What I will bring back home with me?

After a long academic year, it’s time to start planning for a visit back home and there are many stories, ideas, experiences, and souvenirs that I am eager to share with my family and friends. As a PhD student I will be returning to Lancaster University after my short summer holiday, yet I know many postgraduate students who will be finishing their degrees and going back home to start a new phase of their lives. Around this time of the year, I am busy either submitting assignments or marking exams, or both. But I am also excited to plan for my summer trips, such as how to get there, things to do, who to meet up with, etc. I will probably plan more things to do than actually do them, but the inevitable plan is my trip back home.
Over the years, and trips, I became a rather light traveller, taking only the necessities which I would not be able to find at my destination, but this is usually different for my trips back home. Not only do I take back a few presents and souvenirs, but also clothes and personal items, some of which I have never used and will probably not use in the future. Part traveller, part student and part homesick, these are some of the items that I am planning to take back home with me and share with my family and friends.

New foods:
Not only new foods, but new recipes too. There is an exceptional diversity of local and ethnic foods at Lancaster, and they’re not only found in shops and restaurants, but also in meals that I shared with friends and at various events. For example, last month, the Lancaster University Culture Society organised a Global Village event where for a couple of hours students enjoyed performances and traditional food from various parts of the world. There are a few items that I will be able to take with me on the plane and those will mainly be different kinds of cheeses and chocolates.

Souvenirs:
These are the obvious type of items which people usually get when they travel. The souvenirs that I got were mainly magnets and postcards of the different places that I visited. I try to get at least one magnet from each new place to remind me of what the place is like. My collection includes magnets from the Yorkshire Dales, Edinburgh, Whitby, various places in the Lake District, and various places in continental Europe. For example, I got a magnet in the form of a witch from Whitby which is a town in Yorkshire, where people are big on Halloween costumes.

Memories and experiences:
Memories and experiences are a natural shaping experience. I have to admit that I was not prepared to embrace the amount of new experiences and memories that was awaiting me at Lancaster, especially at the beginning. Some of them were difficult, such as adjusting to the fast pace of learning, to the new places and faces, and to the different habits and lifestyles of my flatmates, these were overwhelming sometimes. For the same reasons, some experiences were ecstatic too, such as achievements, working with classmates, having good conversations, going out to new places and getting to know new people and cultures. These have their own kind of emotions and connections which are both cherishable and memorable.

Clothes and miscellaneous items:
When I first came to Lancaster I had one suitcase full of clothes, by the end of the year, I could easily fill two suitcases. A friend of mine came to visit me for a few weeks and had brought with her only one backpack; she explained to me that she travelled to Rio de Janeiro where she stayed for a month and managed to bring with her a bigger backpack only, but that before her trip, she attended a training course on travelling light, packing compactly and managing to spend long periods of time with a minimum amount of clothes and personal items.
I probably didn’t need to get this many items and wasn’t thinking of what I would be doing with them in the future. I also probably didn’t even use most of them. The Green Lancaster initiative “Don’t Ditch It, Donate It” was helpful in letting me figure out how to manage the items that I would like to keep, and those that I would give away. This would not only reduce waste, but also contribute to a good cause.

New ideas:
One of the topics that is seeping into my daily routine and gradually affecting my choices is zero-waste living. There are several initiatives at Lancaster University that have inspired me too. For example, recycling and donating items are easily available, as well as buying recycled materials, going paperless, talks about various sustainability applications, and growing your own crops with the EcoHub. More and more options are becoming available in shops as well, such as items with reduced plastic packaging and eco-friendly and reusable bags. I am becoming more and more aware of my use of plastic bags, all kinds of bottles and plastic packaging, unrecyclable items, palm-oil-containing foods … the list is endless, yet I’m trying to apply one small change at a time. This will be one of the new ideas that I will try to keep on practising when I go back home.

Visiting my family and friends and sharing these memories with them will certainly make me reflect on these things and experiences. I have certainly changed because of them, and I haven’t at the same time. Change comes in small packages. When it doesn’t, my mind seeks it, and when it is fast, my mind protests and slows down. From the new photo album of my trip to the Yorkshire Dales to my newly-realised environmentalism, and from making new friends to reading new books, I learned that leaving my comfort zone could lead me to new experiences, some of which I consider now to be the highlights of this period of time. Yet sometimes unpleasant encounters disheartened me, until I figured them out. All of this combined led me to a newfound confidence and independence to recognise those things that I want to remember and share.

 

In the middle of the student life whirlwind: taking care of your mental health

Student life is an exceptional experience, but it can be stressful at times, especially towards the end of the academic year when students are snowed under with assignments, deadlines and exams. A student can feel under pressure because of many other reasons too, and, fortunately, there has been an increasing awareness about the topic of mental healthcare in higher education. At the same time, various organisations, charities, staff and student societies organise mental healthcare and well-being activities to facilitate it for students to know how to deal with such issues.

