QMU Stories of Covid

Stories of Covid: Trauma, Trivia Joy Perspectives from a community


In May 2020 I received a telephone call from Fiona Coutts, Dean of Health Sciences. She’d been chatting with Paul Grice our Principal and they were noting some of the hard-hitting anecdotal stories they’d been hearing since the first lockdown of the COVID-19 2020 pandemic. This made them think that maybe there could be a way of representing these stories in a more formal way, as a means to share the experiences of our community and further, to capture this moment in time as an archive for those who come behind us. Thus, the stories of COVID project was born.

Over the course of the next nine months we designed the project, completed an ethics application, and put out a call for stories. This was followed by recruitment of a subgroup and through a series of five workshops we reviewed the stories and considered how best to present them. We agreed on a virtual exhibition as our first output.

This report tells a tale of two stories: (i) the production of the virtual exhibition (Artsteps) curated from the stories that were submitted to the project and (ii) the group process used to get to that end point.

The virtual exhibition showcases the wide range of creative talent in our QMU community. The subgroup members all felt privileged in reviewing the submissions. Their reactions to the stories mirrored the key themes of the submissions: trauma, trivia and joy. The space to reflect in the workshops was a welcome distraction from the busyness of work that in part had been exacerbated by COVID.

Stories of Covid 


The COVID-19 pandemic is one of the largest public health emergencies of our time. The impact on daily life has been immense: lockdown, social distancing, and furlough are examples of how lives have changed. Education across all ages has also been hugely impacted, with schools and Further and Higher Education closed for their usual business (Gov.uk). This has resulted in a reliance on working from home, home education and increased use of technology, which can be detrimental to wellbeing (Lades et al 2021). However, in the past year this has become the new normal for the majority of the UK population who are still working or in education.

Queen Margaret University (QMU) is a small University, founded in 1875 and located on the outskirts of Edinburgh. With just over eight thousand students QMU prides itself on being

“A university that is modern in our outlook and facilities but with a maturity built on a long history of serving the community, both locally and globally, and enhancing its wellbeing...... QMU’s vision is to be a university of ideas and influence, with one of its core values described as “inspiring to instil staff and students with a sense of belonging to the QMU community” (QMU Strategic plan 2020).

As anecdotal stories of the impact of lockdown began to emerge from within our university we considered it apposite to explore this further. A series of conversations resulted in a plan to invite our QMU community to share their stories of COVID.


  1. To explore individual and collective stories from the community of QMU on our experiences of living through COVID 19.

  2. To share these experiences through co-created creative expression with our QMU community and beyond.

  3. To capture these stories as an archive for the future.

Central to this project was storytelling. Storytelling is a ‘collaboration between the teller and the listener(s)’ (Wacker and Silverman 2003).

Stories can take the form of myth, fairy-tale, life experience or case studies, to name a few. Oral stories go back thousands of years, with the form evolving through societal norms and technology (Parfitt 2019). Stories serve many functions including evoking empathy, communicating with others, exploring values and as a vehicle to transformational learning. However, as an apprentice storyteller the PI (Kath) wanted to use stories in the broadest sense of the word to reflect all art forms. Thus “stories”could also be in the form of audio/video, artwork or an alternative medium. Creative methods such as these reflect the principles of active learning (Dewing 2008) which draws upon multiple learning styles, senses, intelligences and methods to reflect on experience.

The Project:

Method:phase 1

The project was designed in three phases. Phase one involved all members of the QMU community, (i.e. all staff and students) being invited to participate in a creative project. We asked participants to submit a piece of their choosing: a poem, drawing, recording or blog that reflected an experience of living through the first and second phases of COVID 19. The key themes around submission of these pieces was Trivia, Trauma and Joy. Participants could choose one or all of these themes, and we hoped for a range of positive and less positive outputs to reflect a range of experiences.

At the same time all participants were asked to indicate if they would be willing to be part of a collaborative that reviewed the submitted pieces of work. This collaborative (n=8-10) would work together through a series of (online) workshops to undertake a thematic analysis, create a collective story of our experiences and evaluate the process (Phase 2). We expected this collaborative to be drawn from a range of staff (academic and support) and students across a variety of disciplines to reflect the diversity of QMU’s portfolio and community.

We hoped that the stories might be shared in a number of ways that would showcase and involve our own students in a community of learners (Phase 3). E.g. as a performance (drama students), as a film (media students), as a story book (humanities students) or as a piece of music or song (therapies students).

Ethics review was sought from QMU prior to beginning the project. This created some challenges and some opportunities and shall be discussed later.

