Author Archives: Katrinah Best

Birkbeck’s largest cohort of international students treated to a welcome reception

international students seated in a hall

Students from dozens of countries around the world were treated to a welcome reception at Birkbeck’s main campus earlier this month. The event offered the new students, who are part of Birkbeck’s largest cohort of international students, an excellent opportunity to meet and interact with their peers and other members of the College community.

The reception also gave the students an opportunity to hear from the organising team for the College’s One World Festival- a programme of free events which celebrate Birkbeck’s diverse, international culture- and the programme of extracurricular activities planned for the 2022/23 academic year. Colleagues from Academic Schools and Central Services were also on hand to warmly welcome the new international students.

students in lecture theatre

Pro Vice-Chancellor (International), Professor Kevin Ibeh said, “The reception offered an excellent informal occasion to welcome international students who have joined the College’s global family as we count down to the kick-off of our long-awaited bicentenary celebrations. I heartily congratulate these new students on their admission to Birkbeck and would like to assure them of our collective commitment to availing them of excellent learning experience and great memories.”

Another highlight of the Welcome reception was an informative presentation on culture shock led by Counselling Service Manager, Aura Rico. This session shared practical tips on how international students might best navigate cultural challenges and opportunities associated with their new international environment.

Many of the attendees commented on the “best part of the event”- an interactive networking session which closed the day.

A video of welcome remarks by Professor Ibeh and other Birkbeck staff can be viewed here.

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Remembering Professor Kathleen Booth, 1922-2022

The pioneering computer scientist was instrumental in founding Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science and her legacy lives on in the College today.

Kathleen Booth

We were deeply saddened to hear of the passing of Professor Kathleen Booth (née Britten) on Thursday 29 September 2022.

Kathleen was one of the founding members of Birkbeck’s Department of Computer Science in 1946 and she is internationally recognised for her contribution to the field.

Together with her husband Andrew Booth, Kathleen designed and built the College’s first computer, which was followed by increasingly sophisticated models. Kathleen was a skilled software developer and published a book entitled ‘Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator’ in 1958.

The Booths left Birkbeck in 1962 to pursue academic careers in Canada and their legacy is remembered each year at the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture. In 2022, the lecture was an opportunity to celebrate Kathleen’s 100th birthday, and we were delighted to share a recorded message from Kathleen with the audience.

Kathleen’s legacy as a pioneering woman in computer science lives on through the Kathleen Booth Anniversary PhD Studentship, which aims to increase diversity in an industry that continues to be male-dominated.

We are grateful for Kathleen’s contribution to computing and to Birkbeck and our thoughts are with her family at this difficult time.

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Chasing Chevening Dreams

Paraguayan Maureen Montania Ramirez, an MSc Health and Clinical Psychological Sciences student at Birkbeck, tells us about her experience applying for the Chevening scholarship.

pic of maureen montania ramirez

Maureen Montania Ramirez at Durdle Door

When I decided to apply to Chevening I was at a point in my career where the training resources in my country were no longer sufficient for the dreams and goals I had in my head. I wanted to bring something different to my country and I felt that the only way would be to study in a first world country with the best universities in psychological research, that was for me the UK.

When I took this decision, I received immediate support from my boss who is also a born dreamer who had left the country for training and knew very well the longing I felt at that moment. She offered me her unconditional support and became my sole mentor from start to finish. This was the first and only time I applied to Chevening, I didn’t have high hopes of getting the scholarship because I knew thousands of stories of people who didn’t make it until the third attempt, or never. These were people I respected a lot and considered excellent professionals, so I said “I’m going to try, to at least gain experience and make it the third time”.

My mentor helped me to reflect in my essays who I am, what I dream of, how I move in this life and what I see on the other side of the horizon as a leader and social fighter. With her help, I was able to put all this into words, thanks to which I received the first great joy: the mail of being pre-selected for the interview. It had been a long time since I had felt so much hope, I started to believe in myself, that I could make it. I could already see myself at my university, making friends, learning in a lab and gaining thousands of experiences.

