Debating Championship in Estonia

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This year, I had the honour of representing Edinburgh for the second time at the European University Debating Championships, this year in Tallinn, Estonia. This was an honour I would have been unable to accept had it not been for the PGAF.

The experience started back in March when the Debates Union held trials to select teams for the Championships. Being part of the Debates Union is like being part of a family, so although tensions were high, the competition was friendly.
Having tried my best, but feeling disappointed in my performance, I wasn’t sure if I had done enough to receive a spot. I was absolutely stunned and delighted when they announced that my friend Noah and I would be going as a team.

As the thrill of selection wore off, the reality of the commitment settled in. Soon began the months of training. Twice a week from March until May, the various ‘Euros’ teams and other lovely members of the Debates Union, would do practice debates, covering every topic we could think of. Even when University came to the end, our preparation had to continue. We went to a practice tournament every weekend in June, travelling everywhere from Glasgow to Berlin. We started to see our work pay off at these tournaments, reaching the finals in Glasgow, and gaining several top-ten speaker positions.

Then came the main event. Two-hundred and fifteen teams, seven days, one city. The in-rounds of the Championships brought us mixed results, and the hours before the ‘break’ announcement to the out-rounds were filled with many moments of excitement, followed by immediate fear. We knew we were very close to the position we so wanted to be in, but we couldn’t know for sure if we had done it.

Unfortunately, when the break announcement came, we were disappointed. It was hard to discover we had not got the victory we had worked for. However, one of the other Edinburgh teams managed to get to the out-rounds, and I felt nothing but excitement for our wonderful friends. Seeing them give beautiful speeches in the quarter finals made me want to work harder and get better, so when I hopefully return to EUDC in the future I can make them as proud of me as I was proud of them. This competition taught me disappointment is not to be feared, it just feeds ambition.

Our friends from the Glasgow University Union were eventually declared the winners of the Championships. One of their speakers, Bethany, became the first woman to have ever won and be declared the best speaker in Europe. This was a beautiful moment to have witnessed at EUDC 2017. The representation of women in debating is still limited, but to see a Scottish woman prove that we are just as able to succeed in the activity as men, made me feel invincible. It feels like working hard for a potential future victory will be worth the effort, because it is no longer an impossible dream.

The Edinburgh Squad at EUDC 2017

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Noah and I at EUDC

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Berber Way of Life in Morocco

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I went to Southern Morocco to work with a Berber tribe to establish a community, and provide a strong platform for it to flourish. Berber people are historically nomadic, however in recent years, as Morocco develops, the tribes have found it increasingly difficult to continue their traditional life style, and must find ways to adapt. Many turn to tourism, by providing tours in the desert and authentic experiences of their rich and diverse culture. Many tribes however, turn to coming further inland and creating communities that survive on making argan oil and leather, to be sold at the now infamous Berber Markets, found in any major city. To be able to help and join a community who is going through such a cultural shift, and being able to witness the nuances in culture between “Moroccans” and “Hill Tribes” is an amazing opportunity.

Working within a community where many people would not speak English, all whilst being thrown into such a harsh environment was potentially the biggest challenge I had ever faced. Upon my arrival, and meeting Abdul, my host, I quickly realised that there was nothing to fear. Not because there were no challenges, but because the welcoming and relaxed outlook of the people meant that challenges could be dealt with one by one, as a team.

Experiencing Ramadan in a Muslim country was truly a humbling experience. There were two very contrasting sides to this beautiful month. In Marrakesh, as fast is breaking the crazy, relentlessly bustling streets become deserted, and the call to prayer fills the sky. Locals will regularly ask you to break fast with them, and the much talked about generosity of the Moroccan people is on full display. Berber tribes however, often do not follow the strict Muslim practises seen in the cities, and still to this day consider the Arabs as the invaders who destroyed their way of life, meaning that fasting is uncommon. The contrast between empty city streets and the prohibition of alcohol, to Berber Whiskey and Hash being enjoyed at all times of day to the sound of African drum trance was truly spectacular, and painted a much richer and diverse picture than I had previous had of Morocco.

During my time, it was established that solar panels could not be delivered during Ramadan, and then further established that they had not been ordered, and finally it was clear that this was not an intention on the near horizon. Vast changes of plan like this become very routine and I used them as opportunities to become as resourceful as possible, by making the most of the tools I had at my disposal. This experience made me aware of how consumerist the west can be, and has made me appreciate and respect the luxuries we can afford. Mainly, it has given me a much more grounded perspective on life, and its humble beauty.

Conference in Copenhagen

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I went to Copenhagen, Denmark for my go abroad fund. The reason is that there is a conference there which has a theme of China, Asia Dynamic Initiative. My PhD research topic is about Chinese media and politics. I hope to join this conference to communicate with scholars from around the world to discuss China related topics. The conference is also a great opportunity for me to present the update of my PhD research and get feedbacks from other scholars.

Before I left, I was mainly worried about the living cost and safety issue of myself. The living cost in Copenhagen is quite high. The go abroad fund is a good support for my transportation, accommodation, and food during the conference.

What’s more, as it is my first time to travel to another country in the Europe, I am kind of not so sure of the culture there, which may influence the way of mine to communicate and interact with local people there.

I mainly benefited from the conference from the following aspects:
1. I presented the updates of my research paper of PHD and got feedbacks from both peers and established scholars.
2. I made some friends through the conference. They are from both academia and industry.
3. I also got some new understanding about China from scholars from around the world. Some of them provided very different understanding of China, especially in the area of Chinese media and politics.