Results: Phase 1


Thirty three stories were submitted to an online platform created for the purpose of the project. We received a variety of media (Table 1).

Table 1: Submission, personal and status 


Number submissions

Comments Personnel 

Poetry written

13   3 students, 10 Staff
Video and poetry 2   Staff
Posters 2   1 staff, 1 Student
Painting/drawing 6

2 individuals, 1 collective

3 Students and 2 Staff

Written monologue




Tik Tok video




Video monologue




Report (written)




Music Audio




Music video




Written reflections 2 with photographs


1 individual, 3 collective

1 Student, 9 staff, 2 local residents




ASSAM 4, SS 3, SMT 3, HS 20

KEY: ASSAM=Arts, Social Sciences and Media, HS= Health Sciences, SS=Support Staff, SMT= Senior Management Team.
Note: some individuals submitted more than 1 piece, some collective groups submitted 1 piece.

The majority of submissions came from the School of Health Sciences (20) with roughly the same numbers coming from the school of Arts, Social Sciences and Media, support staff and members of Senior Management (4,3,3). Additionally, two members of the wider local community submitted pieces. Although the most popular medium of submissions was poetry (15 poems), we were pleased to receive a wide range of submissions incorporating multiple types of media (Table 1).

We asked for stories to be submitted under three themes: Trauma, Trivia, Joy. Most submissions incorporated all three themes (15), with fewer submitted under a single theme, (Table 2).

Table 2: Submission by theme




All three

7 5 6 15

The stories will be discussed in more detail on page 13 (Stage 2 reviewing stories).

Methods: Phase 2


Thirteen participants applied to be part of phase 2 of the project. This involved participation in five, 3 hour online workshops, designed to review the applications and consider how best to present the stories. Our aim was to have a representative group from across the university. We also had an application from a local resident to take part in the subgroup. However they felt unsure of using the technology in the online workshops and unfortunately withdrew. Subsequently three others were unable to participate or withdrew after the first session due to workload or timetable clashes. The final group of nine were as follows:

Table 3 Participants, Phase 2





Senior Management










Support Service


Support Service




The workshops were designed to include a number of approaches; namely Participatory Co-design (Kings Fund n.d), Practice Development (PD) (McCormack et al 2013) and Active Learning (Dewing 2008). Co-design takes an iterative process, thus it was impossible to say at the outset what the final outputs might be. Normally Co-design approaches are adopted in Health care projects, where service users and staff work together as a collaborative to redesign services. The process involves gathering experiences, identifying key touch points (emotionally significant) and then working together to improve services. The nature of the process involves power sharing, use of creative methods and small group working (Kings Fund n.d). Many of these principles were adopted for this project.

PD is defined as

‘A continuous process of developing person-centred cultures. It is enabled by facilitators who authentically engage with individuals and teams to blend personal qualities and creative imagination with practice skills and practice wisdom. The learning that occurs brings about transformations of individuals and team practices. This is sustained by embedding both processes and outcomes in corporate strategy”.

(McCormack et al. 2013).

Finally, Active learning (Dewing 2008) draws upon multiple learning styles, intelligences and creative methods to support reflection. Whilst in this project we were not reflecting on our own specific experiences, but on the stories of others, many of the stories resonated with our own personal Covid journeys. Active learning also involves playful learning, which can help break down barriers and power imbalances. This supports the process of dialogue and shared decision-making. This would be important in the group which constituted a broad range of people from across the university.

As stated in the PD definition, process is seen as of equal importance to outcomes. This section therefore will discuss the processes involved in the five workshops as well as considering the stories and their destination. We agreed learning outcomes for each of the workshops. These were focused around three stages across the five workshops, with every stage having inbuilt processes to evaluate each session.