I feel that being charged with so much hope was the key to performing well in the interview. It’s worth noting that in March, when I was interviewed, I was going through one of the worst times of my life. My father was hospitalised for covid with his life hanging by a thread. I barely had a head to think. However, I knew that my dad, more than anyone else, believed that I could make it. A mixture of homage and hope led me to be energised and carry on a 40-minute interview that felt like 15 minutes to me. I had so many things to say, one idea led to another and I answered the questions with words that flowed on their own. The strength that moment gave me has no name. To this day I remember how complete I felt after the interview, when everything else in my life was falling apart.

Immediately afterwards I called my dad to tell him. It was a unique moment that I treasure to this day.

pic of Maureen Ramirez and family

Maureen and family

Shortly thereafter my dad returned home. The recovery was slow and challenging, but steady. Little by little he regained the light in his face, I did not leave his side for a second. So it was that when I received the mail saying that I had finally been selected, he was by my side. We jumped with emotion, we hugged, we cried, we screamed. I felt more alive than ever. I thanked him and my mom for everything they gave me, for having raised me with wings to always fly wherever I want, because without them I am nothing.

Maureen Ramirez holding the Paraguayan flag

Maureen proudly displaying the Paraguayan flag

Months after the preparation of papers, suitcases and emotions, I had to say goodbye to my family at the airport, with a huge smile, hugging my Paraguayan flag and raising my arms high as if to take off once again, with the support of my pillars in this life. It filled me with joy to see my father’s face full of life, completely back, next to my mother and my brother. I boarded the plane with a suitcase full of dreams and hopes.

pic of Maureen Ramirez on first day in UK

Maureen’s first day in the UK

Today, almost a year after that interview, I still feel I have to pinch myself to remember where I am. What was a dream yesterday is now a constant reality. My life here is wonderful. Every day I learn something new- academically and socially, I discover new friends, new places, new lives. I am immensely happy and grateful. Chevening gave me everything and more than I expected. It transformed me.

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In their own words: Tips from our Chevening scholars (Interview – part 2)

We’ve asked Birkbeck’s 2021 Cheveners to share their experience applying for the prestigious UK government scholarship. In this second instalment of the series we hear from Chevening scholars from Africa, Europe and Latin-America.

pic of handshake

“It is very important to be sure of oneself, to be convinced of what one has written in the essays and to know how to defend the ideas behind them. You should not focus on memorising information but on being genuine, you know why you are applying, you just have to defend that and show that you have a good profile. It is also not essential to be too formal, sometimes that makes us act robotically, just be yourself.”- Maureen Magali Montania Ramirez, Paraguay

pic of maureen montania ramirez

Maureen Montania Ramirez

“The preparation for my Chevening interview was centred around the project I had submitted in the Chevening application. This involved working on how I would orally and convincingly showcase myself and my project as worthy of the Chevening award. Of course, I also worked on the tips which were provided on the Chevening website and social media, but my focus was on my personal story as a Chevening candidate. In other words, I put enough thought and work into how I would present my project and myself during the interview as an authentic personal story, and not as a copy of someone’s else. Hence, I think that this is vital to acing the Chevening interview.

Think about what makes you unique as a Chevening candidate and about what makes your story original. This implies having a clear vision of why you applied in the first place and of what you aspire to achieve with your master’s degree. And if this vision is not clear in your mind yet, this is where you need to start the preparation. I believe that if you can communicate this vision clearly and convincingly during your interview, you will be able to answer the other points related to it, such as your leadership skills, your ability to function in the academic and cultural environment in the UK, and your short- and long-term goals.”Rachid Meftah, Morocco

“For an interview, I would advise you to tell only about 1-2 the most successful examples of leadership and networking from the many good examples you certainly have, and describe them in more detail. It is better to use the STAR method for this. It is especially important for the commission to see exactly how you show your qualities in challenging situations, and not that you often had to face problems.

I would also advise you to be sincere in the interview and remember your highest goal, for which you apply for Chevening. Remember what you want to achieve thanks to the scholarship, and dedicate your entire story to this general idea.

