It’s late October and a room in UAL’S Central St. Martins campus has been transformed into a safe space. A group of students sit around a table, sharing stories, giggling. Brown boxes clutter a table, filled with clippings, paper maps, recipes and hand drawings.
It’s the last leg of The Welcome Home Project – an initiative created by BA Culture, Criticism, and Curation students Isabel Salinas, Lucy Dearden, Naz Ayan, Xinyu Zou and Yulun Wang.
With ambitions of dismantling social barriers and inspiring conversation between all walks of UAL life, the project combats student isolation by creating and sharing ‘care packages’.
One particular brown box sits in the centre of the table. It’s filled to breaking point, overspilling with coloured cards, key rings and pictures. “This is a combination of all of our care packages,” says organiser Isabel.
A care package can include anything that creatively expresses one’s story and culture; this could include personal information, home town facts or examples of local cuisine.
“I’m from LA and also Latina so I put inside a map of places I found in London that had pieces of Mexican food. I also put postcards of places in LA that I really like to visit,” Isabel says.
“I made a paper chess board, a traditional Chinese game – we should play it tonight,” says Xinyu.
Isabel observes that the evening has been “really fun and creative, and the fact that other people were able to participate was really beautiful. I’m quite introverted, so I probably wouldn’t have reached out unless it had been for this project…we have formed new connections.”
Student Hui Xu has swapped her care package with another participant: “I wrote facts about my home and left a recipe in there. I also included some packaged candies from home and some Band-Aids with cute prints of East Asian cartoon characters,” she says.
In return, Hui received a collection of personal mementoes. This included a handmade zine exploring meditation and creativity, a small candle and an incense stick.
Attracted to the Welcome Home Project after experiencing the grip of isolation, Hui feels like the project will have positive repercussions.
“I’ve gotten to know some people from other courses and who they are; I think it’s a way for us to start building more connections. The idea of coming together to realise that many of us at uni are away from home and find this new uni lifestyle unfamiliar is comforting,” Hui says.
“[The project] seemed like a great way to know about people’s personal culture, especially when CSM is actually such a diverse place.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped university life. Comprising remote learning, virtual freshers and digital socialising, becoming a student has been unprecedently isolating. With COVID-19 measures now relaxed, university norms have been resumed – but the isolation that many have felt has never quite disappeared.
A 2022 survey found that 24% of UK students feel lonely “all” or “most” of the time. In 2018 – before the COVID-19 pandemic – this figure was at just 15%. It’s little wonder given that in recent years, students have learned through screens and been unable to mingle with peers.
Lockdowns and isolation have affected all members of the public, but students have been particularly impacted. A 2022 National Statistics Survey found 6% of the general population feels lonely always or often, compared to 24% of students.
This has had a spiralling impact and since the onset of the pandemic, the number of students suffering from depression have spiked. Despite this, solutions are never simple.
“After the pandemic, people may feel isolated after quarantining, we wanted to achieve the goal of breaking all borders, between people, between communities,” Xinyu told Artefact.
“So, we asked [participants] to put their cultural and background stories about themselves into a box, such as their hometown postcard and also their family recipes, things to introduce themselves.”
Initially created during a second-year module, the Welcome Home Project quickly expanded after the founders began collaborating with UAL’s Student Activity Dean.
Before the safe space event, organisers manned a stall on Central Saint Martin’s campus, which attracted the attention of many.
“We saw a lot of people from different backgrounds. Also, new students and former students and we also got a lot of tutors and people work here,” Xinyu said.
Often, connecting with fellow students – especially when this crosses international borders – can be challenging. However, The Welcome Home Project helped to make changes.
“We wanted to let [our project be] an opportunity for the students to get to know each other, and hold a safe space for [participants] to exchange their boxes. We wanted to break the borders of international students and local students,” Xinyu said.
“Maybe people are too busy to have a good time to sit down and talk to each other. But this activity [involves] meeting up with other people – and I think that way we’ll help to build connections.”
Another participant, Lucy, is the only domestic student on her course, said the project helped erase invisible barriers and cultivate new friendships.
“We got to the end of second year and realised that we didn’t really know each other that well and what a shame it was. We realised that we never really had the chance to mingle; but now we’re a lot closer, which is the success in my eyes,” she said.
Featured image by Mia Lynden
Edited by Alexandra Andronache