Stages across the five workshops

  1. Getting to know each other and feeling safe (workshop 1)

  2. Reviewing stories (workshops 2-4)

  3. Action planning to decide on outputs from the stories (workshop 5)

Workshop 1: Aims of the session

    1. Get to know each other and expectations of the project and process

    2. Establish initial trust through agreed ways of working.

    3. Explore and agree a process through which we analyse, collate and present the stories

    4. Start exploring some stories

    5. Carry out a process evaluation using participatory methods.

Workshop 2: Aims of the session

    1. Revisit the ways of working and agree /make changes

    2. Agree a process through which we watch, discuss, record and present the stories

    3. Work in two groups and start exploring some stories

    4. Carry out a process evaluation using participatory methods.

Workshops 3 & 4: Aims of the session

10. Continue to work in two groups and explore some stories

11. Start considering what our outputs will look like

12. Carry out a process evaluation using participatory methods.

Workshop 5: Aims of the session

13. Review what we’ve done to date

14. Consider how we take this forward

15. Formulate an Action Plan

16. Carry out a process evaluation using participatory methods.

Stage 1: Getting to know each other and feeling safe

We used a variety of “check in” activities each week to help the group to get to know each other and feel comfortable to speak up. These were designed to be fun and get people to relax. Techniques such as these also help people to “get into the space” and leave where they’ve come from behind (Clemens 2010). Activities included caption competitions, questions such as: What biscuit/colour are you and why? We also spent a considerable time establishing ways of working by asking the question: “Whatwould help us to create a safe space to work together?” and more challengingly perhaps, “what would help us to create a brave space?”. Cook-Sather (2016) contends that brave spaces set a tone and mode for engagement that encourages people to speak up and supports agency. This was reflected in the meeting notes afterwards where bravery and authenticity were seen

Table 4: Agreed ways of working

  • Get to know each other as people
  • Be authentic and our true selves
  • Be honest with each other
  • Be brave and challenge each other
  • Don’t take challenge personallypage12image41035712
  • Trust each other to respect the confidentiality of the stories
  • Be true to the stories, our job is to curate and not interpret them.
  • Take off your academic hats, we’re not here to judge or critique the stories
  • Recognise that all voices are equal- set aside the day job and roles to equalize perceived power differences
  • Stress that everyone needs to commit to all sessions in order to see the big picture, if you’re in you’re in, if you’re not in you’re out.
  • Recognise that people have been brave in submitting stories and be appreciative
  • Have fun and enjoy it
  • Be open to everyone’s ideas no matter how crazy they are
  • Acknowledge that we’re all here because of a common goal
  • Be able to be emotionally vulnerable and sensitive to how we present the stories
  • Ensure we have a democratic space as we recognise we come from many different perspectives

Figs 3 & 4: Working online in Teams to review stories

Following establishment of our ways of working Kath shared a submitted story (poem) with the group, then in break out rooms the two groups were asked to discuss the process we might use to analyse and present the stories. Coming back together into one group it was clear that there were some variances about how we might work in groups. For example, one group preferred to read/review each piece individually for a few moments, then quietly reflect before sharing thoughts with the group. The other group wanted to review each piece together and in the case of written pieces (poetry, narrations) a group member would read the story out loud to the others. In the spirit of co-design and participation each group chose to differ and focus on its chosen method of reviewing.

Other discussions focused on the need for efficiency. We asked: should everyone read every submission or should we split them by group? It was clear that there was enthusiasm to each review every submission, thus we would have to allocate equal time to each story and ensure we achieved our target number each session. This was challenging but was achieved. We also allocated roles and responsibilities within groups to ensure we were on target to achieve our outcomes.

A further dialogue ensued about our role in reviewing the stories. It was agreed that our task was not to carry out a thematic analysis whereby we would be dissecting the stories and sanitising them according to our own criteria, rather our role was to curate them as whole work in themselves and to perhaps create linkages between the stories. However, it was also acknowledged that this was an iterative process and may not follow the course we had chosen at the outset.

Results: Phase 2

Content of stories: Trauma

The scope of stories was wide ranging. For example, under the trauma category, some told of working in acute care, nursing patients with Covid. Others were in care homes, trying to explain the death of residents to other residents whilst managing their own emotions. Some had stories of contracting Covid and the fear that brought. Others spoke of isolation and fear of going outside.

“I was told to stay safe, I was told to stay home
I can’t go out to explore or to roam My walls are closing in, they’re making me feel smallThey’re stifling and suffocating me, reducing me to a crawl”

“With a lump in my throat Another goodbye, another prayer I return to an empty flat Feeling lonely, emotional and bare”

Food emerged as an important focal point of lockdown. Submissions discussed learning new skills such as baking banana bread and sourdough. Others spoke of sheer volumes of food created through their participation in voluntary kitchens. Alternativey, there was also acknowledgement of finding pleasures in the small things, like an ice cream or a new found coffee shop.

Content of stories: Joy

The theme of Joy was populated with stories of friendship, community, nature and hobbies, such as painting, and gardening. People reported getting to know neighbours in a way they hadn’t before, through the Thursday night claps for carers and local walks. Others found joy in volunteering through projects such as food preparation and connecting volunteers through setting up a database. Some submissions were presented as a collective, where people baked, painted or gardened together and new friendships were formed or existing ones strengthened.