Try to follow a clear structure of the story and not go into unnecessary details. Do not go away from your thoughts to the side and do not engage in third-party reasoning and explanation of the context. At the same time, try to describe your own contribution and your motivation in as much detail as possible.”Emma Terchenko, Russia

pic of Emma Terchenko

Emma Terchenko

“I read all the blogs written by Chevening and also by other Chevening alumni. I prepared an answer for every possible question trying to always convey my passion for making a change in my country and my leadership and networking skills. After, I asked my family and friends to listen to my answers and to give me feedback. Finally, I practiced as if I was in a real interview with other candidates from different countries.
My advice would be to prepare and practice to the point where the answers come to you in a natural way. You will be nervous on the day of the interview but knowing that you have rehearsed your answers will make you feel comfortable even if they ask you something you were not prepared for.”- Virginia Nuñez, Guatemala

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“Not all Deaf people know sign language and not all sign languages are the same”

Psychology student, Silvia Janickova discusses how inclusivity and accessibility have got considerably better but there is still a long way to go.

a pic of Silvia Janickova

Silvia Janickova

1. What are your thoughts on the significance of popular culture, especially film, in representing the experiences of deaf and hearing-impaired people?

One thing I would like to see more of is the representation of Deaf and hearing people interacting more with each other. CODA (the Oscar-winning film) and other films with Deaf or hard-of-hearing characters often portray hearing and Deaf communities as largely separate entities with the conflict revolving around the gap between them. I feel this is not reflective of the life richness that goes way beyond deafness versus “hearingness”.

2. What is the biggest misconception people have about people from the deaf community?

One of the misconceptions is that we are excellent lipreaders. In reality, lipreading is hard and largely a guesswork. Face masks during the pandemic have made the already precarious lipreading art even trickier.

There is also a gap between how many Deaf and hard-of-hearing people perceive themselves and how we are perceived by the society. Deafness is often seen as a “deficit” or impairment, but for us, the real issue is communication barriers and lack of inclusive environment.

Another misconception is that all Deaf people know sign language and all sign languages are same. For example, when doing my BSL courses in London, BSL used in Manchester had such a different accent that at times it felt like a whole new language for me!

3. Do you feel things have got better for deaf people, when it comes to understanding and inclusivity?

I think inclusivity and accessibility have got considerably better compared to even just a decade ago. That said, there is still a long way to go.

For example, and related to the film theme, cinema screenings often come unsubtitled so we cannot go and see the films we would like to watch.

Deaf people are also underrepresented in professional roles and there are persisting barriers in the job market.

Social events can be also difficult. In the end of the day, we are all humans and above all, we all want to feel that we belong. Many of us have learnt to be great pretenders and nod and smile at the right places. Simple things such as facing us, speaking clearly and typing things when it gets too noisy around can make a big difference.

4. What’s your own personal experience as someone who is deaf?

As a Deaf person who grew up entirely in the hearing world, finding way both to the hearing and the Deaf communities as an adult has been a journey for me. It has often been difficult, but it has also enabled me to meet many amazing people, both Deaf and hearing, and gain and wealth of experiences. Ultimately, all of this has shaped who I am, as a solution-seeker and a lifelong learner, not only in the academic sense, but also in terms of always learning something new about myself and other people.

5. What support have you received from Birkbeck?

As a substitute for spoken aspects of lectures, I use captioning or transcription and electronic note-taking. Studying as a Deaf student can be harder, since DSA (governmental funding scheme for communication support) only covers partial expenses for Deaf students. The pandemic has brought increased accessibility due to widespread use of automatic subtitles, but also additional challenges. However, the Psychology Department, where I study, and my disability team have been absolutely fantastic and really went extra mile to ensure the great studying experience for me.

The diversity of the student body has been also very attractive for me as a Deaf mature student. I am now in my final year and loved my Birkbeck experience so much that I am hoping to continue here for my Masters.

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“British Sign Language is receiving far more recognition”

Ari Laughlin, Psychology student, offers a perspective as a Deaf student, including praise for Birkbeck’s “high quality” and “versatile” disability services.

Pic of Ari Laughlin

Ari Laughlin

– How does popular culture, especially film, represent the experiences of deaf and hearing-impaired people?

