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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An MBA with a difference

Sammera applied for the Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA to build the skills to have a greater impact in the charity sector. Her efforts have been recognised by a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, who support British Muslims into higher education to better society.

Picture of Sammera

As Head of Development at the British Asian Trust and with over fifteen years’ experience of charity and voluntary work, Sammera speaks with authority when she talks of the need to innovate in the third sector. 

“Innovation and creativity are central to developing products or services in any leading organisation,” she explains, “but in the fast-changing and highly competitive environment in which charities operate, it is essential. There’s also the added challenge of adapting within a strictly regulated and scrutinised environment.” 

Sammera wanted to return to education to consolidate the skills she had learned through her working life. The Central Saint Martins Birkbeck MBA appealed as it provided the opportunity to bring together creative and business disciplines. 

“I didn’t want to do anything too conventional – I wanted to bring in a creative angle,” says Sammera. “The four units of the MBA programme link in with my work, so I can apply what I’m learning in my day to day integrating the business management theories practically. There are elements of the course that require independent investigation and research, while others focus on entrepreneurship, leadership and change.” 

In January 2020, Sammera successfully interviewed for a scholarship from the Aziz Foundation, which will partly cover the costs of the MBA programme. The Aziz Foundation offers Masters scholarships to British Muslims in order to empower one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country to bring positive change to society as a whole. 

For Sammera, the MBA is an opportunity to gain the skills she needs to make an even greater impact: “At the British Asian Trust, I have learned the value of social finance, making sustainable changes for the longer term and helping marginalised communities in South Asia. Beyond this course, I hope to continue to empower the diaspora and wider communities locally and internationally.” 

Dr Pamela Yeow, Programme Director of the MBA, said: “We designed the MBA to equip students with the tools to make positive change. I am delighted that the Aziz Foundation has recognised Sammera’s commitment to the charity sector and that they have seen the potential for her to have an even greater impact with the help of the MBA.” 

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Tackling climate change head on

Professor Gabriel Waksman, Professor of Structural Molecular Biology, shares how he has set up a charity dedicated to funding carbon mitigation projects that aim to restore native forest habitats.

Since becoming a scientist, I have had the great joy of globe-trotting all over the world from conferences to review panels, from seminars abroad to lecturing at foreign institutions. Such extensive travelling was useful to promote my research, tell people about our latest discoveries, and exchange ideas with fellow scientists in my field. It also provided me the opportunity to publicise the achievements of the research institute I founded in 2003 and directed until October last year, the joint UCL/Birkbeck Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology.

However, I came to realise how dreadful my carbon footprint had become. Like many of us, my awareness of human-made global warming caused by CO2 emissions has increased over the years and recently it passed a threshold where I felt I needed to proactively address this issue. There is no doubt that government intervention is going to be crucial in solving the climate crisis, but I wondered how we, academics, could take individual responsibility for our carbon emissions. We must obviously reduce our travelling: we do travel far too much. But attending conferences and sharing our results prior to publication is an essential lubricant of science: it makes it work more smoothly and more rapidly. I suspect that, in the foreseeable future, academics will continue to travel to conferences.

If conference travel is here to stay (albeit at a reduced rate), what can we do to offset our carbon emissions? There are many ways to do so but I was attracted to the approach of native tree-planting. Trees are excellent carbon fixers and, in my opinion, there is nothing more beautiful than a native woodland. Native afforestation increases biodiversity and restores degraded ecosystems. Also, it was important to me to plant trees in the UK, and not necessarily abroad as many afforestation projects do. Tree-planting sites in the UK are easily verifiable because they are easily accessible. They are also subjected to the Woodland Carbon Code, a set of stringent governmental rules.

I therefore set up a charity called ‘All Things Small and Green’ and a website where academics can compute their carbon emissions, convert them into trees (2-4 trees per metric tonnes of carbon), and add these trees to groves we have set up with Trees For Life, our tree-planting partner. We created a Scientists’ Grove, and Academics’ Grove, even a Friends’ Grove, and finally our first Conference Grove.

I find the idea of a ‘grove’ extremely attractive. Any institutions can create their own grove and ask their members to contribute trees to it to offset their carbon emissions. I hope we can create a ‘Birkbeck Grove’ where everyone at Birkbeck will be able to contribute trees. Birkbeck has made tremendous efforts in reducing its carbon footprint and last week organised its own ‘climate learning week’, that included a vegetarian day and an opportunity for students and staff to bring in their bikes for an appointment with Cycle Republic. But the effort must continue and address the issue of carbon emissions caused by academic travel. In that respect, the latest initiative by Wellcome is important and will spur all institutions on to tackle the issue effectively.

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