Life of an international student during a pandemic

Embarking on studies in the UK has been made even more challenging due to the pandemic. In this blog, Presley Gitari tells us what motivated him to study at Birkbeck, and his life as an international student.

Presley Gitari

My name is Presley Gitari. I am 27 years old and my nationality is Kenyan. I am a conservation biologist currently pursuing an MSc in Climate Change at Birkbeck, University of London on a Chevening Scholarship.

Ever since I was a child I have always been fascinated by the natural world. It has fuelled my curiosity to learn about how the environment works and how we can conserve it for future generations. I attained a BSc in Environmental Conservation and Natural Resource Management from the University of Nairobi. My previous role was with Kenya’s Interior Ministry where I was working on a programme which focused on helping underserved communities in utilising environmental conservation as a socio-economic empowerment tool. I was both humbled and honoured to contribute to our country’s goal of achieving 10% tree cover by 2022.

Why Birkbeck?

Presley with Chevening scholar sign I was drawn to Birkbeck’s diverse and talented faculty and student base. While searching online for a graduate course focusing on Climate Change, I stumbled upon the College which had an impressive course overview and also had an opportunity to listen to an introductory lecture by Dr. Becky Briant on ‘Climate Change and the River Thames’ I was impressed by the factual analysis in the lecture. It was also an incentive that being an evening university, I could interact with students who bring perspectives from their daytime jobs into the classroom, which has been an enriching experience.

Being awarded a Chevening Scholarship by the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office was an exhilarating prospect. In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, travel arrangements were thrown into disarray which created a lot of uncertainty about whether we would travel to the UK or continue our autumn lectures virtually. Eventually, Kenya lifted the ban on international flights which was a huge relief.

Moving to London

I have been to London before to attend an international meeting and as always have been fascinated how diverse London really is. A real melting-pot of cultures! Getting used to the tube was made easier by technology which makes getting between points a seamless experience. Coming from a coastal city with a laid-back demeanour it is quite a cultural turn-up for the books having to experience the hustle and bustle of an international hub that London is. I have taken a huge liking for the amazing parks where I regularly go out for a jog or just to admire the scenic beauty on afternoon walks (the squirrels are an interesting lot!).

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I haven’t got to visit many attractions as I would have loved to, but I keep an ever-growing list of places to visit when many of the affected places open up.

Studying during pandemic

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Birkbeck’s shift towards virtual learning has been possible by asynchronous as well as synchronous learning activities. The asynchronous component takes the form of pre-session activities. We get to interact with pre-recorded lectures, activities and reading material on our university Moodle platform. I usually set aside 1-2 hours in the evening in preparation for our live session where we go over the provided material with our lecturers and ask questions. This forms the synchronous component. We then join a seminar session where we are divided into groups to carry out joint activities which in many ways provides an opportunity for us to put into practice the knowledge acquired from the pre-session as well as the live session.

In a particular module, we had the opportunity to work on a group presentation highlighting a key environmental report which beyond building my in-depth understanding of the content of the material also helped me develop my communication skills. We use Blackboard Collaborate for our live sessions, as well Microsoft Teams for one-to-one interactions with our tutors and dissertation supervisors. The platforms allow for students to efficiently interact and present material, as well as take polls. We also make use of Google Jam Boards which allow all students to put in their contributions without feeling left out. The broad array of options provided by these platforms are suitable for both extroverted and introverted personalities. The live sessions and group work/presentations take about an hour and a half.

A typical day for me would start with a jog in the park or a visit to the gym. I then work from home through the afternoon. I usually take my live sessions from home but sometimes use the Library if I happen to have a book that I need to collect or drop off. The Library has set aside safe spaces to study and participate in lectures which one may access by reserving online, especially for students who may not have a conducive learning environment from home.

Challenges and highlights

Being far away from home in the midst of a pandemic has been quite a challenge. The situation diminishes any opportunities for human connections which form an important role in our mental and physical well-being as a social species. The pressure is thus more on international students who are far away from their loved ones and seek to form crucial connections with their new environment.

My highlight in the UK is when on a whim, I hired a Santander bike and decided to ride from Buckingham Palace, taking in the sights of London’s architecture, finally ending up at Canary Wharf! It was a healthy and environmentally friendly way of introducing myself to London.

I look forward to fully interacting with my fellow students as well as having the full Birkbeck experience when we will be able to. My 2020 has been an opportunity to reflect and develop gratitude for many of life’s pleasures which we take for granted.

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