I think that popular culture is extremely significant for representing the experiences of D/deaf and hearing-impaired people, especially since most hearing people have never met or have had to interact with a d/Deaf, Hard-of-Hearing or hearing-impaired person before. Popular culture forms a significant gateway for learning about groups of people. “A Silent Voice” is a very accurate representation of many deaf people’s experiences because it demonstrates how little sign languages are generally known by the public, and shows how Shoko Nishimiya, the deaf character, struggles to hear in most situations with just her hearing aids and needs Japanese Sign Language to be fully immersed in social interactions.

– Can you share the biggest misconception people have about people from the deaf community?

That there is only one, singular Deaf community with one sign language and culture across the globe when there are thousands of Deaf communities with their own individual cultures, sign languages and regional dialects. These communities and sign languages, particularly those from other countries in the Anglosphere, are often misperceived as belonging to American Deaf cultures, which, on the other hand, receive a lot of media and pop culture coverage. In contrast, British Sign Language and British Deaf cultures receive little representation and coverage. Rose Ayling-Ellis’ appearance on “Strictly Come Dancing” is probably the most exposure British Sign Language and British Deaf cultures have had so far in popular culture and in the media.

– Do you feel things have got better for deaf people when it comes to understanding and inclusivity?

For British d/Deaf people, yes and no. Yes, since British Sign Language is receiving far more recognition today than it was before and Deaf psychology – particularly the clinical, counselling and neuroscience fields – is gaining traction and breaking barriers for d/Deaf people. However, schools for the d/Deaf across the UK are shutting down and more d/Deaf children are having to attend mainstream schools. Deaf education is still highly stigmatised and most d/Deaf children, including those with cochlear implants, struggle significantly in mainstream schools where they cannot hear their teachers and classmates or may not even understand English itself. Teachers of the Deaf, who use British Sign Language, form bridges to the curriculum for d/Deaf children because English is largely inaccessible for many of these children since they cannot hear it. British Sign Language is fully accessible to d/Deaf children and acts as a steppingstone for the acquisition of English skills. D/deaf children often cannot have this highly specialist support in mainstream schools and many have very poor English receptive and comprehension skills because of this.

– What’s your own personal experience as someone who is hearing-impaired?

I can only really speak as a deaf person who was brought up as oral with exposure to Deaf cultures and British Sign Language much later in life. Although I had to attend mainstream schools – which I struggled significantly in – I was lucky enough to be able to eventually attend a school for the d/Deaf and largely receive the support that I needed. Regarding Deaf communities, my own experiences have varied vastly. Despite having experienced awful racism from some Deaf people about my partial East Asian heritage, many others have taken me under their wing to teach me British Sign Language and their cultures. I think that that is down to the general lack of accessibility, which pushes Deaf communities and d/Deaf people to the very edge of society and consequently shuts them off from the wider world. I was also very fortunate to be able to receive psychological therapies from Deaf clinical psychology services, which are very scarce throughout the UK.

– What support have you received from Birkbeck?

I have received specialist electronic note taking for the d/Deaf and live captioning support. This support meant that I could transfer very easily to online learning and that the pandemic had no negative impacts on my studies. Seminars and lectures became far more accessible and inclusive for me. The disability support that I have received from Birkbeck has been the highest quality and the most versatile for my needs so far. I cannot further express how phenomenal Birkbeck’s Psychology Department, Disability and Dyslexia Service and Mental Health services have been throughout my studies.

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Five things you may not know about Ramadan

Ramadan is the ninth month in the Islamic calendar and one of the holiest months of the year for Muslims. This year around two billion Muslims, including Alumna and Barrister Hauwa Shehu, are observing it. Muslims follow the lunar calendar, therefore the start and end of Ramadan changes each year depending on the sighting of the moon. The end of Ramadan is marked by a celebration called Eid Ul Fitr. In honour of this special month, Hauwa shares five things that you may not know about Ramadan. 

photo of Hauwa Shehu

Hauwa Shehu

  1. Purpose of Ramadan

Although many people associate Ramadan as being the month in which Muslims fast for around 30 days, from sunrise to sunset, many are unaware that this is not the main purpose. The main purpose is to attain something which in Arabic we call “Taqwa” and can be translated into English as being “God-consciousness” (Surah Al-Baqarah –  Quran 2:183). During Ramadan, Muslims make every effort to do good deeds and actions that would be pleasing to God and abstain from bad things. And we try to think of God, who we refer to as Allah, our creator, in everything that we do.