Stories submitted under all three themes also made reference to the above, but additionally workload and technology were a recurring issue. Given that many of the submissions came from academic staff, perhaps this is not surprising as much of academic teaching has moved from face-to-face to online during the pandemic, creating an increase in workload and a need to upskill to meet technological demands. However, it could be argued that this move is not limited to academic staff.

Technology was viewed as a double edged sword: a means of connecting people, socially and academically but the relentlessness of platforms such as Teams and Zoom often left little room to separate work and play. This could create feelings of fatigue and for some, especially those involved in home schooling children, guilt at not managing any one thing effectively.

Reactions to the stories

Both groups experienced many similarities in their feelings and reactions to the stories. These were recorded on two spread sheets so that each group could record their reflections from review of the stories. This was merged into one master spreadsheet at the end of project. A few examples are shown below:

Stories of COVID video:

Group 1 comments

“A refreshing and brave submission put into a video clip.Views of a mother expressing guilt, being torn between giving the children and work sufficient attention She expresses hope and joy and appreciation of friends, neighbours and for the community”.

Group 2 comments

“Exhausted, we can't be everything, we are our worst critics, documentary style, honesty, simplicity, overwhelmed”

The Zoomettes
Group 1 comments:
“There was joy in the photos. It captures the essence and importance of friendship- routine and ritual. Also, throughout the weeks, noticed little things like the variety but also occasional repetition of outfits!”

Group 2 comments:

“Friendship, sweet, hopefulness, connectiveness with references, humour, joyful, uplifting, draws you into the friendship, determination”

Reviewing and discussing the stories together was a very powerful experience. Some of the stories were hard hitting and moved us to tears, while others made us laugh out loud. Sometimes stories were so powerful that after a story was reviewed there would be silence. This time together sharing strong emotions had an unexpected outcome of bringing us closer together. This was expressed in the group meeting notes and was evidenced by one of the evaluation padlets.

Meeting 3 notes:

“Groups are getting to know each other as individuals and it’s nice”

Meeting 5: 1 word evaluation:

“Joyous, Excited, Happy, Forward-thinking, Mindful, Grateful, Thrilled, Smiling”

Padlet evaluation

The group were at all times concerned about preserving the authentic voice of the stories and wanted to ensure that the visceral responses to stories experienced by us would not be lost in their collective presentation. Thus the outputs that we chose would be critical to these intentions.

Stage 3: Action planning to decide outputs

By workshop 3, the group was facilitated to consider what they might imagine outputs from the project would look like. This was done in a variety of ways, such as trigger questions within the workshops and online padlets, (Padlet.com, n.d.). A variety of suggestions were offered and a list of priorities constructed, including an exhibition, a performance, and a film. It is envisaged that there will be multiple outputs from the stories, however a taster film was prioritised followed by the production of a virtual art exhibition. These can be viewed here.

QMU Covid Stories Stories of Covid 

We were fortunate to have a Masters Student in Arts Culture and Festival Management in the group, who volunteered to try to develop the exhibition and co-opt some class mates to help. Over the course of the next two months two students put together a proposal, and worked with some of the team to create the final product (Phase 3).

Process to create exhibition

  • Create Artsteps Account
  • Organize Submission by category
  • Create Master Spreadsheet and file
  • folders
  • Learn Artsteps Capabilities
  • Promotion image creation and title
  • jpegs
  • Review submissions and apply
  • ranking designation for organization Convert files to correct file types
  • Artsteps planning meeting:
  • Categorized the submissions for wall placement, tentative curation plan created, tentative gallery layout created
  • Audio recordings scheduled and completed First draft completed
  • Send out for peer review
  • Make corrections
  • Contact marketing
  • Launch Virtual Exhibition

Early feedback has been very positive, and further plans are now afoot for a physical exhibition and a drama/movement performance of some of the stories.

Evaluation: The collective story

As stated in the summary, this is a tale of two stories. The second story; that of the groups’ journey, was explored in detail in the final session which encouraged the group to map their journey using the KAWA model (Teoh & Iwama 2015). This model is used in Occupational Therapy practice as a metaphor to describe the life journey, but we adapted the context to the stories of COVID project. Below is one participant’s story. This highlights the environment (context we were working in), the rocks, or blockages (challenges) and the spaces for opportunity that help the river to flow.

