Starting in September, our multi-disciplinary team concentrated on five main strands of safe activities: Christmas catering, an outdoor events programme (until 22nd December), student volunteering, on-line Clubs and Societies events from the Students’ Union and student facilities and wellbeing.

The result was a Winter Holiday programme that aimed to demonstrate to students – but also to their parents and loved ones – that we were thinking about them and making every effort to look after them over the Christmas break.

From providing 1,500 RCSI Christmas stockings funded by staff and alumni and packed by an army of volunteers drawn from across the university, to staff baking 450 festive cakes with handwritten greetings to students, the programme was a chance for colleagues to show their support for our students in these difficult times.

Of course, adherence to the necessary health and safety guidelines of Covid-19 made logistics and planning that more complicated. To avoid mixing between students or creating any large gatherings, we designed the programme so that students remain in the Learning Community ‘bubbles’ they have been allocated since the start of term.

This has meant that stockings needed to be collected by year groups from various collection points across campus and our events programme was geared around Learning Communities exploring outdoor parks and sites across Dublin. When the Irish Government announced on 22nd December further restrictions we had to revise our plans quickly to only allow online events and with restaurants ordered to close on Christmas Day, we had to rethink our original plans to provide take-away Christmas Dinners on the 25th from a nearby hotel and bring this forward to Christmas Eve with students ticketed to collect at allotted times.

RCSI alumni were particularly eager to help, donating over £5,000 for stocking gifts and sending us their favourite memories of things to do and see in Dublin at Christmastime which was compiled into a “Spirit of Christmas Past” location map and included in students’ stockings.

Support from our Students’ Union has also been invaluable. They launched a new website called ‘Student Life HQ’ in October to promote a range of on-line events they planned with Clubs and Societies.

A particular focus was to encourage and coordinate student volunteering in the Dublin area over the festive period. Students were matched with older people in the community and made-up festive hampers which they then delivered. We also had students making cards and decorations for care homes and their residents.

And together with our Outreach Team, students formed a virtual choir together with members of our community.

Once again, logistics were complex given the ongoing restrictions, but they were carefully thought-through to keep our students and our neighbours safe.

Working with the Health Service in Ireland, we have also arranged for over 70 of our senior healthcare students to become volunteer Covid-19 Contact Tracers over the Christmas holidays, providing extra capacity to the national system and giving students valuable training and skills.

We also took advantage of the University’s expertise in the field of Lifestyle medicine and applying this to our students with support from our Gym Team, where students in their Learning Communities got a 5-week in-person taster session involving the main elements of Lifestyle medicine – such things as exercise, nutrition and mindfulness and applying it to their own lifestyles.

Our mission statement at RCSI is “to educate, nurture and discover for the benefit of human health”; we like to think that we’ve applied this in our approach to making our students feel a bit more festive about the prospect of spending the holidays away from their families and loved ones this Christmas.

Abi Kelly, Director of International Engagement and External Relations, RCSI University of Medicine and Health Science, Dublin, Ireland.