  1. Fasting exemptions – not everyone fasts

There are many exemptions for people who may not be able to fast, therefore you shouldn’t assume that every Muslim is fasting during Ramadan.  Examples of reasons why some Muslims do not fast include if they have a health condition, are elderly, pregnant, breastfeeding, travelling or menstruating. Despite this, they are able to observe the holy month in many other ways, e.g. by praying, reading the Quran, giving charity, supporting their family and community, and avoiding things like gossiping, telling lies or speaking / thinking badly of others.

  1. Month Quran revealed – Laylatul Qadr

The Quran was revealed to Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) during the month of Ramadan. In particular, Muslims believe it was revealed during the last 10 nights, on a night known as “Laylatul Qadr”- “the night of decree” (Surah Al-Qadr – Quran 97:1). A night in which Allah decides everyone’s fate for the coming year. In light of this, Muslims increase in acts of worship and good deeds more so at this time, as the Quran tells us that any actions and deeds carried out on this night are greater than if you did them for 1000 months.

  1. Health benefits of Ramadan

For those who do not have any pre-existing medical conditions, fasting has been medically proven to have a number of health benefits including improved blood pressure, metabolism and brain function. It also benefits mental health and wellbeing. Psychologists state that any action undertaken consistently for 30 days becomes a habit. Therefore by engaging in positive behaviours throughout Ramadan, Muslims also benefit psychologically and try to maintain the positive habits throughout the year.

  1. Zakat Ul -Fitr

A big part of Ramadan is charity. Muslims try to increase their charitable giving during this time. Zakat Ul Fitr is a charitable donation of food that all Muslims who can afford it, must give. It amounts to approximately £5 and reminds all Muslims to think of and have compassion for those less privileged than them.

Supporting Muslim friends, peers and colleagues

  1. Share celebratory greetings

Wish them ‘Ramadan Mubarak’ at any time throughout the month. At the end, during Eid, you can use the phrase ‘Eid Mubarak’.

  1. Join in with a fast-a-thon

Many non-Muslims choose to fast for 1 day during Ramadan. Either from sunrise to sunset or simply by missing lunch. The idea is to give an idea of what it is like to fast and try and abstain from bad or negative thoughts/ actions for a period of time. Money saved from not having lunch that day can be donated to charity

  1. Attend an Iftar

Iftar is the name for the meal in which Muslims break their fast. There are many iftars taking place around the country. You can check online on sites like Eventbrite or ask at your local mosque. But the biggest public Iftars are run by Ramadan Tent Project –  Open Iftar. Take a look, and join one of the events for delicious free food and heart warming company.

  1. Work flexibly

Many Muslims engage in prayers late into the night (Taraweeh) and wake up very early to eat before sunrise (suhoor), so consider avoiding extremely early starts if working with Muslim peers and colleagues. It is also common for some people who are fasting to get tired later in the day, therefore it is considerate to avoid scheduling meetings or deadlines in the later part of the day.

  1. Check in

Check in on Muslim contacts during this time. Never make assumptions about how someone is observing Ramadan. The best thing to do is ask questions when unsure.

 

References and Further Reading

https://www.muslimaid.org/media-centre/blog/the-benefits-of-fasting/

https://quran.com

https://www.islamic-relief.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do/zakat/zakat-ul-fitr/

https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/fasting-benefits

https://britishima.org/ramadan/compendium/

https://mcb.org.uk/resources/ramadan/

https://www.zakat.org/valid-exemptions-for-not-fasting-ramadan

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Making the move from Argentina to the UK

Valentina Vlasich had never visited London but made the bold move last year to study for a BA Film and Media with Foundation Year. Here, she gives an account of acclimatizing to a new city along with the reward of embracing a new culture and learning the lingo with the help of friends at Birkbeck.

photo of museum

Moving to a foreign country brings out a mixture of emotions. One cannot help to be excited but, at the same time, terrified of this new change. Nevertheless, knowing how the experience was for others can help with those feelings.