During my undergraduate studies, my strategy to fight deadlines and exam-related stress was to escape them by watching comedy series and doing all those house chores that I had been putting off, and I would only start working on my assignments as I got nearer to the deadline. As a PhD student now, this strategy unfortunately doesn’t work any more because of the nature of the assignments, and I find myself having to come to terms with them sooner.

Whether it’s long-term periods of pressure or short-term but frequent bursts of stress, one way in which Lancaster University has helped to prepare students to deal with well-being issues is through their related events. In this blogpost, I write about two events that I attended earlier in the year: a training session on how to take care of your own and other students’ well-being, and a well-being fair which included a few organisations and short activities to let students and staff know of the available mental health services.

The first event that I attended was the Mental Health First Aid training. It took place early in the academic year and was a light-weight session to help students understand what well-being is and how they can spot if they, or anyone else, are struggling with any related issues. We were divided into two groups, and the session leader guided our discussions. The session quickly turned into a safe space as we started sharing our own experience in our own groups and the session leader gave us a few real-life examples from his experience.
When asked to define well-being and mental health problems, both groups compared them to physical pain. While mental health problems usually require professional or medical assistance, well-being is a state of being comfortable, and both types of issues can influence each other. For example, if a student is in an uncomfortable situation, this might trigger a mental health problem. These issues are subtle in nature and can be much harder to spot than physical pain both in oneself and in others, as one of my friends once told me, “Don’t forget to check on your ‘strong friend.’”

Even though some of the information can be readily found on the internet, it is only when I discussed it in my group that I started to become aware of how someone’s behaviour can indicate that “something is not quite right with a person” or that “this person needs help.” This shows how delicate mental healthcare can be and how interpersonal skills can be useful in setting a helpful environment for someone to express what is affecting their well-being, and, as a result, their academic progress. The session gave me a starting “toolkit” to deal with stressful situations, which might be affecting me or other people.

The second event was the well-being fair. It was on the 1st of March, the University Mental Health Day, and it was held at the Chaplaincy centre. This day was also a very cold, rainy and windy day, so I found my way quickly to the centre. A well-timed hot chocolate was being served. It was the first time for me to be inside the Chaplaincy centre, and I found it to be a peaceful place with spacious rooms, a good place for this type of event. A lady from the Alternative Health Practitioners approached me and we started chatting. We talked about the different ways that could help you relax, such as massages and talking/listening. We even talked about history and the organisation’s involvement with the community. Then I spoke to somebody from the sports centre who organises weekly walks and runs, some of which are to raise funds for various causes. Vegan soup was also being served and in the opposite room a mindfulness session took place. The fair allowed students to see what organisations, people and techniques were available to them, on campus and in the city, which can make them enjoy well-being-related activities.

Even though I am a PhD student, which means that, fortunately, I do not have to take any exams, I still have deadlines for assignments where I have to write long and elaborate essays for my supervisors (some for a few modules that I’m currently taking, and some to apply for funding for my research). I am also a tutor to undergraduate students, which means that, on top of my deadlines, I have to mark the exams and assignments of my students. Sometimes I find a healthy balance by being able to manage my time well and motivate myself, and, although I consider myself someone who works well under pressure, sometimes things can be overwhelming. Part of the PhD journey, as many would agree, is to face puzzling situations and ambiguous readings and modes of reasoning. When I started my research, I wanted to know more about how different individuals can perform better in certain organisations than in others. I was interested in this topic because, in my previous job as a recruiter, hiring managers often discussed it with me. I find this topic ever more complex and perplexing after starting my PhD research. There is no straightforward answer to it, or, rather, the most straightforward answer would be that “it depends.” On what? On whom? Or does it depend on wider societal and economic circumstances, or on how one wants to think about it? The list of questions is never-ending. As I get close to an answer to one of them, ten other questions emerge. In summary, this is what I think about daily, or try not to think about sometimes too when it gets overwhelming, especially with the presence of other personal and work-related commitments, and, for an international student, with the mental overload that comes with adjusting to living in a new environment. But back to our initial topic, the mental healthcare awareness and activities are helpful in different ways: they have helped me to take my mind off studying, and sometimes just by taking a break, I come back more energised than before.

The presence of the mental healthcare services and well-being organisations and activities has been noticeable on campus. Alongside the increased awareness of these issues, there is an increasing number of services and initiatives to ensure that students find a suitable solution for them when they face such problems or simply when they want to have a good well-being experience. These range from professional counselling services to activities to engage with the community.

