Welcome to the Step Up Network blog

On Wednesday 29 July, the Step Up Network met online for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, and five women bravely shared their lockdown stories.

I’ve stopped trying to be Superwoman, because she is not a very happy woman.” 72 Cranfield colleagues breathed a collective sigh of relief as Alison Whaley, co-chair of the Step-Up Network, admitted live on Zoom that she has learnt to cut herself some slack and recommends we all do the same. This was not just another Zoom call: on a Wednesday lunchtime, five members of the Step Up Network shared their personal stories about what life has been like for them since the UK went into lockdown in March. From an audience perspective, it was refreshing and motivating, and at the same time heart-warming and comforting – the onscreen equivalent of a hug and a high five – neither of which we’ll be physically enacting any time soon! Which is why a new programme of online events is being put together, alongside this blog, to keep Cranfield University’s Step Up Network actively supporting each other while we are unable to meet in person.

Alison Whaley – Director of Student Experience

“I’ve learnt that my children have totally different learning styles. My son is a perfectionist and my daughter is a trier. I’ve gained this insight which will help me as they get older, but I’ve also learnt a lot about myself. ”

Alison Whaley

Alison admitted she felt the pressure of home-schooling two children alongside her responsibilities as Director of Student Experience.

As she spoke about experiencing the frightening physical symptoms associated with anxiety, Alison’s words were absorbed by the audience, and 72 pairs of eyes reflected love and gratitude back at her through the screen, thanking her for saying it out loud.

What resonated with me was Alison opening up to her mum about the tightness in her chest, which was caused – not by the dreaded virus – but by sheer mental and emotional overload.  “It made my mum so happy that I had invited her in to help me with my issues,” Alison said. When we reach out for help and offload some of the weight of our worries, it can have a transformative effect on our mood and wellbeing. Alison invited any member of the Step Up Network to contact her if we are struggling, and it was clear that this offer is both genuine and heartfelt.

Katrina Armstrong, Careers Development Manager

“My kids’ rights of passage have been sidelined.”

Katrina Armstrong

Katrina Armstrong’s lockdown story also focused on life at home with her children, who are in their teens and have missed out on festivals, proms and other end-of-term celebrations. Their desperate need for social interaction is something every one of us can empathise with. “My son was invited into school for two hours. He came back a changed child: enthused, engaged, happy. What a difference. If only you could bottle up moments like that!” Her captivated Zoom audience laughed along as Katrina recounted all the fun her teenagers have been having since schools closed.

Katrina Armstrong and her son

Like Alison, I am mother to much younger children who still wake up before 6am, and I long for the days that I get to be the one waking them up! I feel like Katrina has given me a crystal ball, in which to see what my life would be like if Covid had struck in 2030 instead of 2020. It’s been hard when my younger two say they have nothing to get up for. New structures and routines have emerged as bedtimes and socialising rules are re-negotiated,” she said.

Tiffany Trethowan, Marketing Executive

“Being new and maintaining those working relationships online has been strange – knowing who to go to can be tricky.”

Tiffany Trethowan

Our next speaker, on the other hand, knew all about waking up at 5am to a screaming toddler. Tiffany Trethowan joined Cranfield in December, and after just three months in her role has been working from home with her parents, sister and nephew Frankie in the background.

Tiffany Trethowan and her family

This was a welcome reminder that not only is each colleague operating in a totally unique set of personal circumstances at home, but that working from home poses different challenges as we each strive to succeed at different life stages and at different stages in our careers.

Hiran Odedra, Head of Diversity and Inclusion

“I’m a control freak and I like my checklists, but at the start of lockdown all my schedules and agendas went out the window.”

Hiran Odedra

Having been a key player in the working group that pushed flexible working up the University’s agenda, Head of Diversity and Inclusion Hiran Odedra reflected on how working from home has been for her.

Like many of us, Hiran has made the most of having more opportunities to cook and bake with her children. Teaching them how to make authentic home-cooked meals has been an important part of their lockdown experience as a family, and in this time of global crisis has enabled Hiran to stay culturally connected to her Indian heritage.

Hiran’s comments echoed Alison’s when she said I’ve had to let go a little bit,” proving once again that we don’t have to be superhuman to find resilience, balance, and fulfilment in the new normal.

Diane Blything, Career Development Manager

“My mental health is something that has to be worked on, and being thrust into a global pandemic can certainly challenge any normal coping strategies or even just routines you may have in place.”   

Diane Blything

Diane shared her story of personal resilience, and how she overcame loneliness with the help of her beloved bike.

Diane spoke about living in fear of tornados when she worked in Iowa, in the American Midwest, and how Covid-19 had brought on similar feelings of anxiety.

“I’m constantly anxious that Covid- 19 might affect the people I love, I might get ill, or I could lose my job. Literally anything could happen, and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Diane said. Whilst Diane is by no means the only member of our community feeling this way, to speak this truth to a live video audience takes tremendous courage, and was deeply appreciated. I watched the Zoom chat window fill up with messages of support and solidarity, and felt the positive energy and strength of the Step Up Network.

“I have learnt to find joy in the small things, even when everything seems crazy! I know that I’ve been lucky, and I can’t really complain. But I felt that it was important to add this perspective as it’s ok to have bad days.”

Diane Blything

Thank you so much Diane. We couldn’t agree more!

My own lockdown story

As I shut down my computer on my last day in the office, my line manager handed me a letter confirming I had passed my six month probation at Cranfield Executive Development. I walked out of Building 38 on 6 March to go on holiday, not knowing that I would not be allowed back in for many many months! I missed the drama of being sent home when lockdown was announced, the chance to retrieve the chocolate from my desk drawer, and the opportunity to say “stay safe” to my colleagues face to face.

That six month milestone was hugely significant for me. Having returned to work in autumn 2019 after having my youngest child, it felt like I had just got my life back. I was loving my job at CED and excited about future opportunities. But no sooner had I completed my probation, the campus closed and I had to log off for 12 weeks. Just as I was getting ready to step up, I had to step away. It felt like I’d been transported back in time to maternity leave! I am so grateful to be working again now, and to be involved in the Step Up Network. I’m really looking forward to the next online event and hope to see many of you there.

Thanks to our speakers and contributors for this first blog.

Cranfield colleagues: look out for the next Step Up Network online event on DATES.

Have you overcome a fear of tech? The next blog will explore stepping up in the new digital world.

From staying up until 2am working on Powerpoint slides for a webinar to cohosting my first Zoom lectures for SOM, it’s certainly been a steep learning curve for me to adapt to our new online ways of working. The majority of us are working from home, we are all missing the buzz of our offices and our community of colleagues, but ‘the workplace’ may never go back to how it was pre-Covid. What challenges and opportunities does that present? Email me to share your stories.

Would you like to contribute to future Step Up Network blogs? Contact the Step Up Network

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