I moved last September from Argentina to the United Kingdom without knowing much about how life was going to be here since I had never been to London before. So, there were many new aspects of life here for me to discover. Obviously, not everything was great from the beginning, there were definitely some hard parts that came along with this new chapter in my life. For instance, it was tough not having any friends at the start with whom to share my new experiences in the city.

However, soon after I started attending my classes at Birkbeck I met lovely people who shared my common interests, and I even began to understand the British sense of humour a bit more which was also a bit of a challenge at first. So, if you are struggling with the social aspect I would recommend to not get discouraged, you will make friends quickly during your classes. Also, there are many clubs in the Student Union that offer a great place to meet new people.

Furthermore, there were some other cultural shocks that came with this move. If you come from a warmer country like me, you will find the usually cloudy London a bit odd at first, but as long as you carry an umbrella with you there is nothing you can’t do in the city.

Which brings me to another topic which is my favourite thing about having moved to another country: exploring a new city. Being in a place that is unknown to you can be scary, but I recommend making it a positive thing and taking it as an opportunity to be a tourist in the city you live in. Instead of paying for a vacation to another country you can venture around London and discover all its popular places and hidden gems. In my experience you will be preoccupied with this activity for at least one month taking into consideration everything there is to see and do in this great city.

Additionally, if you are like me and love food but are worried that you won’t find the delicacies you usually eat in your home country, I would suggest a trip to Camden. There you will find a great variety of food (I even found typical Argentinian dishes) and you will find new flavours from all over the world. Maybe you’ll even try something you’ve never had before and it’ll become a favourite of yours- that absolutely happened to me. Still, if you don’t find what you are looking for in Camden, there are plenty of restaurants all over London that might offer the exact dish you are looking for.

Pic of Camden Lock

Finally, if you were to ask me how I feel now, almost six months later, about this massive change in my life, I would say it was one of the best decisions I’ve made. Knowing that I am living in this huge global city and having so many opportunities gets me excited for what my future here will look like. If I had one tip to share with you, I would say to make the most out of being here. Don’t deprive yourself from anything due to a fear of new things. London is a city with so much diversity and it will welcome you with open arms.

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In their own words: tips from our Cheveners

With interviews for the prestigious Chevening Scholarship currently underway in embassies and British High Commissions around the world, Birkbeck’s 2021 Cheveners share their experience applying for the prestigious UK government scholarship and offer tips for the interview.

photo of the 2021 Chevening scholars

Birkbeck’s Chevening cohort, 2021

  • The best advice is to read your essays and try to tell them to different people who can ask you more about them. You have to be very sure about what you want to tell, about your story. This is the most important thing.Adriana Marcela del Aguila Panduro, Peru

  • I read up on everything I could find about Chevening itself, then went on to read up about some of the alumni to get a sense of the calibre of people associated with Chevening. Then I thought critically of what I intend on doing with my life after the opportunity with the skills and qualifications if I were to be a successful awardee. Simphiwe Madlanga, South Africa

    photo of Chevening scholar Maria Laura Zerain

    Maria Laura Zerain by the Thames

  • The best advice I can give to applicants for the interview process is to practice in front of a mirror to be able to have good body language and above all feel and trust the content of their essays since this will allow them to flow when answering the questions.Maria Laura Zerain, Bolivia

photo of NIna Perunovic, Montenegro

Nina Perunovic, Montenegro

      In my interview I highlighted a few things:

  • Why I chose the course: before applying I carefully went through module descriptions, CVs of the professors and expected learning outcomes. Also, it is important to pay attention where a knowledge of particular modules can be applied.
  • I described why I chose a specific university (Birkbeck, University of London) by pointing out the benefits of studying there including the broad range of international students, the benefits and flexibility of evening classes, the high percentage of working professionals, convenient and attractive location etc. It is just as important as the program itself.
  • I also wanted to outline what I will be doing both with respect to short term and long-term goals. In addition, I wanted to express my interest on why I am passionate about the program I chose. I concluded by highlighting the commitment to my community and my country after I return. Additionally, my advice would be…
  • Demonstrate sincere passion for your chosen program. Passion is the only thing you cannot fake. At the end that is difference between having a job and having a career.
  • Be honest and humble about long term goals and your contribution to the community. Do not despise small beginnings because “a journey of thousands of miles begins with a single step.” – Nina Perunovic, Montenegro