Volunteering: In search for something meaningful

I recently started volunteering as a teaching assistant at a primary school, and it has been delightful, fun and at the same time very enriching. There are many reasons why students at Lancaster University volunteer at schools, and, from my discussions with a few of them, I noticed that we all shared a very positive experience, from the administrative process before the start of the placement to the satisfying sense of accomplishment and the end of each volunteering session. It is a ten-week volunteering placement which is facilitated by Lancaster University’s Student Union (LUSU) and where pupils get to know that university can be an option for them when they grow up and to speak to a university student. I wrote in a previous blog post about the purpose of the school volunteering placement, and this post will be about my impressions of the process, my engagement and how it connects to the wider aspects of work and my social life.

Why volunteer at a school?

I choose to volunteer at a school because I started teaching a module, alongside my studies, and wanted to see what it’s like to teach different age groups. I was also motivated to engage with the community around me, get to know how people live outside of the university student environment, and at the same time give something back by doing good for others and the community. Other students who have completed similar volunteering placements said that they did it because they were staying for a limited period of time in Lancaster and wanted to make the most of their time, or simply because it is something that they aspire to become after graduating and this experience could improve their career prospects. The placement was for only half a day per week, which makes it easy to fit within my schedule.

Just before I started

I signed up on LUSU’s page at the beginning of the academic year. The website offers many things to do to engage with the community, whether it’s to follow a passion, a cause, or simply to leave a positive impact on people. There are a number of volunteering categories such as human and civil rights, health and social care, university events, etc. I chose volunteering with schools. The application was straightforward and shortly after I submitted it, I received an email about the times of the introductory sessions which gave us an idea about the programme and the steps of the process. It was also an opportunity to meet the LUSU staff who were coordinating the programme and who were very supportive throughout the whole process. The following stage was to get the DBS check done and complete safeguarding training. Then LUSU staff contacted a school close to my place of residence as this was my preference. I was also given the chance to choose from a list of available opportunities. Luckily, the school I wanted to volunteer at had a vacancy for a volunteer, and I could start at any time.

My first day back at primary school

I arrived at the school and was greeted by the teacher who was going to guide me through the placement. She showed me around the school and we waited for the children to come into class. The classroom was impressive, not in a majestic grand way, but in how different and relaxing it was from anywhere else I’ve been since I left primary school. The more I examined the crayons, big letters on the walls and the children’s drawings, the more I appreciated it. While those are things that I wouldn’t normally be interested it, being there, in that moment, brought me back to my own childhood.

The teacher introduced me to the class after everyone arrived and the lesson started. On that day, children were learning how to write neatly and clearly, and I was assigned to help two pupils. After this exercise, everyone gathered around the class’s teaching assistant who read a story to them. The final fifteen minutes of the before-noon session were dedicated for relaxation. A voice that was playing soothing music guided the children – and adults in the classroom – similarly to a relaxation yoga session.

Spending the morning at the school made me realise how adults’ experience of time can easily change one’s mindset to racing mode. Whether I’m a worker or a student, I’m always faced with deadlines which I try to meet while thinking of other aspects of my personal life which could be anything from what I will eat to when should I call my family. This makes me rush into a series of tasks and duties for weeks at a time without taking a break and actually think about nothing. Doing a relaxing and unrelated activity helps me stop thinking about work for a while and sometimes that’s when I get my best ideas.

Lancaster University day out

My positive volunteering experience lead me to engage in the “Be the change” project. This project is designed to show pupils what citizenship values such as teamwork and leadership mean through a series of fun activities. The aim is to enable children to learn that everyone can be a leader when they make a positive change to their society. Among the activities, there was a treasure hunt around campus and the Marshmallow Challenge which let the children work together, communicate, help one another and work towards a common goal. The Marshmallow Challenge is a management exercise where a group of any age or profession is tasked to build a tower with nothing but a bundle of spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow. Surprisingly, children perform better than CEOs in this exercise!

One of the great things about the teaching system at LUMS is how it prepares students for the actual business world. This comes with the wider sociological and psychological issues that any such student/worker is prone to, such as feelings of stress and alienation. From my previous work experience, I find that working can be very rewarding, but it can also take away some of the worker’s autonomy, purpose and identity, especially when they get immersed in their job only to meet sales targets or performance measures at the end of the day. As a PhD student at LUMS who happens to be doing a thesis on workplace dynamics, I have come to notice these aspects more and more and realise how they could sometimes be inevitable. While some people enjoy socialising by going out for a drink or a meal, or take pleasure in a sports activity after an intense workload, others choose to volunteer.  This has left a very positive impact on me and made a pleasing difference to my everyday life.

