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Town vs. Gown? How Covid-19 has changed my relationship with St Andrews

In March, when the Covid-19 pandemic became a not-so-distant threat, I joined my fellow St Andrews students in a mass homeward exodus. With everything I own on this continent in the hands of Sketch from Saints Storage and the key to my flat safely returned to Eve Brown, I got on the first Chicago-bound flight I could book. 

For the next five months, I lived in my childhood bedroom. Jobless, socially starved, and seeing no vaccine on the horizon, I found solidarity in carefully coordinated Houseparty calls with my St Andrews friends in distant time zones. We spoke of the fall semester as if it were all we had to look forward to – as if it were the light at the end of this unfathomable Covid tunnel. To us, going back to St Andrews meant going back to our own lives. It meant forward motion after a summer of standing still. 

That hopeful anticipation fluctuated with overwhelming feelings of insecurity. I’d grown accustomed to the shelter-in-place mindset, and while I desperately wanted momentum for myself, in my mind, summoning students from all over the world to a small town in Scotland during a global pandemic could only result in a huge step in the wrong direction for the community as a whole. 

Though I felt conflicted, the University made it clear that they wanted students on campus. In August, I boarded my flight back to Scotland having rationalized the situation, beleiving that I would benefit from access to university resources and a steady transition to in-person teaching. I knew full well that the coming semester wasn’t destined to satisfy my longing for normalcy, and I was on good terms with the fact that life, even in The Bubble, would be different.

St Andrews used to feel like a pop-up town; against the picturesque backdrop of cathedral ruins and coastal landscapes, the town’s eclectic ensemble of students, visitors, and locals existed in an idyllic and symbiotic coalition. We found unity in our common history and unique traditions, and we shared space in comfortable, predictable harmony. Now, though the scenery is the same, the players are different, and the context is like nothing any of us have ever known. Without the tourists and golfers, and with Covid changing how and where we interact, the dynamic between students, locals, and the place itself has new dimensions.

For us students, St Andrews was never just where we studied or where we lived. It’s where we built community for ourselves. Here, we have autonomy and routine and potential. We have structure, responsibility, and connection. It’s where we grow and become, where we learn and experience things that will define the rest of our lives. Like many of my fellow students, I consider this place home, but since returning, I haven’t felt that same sense of attachment to the town or ownership over my existence in it. 

While I have an unmistakable affinity for this place, Covid makes my roots in St Andrews unstable. Back in March, when the pandemic threatened my wellbeing and lifestyle here, I fled, and if the situation worsens again, I know I’ll be sent away. As students, we are transient – our experience in St Andrews confined to four fragile and fleeting years – while the local people are permanent. They have families and livelihoods here, pasts and futures, and they braved quarantine from their hometown, coping with the pandemic by adapting to a new way of being. 

It seems that when students re-entered St Andrews, we threw off the new balance that locals worked hard and sacrificed to find, but with the exception of some of our less respectful peers, students are making every effort to comply, to respect the town, and to keep ourselves, and those we live with, healthy. We adhere to curfews, limit our contacts, socially distance, track-and-trace, and wear our masks, but even so, I feel like an invader in a foreign social ecosystem. When someone calls the police on my seven-person household because they think we’re hosting a party, or when I catch an earful from a stranger who decides I’m walking too close to a friend, even when I step aside rather than pet a local dog or when my mask hides my smile to a neighbor, it’s an aching reminder that while St Andrews is exactly where I’m supposed to be, I don’t quite belong. 

I thought that coming back to St Andrews would press play on ‘real life’, that I’d find stability here after an off-center summer, but I’m still hovering in this sort of limbo, suspended somewhere between the St Andrews I knew and a St Andrews I’ve only just met – detached from this place when I need more than ever to feel connected to it. I’m confident that life here will remain uneasy for the foreseeable future, and the entire community – students and locals alike – must endure that uncertainty together. My hope is that we can forge a new normal where we all fit, but for now, I’m left wondering if St Andrews will ever again be home for me like it was before. 

Kate Mackie

St Andrews '22

Kate is a fourth year Geography and Sustainable Development student. Originally from Chicago, Kate is a Great Lakes girl through and through, but she's taken to life by the North Sea just fine.
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