    When I was applying for Chevening, I talked to former alumni
    . Some said it was a very complex process but simple.
  • I remember doing visualisation meditation thirty minutes before my interview.
  • My Number one tip would be to hug yourself, because you have already done a really good job.
  • Second, for the interview, I created a folder and named it ‘Practice, practice, practice and be spontaneous.’ So, be ready for the questions, but during the interview go with the flow.
  • Number three, do as many mock interviews as you can. Ask your family members, friends and even pets to listen to your thoughtful plans about the future and country.
    Khatuna Goguadze, Georgia  

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Sunday 20 March is International Happiness Day- no, that’s not a joke!

As the United Nations releases its 10th annual  World Happiness Report—just days ahead of the annual International Day of Happiness , Dr David Tross, Associate Lecturer in the Department of Geography, considers how our age, actions and attitudes matter in times of adversity. 

happy couple laughing

Given the bleak news cycle of the last few years, it might seem jarring to think about happiness. But conditions of adversity (not extreme adversities like death or war) can tell us a lot about happiness, not only about coping in difficult times but also about creatively responding, becoming more conscious of the lives of others, and re-evaluating our own lives.  

Take one example. In the summer of 2020, the Office for National Statistic’s survey of the national mood reported that almost half of its respondents had identified some positive benefits of lockdown. One was work-related: not having to commute and spend long hours in the office. Other benefits were spending more time with family (particularly quality time with children), appreciating a slower pace of life and connecting with the natural environment. One of my research subjects (a cohort of older people writing for the Mass Observation Project) described lockdown as ‘the longest and best holiday I have ever had’. 

We probably shouldn’t be surprised. Many activities that research studies have shown to be associated with happiness – loving relationships, achieving things, the arts, nature, doing things for others – were still possible during lockdown. Volunteering is another. “For me”, says Karl Wilding, then CEO of the National Council of Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), “COVID demonstrated that people want to be part of something bigger”. Not only did the 3 million plus people involved in COVID mutual aid groups constitute what the NCVO called ‘the largest peacetime mobilisation in British history’, there was a demonstrable uplift in what might be termed ‘community spirit’: more people felt that others were helping one another, they were more confident that others would help them if needed, and they were checking on neighbours far more than normal. Maybe Nietzsche was right when he suggested that human societies ‘build their cities on the slopes of Vesuvius’.  This resilience may be testament to a key phenomenon identified decades ago by happiness researchers — the extraordinary ability of people to adapt to changes in circumstances and shift their expectations to whatever the ‘new normal’ might be. So it was with lockdown. People adapted, found alternative ways to pass the time and got on with things. Indeed, a more general point is that research into how ordinary people think about happiness reveals a fairly ‘stoic’ attitude with regards to personal expectations; the good and bad in life intermingle, and fantasies of everlasting happiness are just that. As another research subject wrote, ‘I think that the troubles of life have to be experienced in order to realise when you are happy’.

In happiness terms then, actions and attitudes matter in times of adversity. During COVID, age was another intriguing factor.

One seemingly paradoxical theme emerging about the impact of the pandemic: despite being more vulnerable to dying or being hospitalised by Covid-19, older people’s wellbeing seemed less affected than that of other age groups. The main losers? Young people, whose self-reported anxiety and depression tripled. To be sure, lifestyle didn’t change as much for most older people. Job security doesn’t concern most retirees. It also helped if you lived in comfortable housing and had your own garden. In this sense, the pandemic has only served to highlight pre-existing social inequalities.  

But it’s all very well coping, what about the core theme in happiness research of the importance of a life imbued with meaning and purpose — what of the plans delayed, the adventures stalled? It was noticeable in my research how narratives of happiness lacked the ‘elevating’ characteristics of really joyful and fulfilling experiences you normally would find – the social celebrations, cultural excursions, the stimulus of the new, the communal rituals. However, for some at least, the dutiful social obligations of lockdown life, the small acts of protecting others as well as oneself, were ways of satisfying a sense of meaning through the idea that individual behaviours were ones directly connected to the public good, and that what any given person did, actually mattered. That’s not a bad happiness prescription.  

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