In 2020, during the heart of the pandemic lockdowns in Australia, professors Marthy Watson and Georgina Barton conducted in-person and online wellbeing workshops for postgraduate international students at the University of Southern Queensland. These workshops employed arts-based activities to teach reflection and emotional resilience to the students, who were struggling due to the COVID pandemic.
The online workshop was 1 hour long, and the face-to-face workshops (2 in total) were each 3 hours long. Each workshop was held 4 weeks apart during Semester 2, 2020. The students involved were all enrolled in postgraduate research degrees such as master’s or doctorate programmes. 12 students attended the online session and, due to social distancing requirements, 8 and 7 students attended the in-person sessions.
The arts activities included photo elicitation, meditation, and a body mapping exercise. The activities were designed to help students “slow down” to reflect on their experiences in order to create positive change and improve wellbeing.
The students first drew a card from a deck of motivational quotes and images. Using their card, they introduced themselves and commented on the card’s significance to them. This allowed the group to get to know each other individually and respectfully. Then the students were guided through a mindful meditation session where they imagined the ”wheel of awareness” (Siegel, 2018). After the meditation, students wrote down what they thought and felt during the meditation on a hard copy of the wheel. These words and drawings were then used as inspiration for the body mapping exercise.
Students identified that they often felt isolated during the pandemic and they wanted to belong to a community, and they recognised the importance of self-reflection to gain perspective. One student reflected in a voluntary follow-up interview that “I think it is really important to have such reflective experiences as international students, because it enables us to connect with other people and it also allows us to disengage from the daily studies, which can be quite stressful at times, and to show something of ourselves as people.”
It was very clear that these reflective arts-based workshops were a much-needed opportunity for international students at USQ. The various artistic approaches to reflection taught the students tools to reflect and learn from each other in a supportive environment.