Mental Health Work in Sri Lanka

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This summer I spent 6 weeks completing a mental health work placement in Sri Lanka. It was the first time I had ever spent so long abroad so I was excited to immerse myself in learning about a whole new culture, as well as gaining some valuable work experience in the field of mental health care.

I lived in a home-stay with a local family alongside 5 other volunteers. The accommodation was…rustic, with frequent power cuts, plate sized spiders and no hot water! Fortunately, our house mother was the best cook you could imagine and we had the most delicious curries for every meal (yes, curry for breakfast, lunch and dinner!).

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During the week we worked at various different projects. In such a rural area, mental health awareness and treatment was of a poor standard so the organisation I volunteered with was working hard to improve the facilities available. The projects ranged from delivering art therapy to a class of boys with severe mental and physical disabilities, to teaching movement therapy to elderly patients who had lost the connection with their bodies following long courses of sedative medicine, to spending time just talking to patients at a psychiatric hospital who had been isolated from their communities.

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Alongside this, we attended lectures about psychological trauma in Sri Lanka following events such as the Tsunami and civil war, and spent time shadowing a psychiatrist at his clinic. These activities combined made for a truly fascinating insight into mental health in Sri Lanka and provided an often shocking contrast to the treatment available in the UK.

Accepting this contrast was often the most challenging part of the placement. In a developing country such as Sri Lanka where resources are often limited, using medication to essentially cover up a mental health condition is cheaper than providing a course of psychological therapy that would actually treat and address the problem. The result of this was that patients would often be heavily medicated and zombie-like, since strong medication such as Clozapine, which would be a long-considered last resort in the UK, was prescribed relatively freely. However this contrast really emphasised the importance of the work we were doing to improve the accessibility of much needed psychological therapy in Sri Lanka.

At the weekends we were free to travel further afield and explore more of Sri Lanka- from white sand beaches to the jungle, to the most spectacular hill regions. It is such a beautiful country!

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Overall I had the most incredible experience in Sri Lanka. I learned so much about mental health care and gained work experience that will be invaluable to my future career. I was worried about how I would cope with the challenges of working in such a different culture but I surprised myself with how calm and adaptable I became. I’m excited to put these new skills and experiences into practice as I move onto the next stages of my career.

Research in New York City

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Thanks to the Principal’s Go Abroad Fund, I spent 11 weeks in New York City. I spent my time doing research in support of my PhD dissertation. As part of my research I visited many institutions and libraries in and around New York City, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Frick Collection and Art Reference Library, the New York Public Library, or Princeton University Rare Books and Special Collections Library.

As much of my PhD is based in the library or in the archive, this was an incredibly useful experience to be able to access archival materials and primary sources that are not available online and otherwise inaccessible. Additionally, having the time to write and work on my dissertation with no distractions was an incredibly rewarding and reflective experience.

Before leaving, I was worried about being away from my community in Edinburgh as independent research can be very isolating and lonely. My summer spent abroad really taught me how important it is to have a community of other researchers around you to share research and discuss ideas.

However, the most surprising thing I learned this summer didn’t relate to my research or my own personal experience. Rather my eyes were opened to the difficultly of photography in reference to historical places and archives. I worked in some truly amazing libraries and other spaces that I was unable to photograph! Additionally, the majority of the archives and libraries I used strictly restrict photography of their collections.

The best (at least in my opinion as a user) are the collections that allow you to photograph anything you want, however much you want. Some libraries fall into a “middle ground” of sorts where they might need prior approval for photography, or can provide images that they take, at a cost (usually very high for a student). In most of these cases, you have to sign a waiver stating that you will use the images for personal use only, and not reproduce them without prior permission.

However, many libraries do not allow images at all. In certain cases this may be for copyright purposes; but in most cases, these documents are hundreds of years old and out of copyright. And as flash photography is not required (which can damage the documents), there is no viable reason to not allow photography apart from making money or trying to force researchers to come back and spend more time at the archive (thus putting visitor numbers up). In this day and age, I would think that archives and libraries should be allowing photographs, thus encouraging researchers to work on their collections, thus drumming up more interest and future research.

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Human Rights Brigade – Panama

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This summer I spent a week in Panama, volunteering on a Human Rights Brigade with a group of students from the University of Edinburgh. The aim of the Brigade is to provide access to legal resources in rural areas and to empower community members. We were based in the small community of Canglon, within the Darien region.

During the Brigade we undertook various activities, including holding legal clinics during which community members could come and receive free legal advice. We were also assigned family law cases and worked with Panamanian lawyers to resolve these. Prior to the trip I was concerned about how much legal knowledge I would be required to have, but Global Brigades provided us with all the materials we needed. Meeting with the families was one of the best parts of the trip as we were able to get to know them over the course of the week and see how the legal assistance provided was positively impacting their lives.

The trip was hugely beneficial in improving my knowledge of different legal systems and awareness of cultural influences. We were fortunate enough to meet with the mayor of Meteti and SENNIAF – an organisation which deals with policies aimed at children, adolescents, and families – and it was very interesting to see how some of the laws and policies differed to those in the UK.

On the last day we held educational workshops on bullying for the schoolchildren in Canglon. I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to communicate effectively with the children due to our limited knowledge of Spanish, but with the help of interpreters and interactive games and activities, the workshop turned out to be one of my favourite parts of the Brigade. Despite the language barrier, the children – and the community members as a whole – were extremely welcoming and keen to involve us.

Overall, the trip was an amazing experience, made possible with the help of the Principal’s Go Abroad fund. Working in the communities was both humbling and inspiring, and the memories I have made will stay with me for years to come.