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When the pandemic ‘marooned’ two students in different time zones more than 4,000 miles away from the University of Chester - with extreme weather cutting out power to boot - the odds in succeeding in their degrees were against them.

But Aubrey Banks and Francisca Icaza did not let the matter of being on the other side of the Atlantic ocean in the USA, and a six to eight hour time difference, get in the way of excelling in their studies.

With determination, hard work, online teaching, support and solutions as part of the Chester Blend of learning, and the flexibility of the department, they are now celebrating graduating with BA Honours degrees in History and Archaeology.

Aubrey found herself in Texas balancing her studies, home and work life when she flew home for Christmas last year and was unable to return to Chester due to travel restrictions.

The 22-year-old said: “The time difference made lectures and communications physically taxing. I also contracted COVID and being stuck at home left me in the path of an unexpectedly harsh winter storm that knocked out electricity across the state for more than a week.

“Thankfully many of my lecturers were very accommodating to my situation. My deadlines were extended and lecturers were willing to meet with me - at more reasonable hours in my time zone - if I ever felt confused after a lecture.

“I was also still in contact with many individuals on the sports committee and Student Experience groups that kept me feeling connected to other students, even when across the ocean.

“And despite the pandemic and being stranded back home, I was still able to complete my final year of University with marks that I am proud of. It was difficult being off-campus - and more often than not in the USA - but to have completed the degree is exhilarating, and to still have opportunities to see my course-mates has been wonderful.”

Francisca travelled to her home in San Francisco at the beginning of December, also to visit family for Christmas, and was unable to return to Chester until May. 

The 21-year-old said: “It was so hard to be so far away, I missed not being in the classroom talking with my peers and tutors - and it was very difficult staying motivated with all the bad news about the pandemic.

“But I made it through and learned some unexpected and valuable skills along the way, such as finding old books on the internet.

"I've made life-long friends and all of my teachers have been great, with Dr Barry Taylor and Dr James Pardoe being particularly motivating and helpful.

“I am so proud of all of this year’s graduates, who have maintained focus and persevered in the face of COVID-19 and all its challenges.”

The pair now plan to advance their studies, with Aubrey set to begin a Master’s in Heritage Management at Bath Spa University and Francisca due to embark on a Master’s in Digital Heritage at the University of York, building on the skills gained at Chester and a background in film-making.

Reflecting further on completing a degree with an English institution during a pandemic, and graduating in circumstances they could never have expected, they are still glad they chose the University of Chester for their undergraduate studies.

Aubrey particularly valued the practical experience Chester provided and was grateful to still be able to take part in an excavation, as well as a module involving on-site work in the archaeology lab, in 2020.

Meanwhile Francisca’s passion for Chester and its history have not waned since she originally came to the UK to tour universities and fell in love with the city.

Aubrey added: “The best thing about my experiences at the University of Chester have been the community both on and off campus. The community of the University has a place for everyone and the flexibility for people to fit into multiple groups across the campus.

“The city is beautiful, you will never be short of something to do, and the people are just as lovely as the place itself.”

Dr James Pardoe, Senior Lecturer in Heritage at the University of Chester said: “Aubrey and Francisca have produced some first-class work despite being marooned at home in the USA.

“They have worked hard, overcome the challenges of the distance and time difference - and are proof that the systems put in place by the University and department to combat the issues raised by COVID-19 have been effective.

“Congratulations Aubrey and Francisca - it’s been a pleasure to be your tutor - and all the best for your next steps.”


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