We speak each other mid-September and it is about 15 degrees outside. Jessica Alleva has nestled herself in a garden chair for a Zoom session. Two birds with one stone: her sleeping son will not be bothered by us and she gets some fresh air. Very important these days, when we spend so much time in front of the computer.
Ever since the lockdown was announced in March, she and her husband, also a researcher at FPN, have worked from home. “I quite like it. Starting my day is much less stressful. No rushing because I have to get our son to daycare and then sprint to the faculty. Sem still goes to daycare two days a week, but I feel there is more space in the day. Maybe because there is less noise. Even though it can be nice to be at the office – a quick social chat with colleagues – I get into a flow more easily at home. My husband and I have strict agreements about the hours we work and the hours we spend with Sem. That provides clarity. I try and keep the evenings for myself as much as possible, to paint or play on the Nintendo, ha ha, yes, I am a big fan of Zelda. Briefly lose myself in another world.”
What also does her a lot of good: “No stress from the academic community. You hear and see so much more at the faculty. You are in an atmosphere of performing, publishing and subsidy applications. And yes, that could at times make me unsure.” Now that she has been ‘released’ from that, she has been following her own feelings more. “What do I feel is valuable in the field of research? I have intensive contact with researchers in my field, often people from outside Maastricht who share my vision. That gives me energy. I also speak with colleagues from the faculty every now and again, outside meetings.” A get-together in the back garden when the weather was good, having a coffee together on Zoom, or a telephone call while out for a walk. She admits that she makes more conscious choices in whom she meets. “There has to be a click. For example with my roomy Katrijn.”
Many employees regularly went to the university for a meeting or a tutorial after the summer. All buildings were corona-proof with instruction posters, pedestrian routes and disinfectant; there are even corona stewards who make students and employees aware should they be ‘in violation’.
Alleva wrestled with it. “In spring it was clear: the university buildings were closed, education was all online, everyone stayed at home. But when the cabinet made the rules more flexible and people started to travel more, I often felt I was the weird one, because I preferred to work from home and not take any risks regarding my health. It was never explicitly said but I did notice it. A while ago, it was asked if anyone had objections to a face-to-face meeting. I was one of the few who said: ‘I would rather not attend’. I want to be honest about that. Maybe I can pave the way for others who are very unsure, but are afraid to admit it.”
By the way, Alleva doesn’t always have a choice. Tutorial meetings during her ‘own’ block of Self-regulation, in the first period of the academic year, were both in-person and online, as she had the freedom, being a tutor, to Zoom from home. But at University College Maastricht, where she is now giving the block of Social Psychology, the tutors are expected to be present at least once a week. “It is not my preference, but it is what it is.”
Alleva’s father-in-law spent three weeks in the intensive care unit with COVID-19 in spring. “That is when you realise how important life is and what is important. For me, it is family. Along with that comes the questions: who do I want to be, what kind of mother, wife, researcher? In my own family, many people died at a young age. Because of that I have always felt that life is short, that you must make time for the things that matter. When you are on your deathbed, you won’t be thinking about all your publications, would you?”
Her father-in-law didn’t have any underlying illnesses, and still he became critically ill from COVID-19. “It was a strange situation; you know that he is on the intensive care, but we couldn’t visit him or talk to him.” Fortunately, he made it. “Now, under the circumstances, he is doing really well.”
She realises that the new way of working, Zoom, online education, requires a great deal from staff. “Besides, our faculty has grown considerably, both with regard to the bachelor’s students and the master’s students. Everyone automatically gets more work. So it is important to say: to here and no further. And yes, I am good at that.” Alleva has always guarded her boundaries. “Generally speaking, I am very good at knowing when to stop. Sometimes your body needs a rest.” The fact that she is very aware of that, is no coincidence. Alleva is doing research into how people’s regard their own bodies.
She recently blogged in the online version of Psychology Today (an American psychology journal) about one of her recent studies into the relation between body image and reflecting on death. People who have survived a life-threatening situation, such as cancer or a serious car accident, are more inclined to look at themselves, they cherish what they have and are driven by intrinsic values instead of what others expect of them. It is called post-traumatic growth. Alleva and colleagues wanted to know if they would be more positive about their bodies if they had looked death in the eyes. That is indeed the case, they found in a lab experiment with about 160 women. “Thinking about the finiteness of life puts all kinds of insecurities about your body in perspective. Certainly in these times with COVID-19, research such as this is very relevant."