Overall the evaluations were hugely positive with all agreeing that we were privileged and humbled to be part of this project. The environment was seen as supportive, with space to reflect and opportunities to learn, not just about the stories, but about each other and some of the facilitation methods used in the workshops. The rocks (barriers) were reported as time constraints and technological issues. In an ideal world workshops would be delivered face to face, however as is reflected in the submissions, we have had to adapt to and accept that technology was the best way forward. The ongoing evaluation within the workshops, the Padlets and the KAWA models were collated by the facilitator (Kath) who created a collective story to capture our experiences of the process.

Stories of COVID, our collective story

A random group together, not knowing what we’d find Anxious, nervous, tentative, but with open hearts and minds The task ahead was daunting, huge responsibility Privileged positions, viewing vulnerabilities

Setting up brave spaces, forging our connections Forming, storming, norming, starting our reflections Struggling with technology, wanting bodies in a room Mirroring reality of Microsoft teams and zoom

Up against time pressures, wanting to do justice Choosing different methods, hearing different voices Agreeing we could differ, towards similar destinations Individual silence, spoken-aloud narrations

Caption competitions, what colour are you today? Padlets, KAWA’s CCIs, to help us on our way
And so we make decisions, curate and leave them be Not alter their very essence or authenticity

Journeying together, viewing snap shots of our times Holding different lenses, reading between the lines Walking through a process of review and contemplation Visceral responses to others’ situations

Trying to be authentic to the stories we were told Avoiding analysing, trying just to hold
the space, and sense the stillness there while all the while supporting and showing loving care

Astonished at the artwork, in awe of creativity We identified and empathised, showing sensitivity
Being brave together, developing, growing strong We laughed and cried through the dark and light, continuing to bond

Moving thro’ the stillness, humbled and emotional Heartbreak and heart-warming, commitment never optional honesty and openness, brings us closer still Covid’s consequences of joy and bitter pills

A virtual exhibition, the first of many plans Excitement, creativity, the whole world in our hands And afterwards a walk through, seeing it for real Physical and visceral, ensuring people feel
As we did, on viewing others’ worlds Evoking deep emotions at their trauma and their pearls.

A film perhaps, a storybook, performance at the Festival Using our connections, making it accessible
employing social media to circulate to all The uniqueness of experience, profundity and recall For we’ll create an archive for those who’ve yet to be Made aware of this strange episode in our QM history.

Limitations of the project

Several issues are worthy of noting on the challenges of this project.

Ethical considerations:

Do no harm

Issues around safeguarding those whose stories may have been traumatic were important to acknowledge. Based on the principle of “do no harm” we ensured that participants had access to a skilled professional who was independent of the project.

Security of data and compliance

Submission of a range of multi-media to a custom-built secure platform required a truly collaborative approach across the institution. This included support from senior management, marketing and IT and media services alongside the research team. We sought guidance on submission of video and audio recordings to ensure consistency and compliance with copyright and issues of public decency. All but two submissions were from staff or students in the university. Two local residents also submitted but had no IT accounts. Special arrangements were made but this was complex. Thus, whilst we would have welcomed submissions from the wider local community, this was simply not practical. We acknowledge that supporting submissions from the wider community may have created a different story, however the two stories that were submitted from outside the university, highlighted the importance, that the campus and the staff had on their wellbeing during lockdown. This is a really important outcome for us and aligns with our vision of serving the community and enhancing its well- being.

Consent and confidentiality

Guidance was also given on the need to protect confidentiality through eliminating identifiers in the stories, but we also had to consider consent and confidentiality in relation to the submissions of photographs or videos. A common example was a screenshot sent from a zoom or teams meeting that included many participants. For this to be accepted all participants would need to sign a separate consent form, so in reality this was not practical and the photos were omitted. This had the potential to alter stories from their original form.


We recognise that “Stories of Covid” is a snapshot in time which focused particularly on the first lockdown. In writing this report we are just beginning to emerge from Lockdown two, which may for some portray a different story. We are considering this in our future outputs, and, for example, have had discussions on how we may be able to draw some comparisons between the two periods in future projects.


This project set out to capture creatively a university community’s experience of Covid 19. Creating brave spaces and role modelling a combination of Co-Design, Practice Development and Active Learning methods supported the team to explore their own stories. Through this process we have created an exhibition that we are proud of and that captures a snapshot in time of what it was to live in this strange period. Our collective experiences of the process of review mirrored the submission themes of Trauma, Trivia and Joy.

We need to take account of the Trauma, Trivia, and Joy experienced by the participants in this project and reflect on how we can continue to develop and grow as a community. We call upon leaders and policy makers to listen to these stories and consider what has been learned and where the lessons for future support and learning lie.


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