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Andrew Chen sitting in an RCM composition suite

FeatureAutumn 2020

On kindness and compassion

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Andrew Chen is the RCM Students’ Union International Officer. Here, he writes about the friendship, support and collegiate attitude that he has witnessed at the Royal College of Music during this year.

There is an anecdote that I have often brought up with friends and colleagues as of late. Shortly after the end of the nationwide lockdown, I was walking down a main road in London. A car was turning off onto a side street at the same time that I wanted to cross. Having now experienced London drivers and London traffic daily for years, I instinctively hesitated, expecting them to turn hastily. But, to my surprise, the car’s driver, totally relaxed, looked at me, smiled, and waved for me to cross.

This unheard-of experience was the point where it occurred to me. Over this past year, people have become kinder and more patient. It’s an observation I’ve (anecdotally) continued to make, one I now feel is generally true. So too, without overly re-treading clichés, we really do live in a time where we need compassion and understanding for one another more than ever.

A sense of solidarity

Reflecting on the past few months at the Royal College of Music, I really have noticed this change of atmosphere here too. It has been a time when the kindness and goodness already evident in all students, staff and alumni of College really has come to the fore, and from it, a renewed, genuine sense of community and solidarity has emerged.

[quote quote="The strength of our community makes me truly happy to be a part of College." author="Andrew Chen, RCM SU International Officer"]

Currently, I am International Officer for the RCM Students’ Union (SU). We do a lot of things as an SU – much of it relatively wide-ranging in scope, be it hosting varied social opportunities, awareness campaigns or charity work. We do these things with the intent of having a positive impact on students, hopefully one that will sustain itself long after our terms are finished. We also serve as a kind of public-facing entity for the student body: we have a website, a Facebook page and Instagram.

However, while all of these things hold importance and each serve their purpose, there is no avoiding that they occur somewhat impersonally, at a distance. We do of course support and advise our fellow students one-to-one all the time. Our number one priority in the SU is welfare and wellbeing. But for any given student in any given circumstance, we are understandably not always a first point of contact.

Compassion, kindness and understanding are most effectively expressed and deeply felt on the personal level. Over these past months I have heard countless stories of how these values were expressed within our community – behind closed doors, without public announcement and with heartfelt intent. In this sense I have no doubt now that the generosity, warmth and spirit of the RCM community is best exemplified perhaps not by its public face and public endeavours, but by the more personal, modest, unprompted and unaided actions of the students themselves.

Student stories

I would like to give a couple of examples.

Through the initial, tense and uncertain days of the pandemic, it was recent Masters’ conducting graduate Avi Taler who stepped up to the plate. Recognising the particular pressures that international students – many of whom were unable to return home or were otherwise socially isolated – were facing, Avi took the initiative to set up an online community forum on Facebook.

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Since its inception, many such students, who otherwise might not have had the opportunity, have reached out to and connected with each other over their shared backgrounds and experiences, and friendships have formed that will no doubt last for years to come. It was and remains an invaluable, unique space and a regular port of call for international students to show mutual support.

[quote quote="I have no doubt now that the generosity, warmth and spirit of the RCM community is best exemplified... by the more personal, modest, unprompted and unaided actions of the students themselves." author="Andrew Chen, RCM SU International Officer"]

More recently, this past term, many RCM students living both in Prince Consort Village (PCV) as well as across London have needed to self-isolate due to confirmed contacts or other health precautions. Although help was and is provided by PCV, College and the SU, still inevitably missing from it was a sense of close personal support and community solidarity. The act of self-isolating may be one many of us are experiencing, but we cannot share it. 

Current Masters cellist Jaclyn Rosenfeld was already keenly aware of the importance of connection and solidarity amongst students, as a co-founder of RCM’s queer society, Q-RCM. She launched a Facebook ‘COVID Community Help-Out’ forum, to which she adds all students or those with connections to the RCM who request access. Here current isolating students could reach out for all kinds of help and other students still able to freely move about could openly offer their availability to do so.

As a result, we have seen an outpouring of support within the student community, with countless stories of students – many of whom do not know each other personally at all – going out of their way to help with food supplies, transport and a whole other range of things. Jaclyn’s work has proven a vital lifeline for all across the whole student body and one that we are all incredibly grateful for.

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Shining a light

These are but two individual examples – no doubt there have been countless other unknowable mutual acts of kindness and generosity taking place across the entire College family. Ultimately a simple written article like this is nowhere near enough to do justice to and properly acknowledge all of these acts. But as far as is possible I want to pay tribute to everyone who has been there for one another this past year.

I am immensely proud of everyone connected to the RCM. Speaking from the SU, we now understand that our role is not only to try to encourage positive action and make positive impacts, but also to reflect these things as they are already being expressed by the student body.

It is this and the strength of our community that make me truly happy to be a part of College. Ultimately it is a great comfort that, even though current circumstances might be keeping us apart, we have all still managed to find a way to come closer and closer together.

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Andrew Chen

Andrew is the SU International Officer, and is studying for a Masters of Performance in Composition.