Cambridge students Sophia Arora and Rustan Smith had very productive lockdowns. SOPHIA ARORA / RUSTIN SMITH

“Lockdown was something that felt obviously very alien, for everyone”, Rustan Smith told Eleanor Taylor. For many of us, thinking back to March evokes thoughts of banana bread, Tiger King, and Netflix binges, but Varsity reached out to those kinds of people that conciliated Netflix binges with actually getting out of bed and launching new projects.

Rustan Smith, a third year at Girton, spent his quarantine creating ‘From the Post’ – a website and mobile app that publishes charts, graphics, and data visualisations on the daily news.

The app was started to help combat coronavirus misinformation in the early days of lockdown, when he felt “people were getting varied information on the pandemic and measures being taken to control it”.

From the Post has now expanded to covering everything you might see on a traditional news site: Politics, Culture, Business etc., and the graphs range from displaying US election polls to the increase in Fortnite players.

Rustan puts a lot of focus on the accessibility of data: “you can find lots of massive data and graphics out there and lots of them are really complex and even beautiful. And that’s great, but for someone trying to get information in five, ten minutes, it’s hard to go through something that complex”.

“I’m kind of impatient and have a lot of things to do all the time, so lockdown was tough at first”, Rustan says. “But what it let me do was put my mind to something, so that at least I was working on something that was a bit challenging. Whereas at another time I might be working on a project and think ‘I’d rather be hanging out with people’ or ‘I’d rather go do different sports’, because, you know, FOMO.”

“Being digital, there’s an element of dragging things out – because there’s so much back and forth, it can be disorganised”

In the future, Rustan hopes to expand the ‘From the Post’ to create a platform where people can submit data and have it peer-verified, but not being able to work in-person has been difficult. He explains “the collaborative element, it was a bit hard for now. Being digital, there’s an element of dragging things out – because there’s so much back and forth, it can be disorganised.”

He is not alone – one poll shows that over a quarter of office workers are more collaborative and network more easily when in their usual workplace environment.

Student Sophia Arora, head of Cambridge University Consulting society, also used lockdown for innovating purposes. She led two initiatives to break down stereotypes surrounding the consulting industry.

Sophia produced a podcast that highlights the lived experiences of women in top managerial positions in the industry. She also launched a mentorship scheme that pairs up minority students with consultants, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

The idea to launch a podcast came to her amidst her virtual internship at consulting firm McKinsey. “When I was doing my virtual training at McKinsey, I realized that while at the entry level you get a lot of women applying, at the partner level you get a lot less women. Actually, only 17% of partners – which are higher-management positions – are women.” On her Spotify podcast, she “talks to those women who made it to the partner level”.

Sophia describes the structural barriers that keep women from achieving the partner status: “a lot of that is because of the long hours, the travel demands, and because women think they won’t be able to have a family in such a position”.

Some barriers, however, work in more subtle ways: “as girls, we tend to play down our achievements for fear of coming across as arrogant. A girl in an uncomfortable position will tend to excuse herself, whereas boys don’t really have that habit.” So, on her podcast, Sophia tries to discuss the ways in which girls can “empower themselves”.

Sophia also happened to be the only woman on the Cambridge University Consulting Society committee until she “explicitly asked another girl to join”. She is hopeful her podcast can provide “models of women who successfully broke down the glass ceiling”.

“Students of African-Caribbean often get pigeon-holed into the media, sports or music industry. What about all those other careers?”

Sophia launched the mentorship scheme in the wake of George Floyd's murder because she “got really frustrated with having all these conversations about institutional racism and other realities but not actually doing anything to change that”.

“Students of African-Caribbean descent at Cambridge and other universities often get pigeon-holed into the media, sports or music industry. But what about all those other careers?” This pigeon-holing was one of her incentives in launching the mentorship scheme.

Rustan Smith’s app and Sophia Arora’s scheme are just a few examples of what Cambridge students produced during lockdown.

From charities run by Cambridge alumni organising food distribution to medical students being fast-tracked to help out in hospitals, it seems like lockdown was a time when the separated community showed braveness and creativity.

(No worries if you were like us and your only creations were half burnt pastries though.)

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