 

Study hard, play hard

Academic life has many tough tests for students, but as challenging as it may be, it also holds rewarding outcomes and fun experiences. Some of the toughest times in my life as a postgraduate LUMS student were writing-up my Masters dissertation and my current PhD journey. While I usually rely on my intuitive gut feeling to pace my studying, the settings and modes of study played a large role in keeping me sane and on track throughout my academic journey. Making sure that I had enough leisure and fun helped me to recharge my energy and enjoy my time. I tend to yo-yo study where I binge on reading for a few weeks and then I relax, and so on. Even though this pattern worked more-or-less for my Masters degree, I find it hard to follow for my PhD where time management is key, and where self-management is even more critical. A piece of advice that I heard in one of the LUMS study skills development sessions was that there are only two things that will go against you, they are time and yourself. This advice was an eye-opener to me because it made me think that there is something other than making the most of my time and achieving the highest grades that I can, I also need to take care of myself during this process. In this blog post, I will describe a typical week as a PhD student, starting with the dreadful Mondays and ending with the day-out Sundays.

Monday:
I am usually a morning person, but not so much on a Monday. After a strong cup of coffee, I open my weekly agenda to see what the rest of the week will look like, which also motivates me to start the day. My place to go for studying on Monday is the graduate social hub. It’s a cozy and relaxed place, and it helps me transition from the lazy weekend. I usually attend one lecture in the late afternoon before calling it a day.

Tuesday:
On Tuesdays the pace gets faster. I spend most of the day in the library. I choose a moderately quiet area where I can sit on a couch with access to an electricity socket for my laptop, and easy access to the water fountain to stay hydrated. While some people might prefer the quiet areas, to me, a little bit a noise helps me concentrate. The library is also near a few of my favourite bakeries and coffee shops on campus, which makes it convenient if I plan to meet up with a friend for lunch or a cup of coffee.

Wednesday:
Wednesday is the market day in the city centre, so I do my shopping before noon. Unless I have other errands, I head to my desk space in my department. Most of the time I run into my colleagues and we discuss our work progress, thoughts and lives, which is helpful given how isolating studying a PhD can be.

Thursday:
Thursdays are quite similar to Tuesdays, except that they’re closer to the weekend. Although half of my brain is already thinking of what to do during the weekend, the other half is engaged in productive reading. I usually try to stick to the same study area at the library.

Friday:
On Fridays, I try to do an energising physical activity early in the morning by going out for a brisk walk or a jog in the park. I spend the rest of the day at my own desk at home, unless there is an event or that I have agreed to meet up with friends on campus. My desk is not the most organised study space, but I made sure to set it up as soon as I started my PhD. I also try to separate my studying space from spaces where I carry out other activities such as leisure reading, eating or sleeping.

Saturday:
The weekend is finally here. I start my Saturdays with shopping and often go out for a meal afterwards. In the evening, I usually organise a games’ night which sometimes ends up being a long conversation about everything and nothing. I also occasionally go to a local pub.

Sunday:
One of my favourite hobbies is hiking or taking long walks, and I often dedicate my Sundays to it, if the weather permits. I find that this activity clears my mind and is a good exercise. Also, the nature around Lancaster is fascinating. I have been to a few breathtaking nature reserves on the coastal line north of Lancaster and in the Lake District.

I find that having a good study-life structure is better than having none. This is especially true when my PhD journey feels like a rollercoaster. The nature of studying is quite different to that of other degrees. At the PhD stage, the student is expected to be a knowledge maker. In my PhD, this experience has been deep and personal, thus the need to have a good study environment and enough leisure time.

10 New Words I Learnt at LUMS

As an international student, learning about new words stimulates my linguistic inclination. By learning I also mean experiencing words that I already know in a different way. New words mixed with experiences are synergic; I find them fascinating and sometimes amusing. In this blog post I will write about my top 10 new words that I learnt at LUMS, starting with those that any international student could come across and followed by those that a LUMS or a graduate student in particular would be very likely experience. I choose these words because my experience of them has been either exciting, practical or pleasantly homely. A small story for each word tells why I found it particularly fascinating.

  • Flatmate: Flatmate is the commonly used word for housemate in the UK. My flatmates are the students who I have met since my first day at Lancaster Uni. We shared not only the flat, but also food, nights out, pictures, laughs, hobbies and life contemplations. We looked out for each other. My flatmates made me feel like I belong.
  • The weather: This is one of the most common topics you’ll hear a British person talk about. It is often unexpected and sometimes rainy, cold, lovely, sunny or snowy. And sometimes it’s all of them in one day! As someone who likes hiking, my outdoors motto is that “there is no bad weather but there are only bad clothes.” That’s why my big puffer coat is an essential item of clothing and part of my outfit on most days. Even though it’s cold in the north west of England, people have their warmth in their hearts.
  • The steam train: During the summer term, I travelled by regular train to go to Carlisle where I was doing some training. The steam train runs during the spring and summer between Lancaster and Carlisle, and the other passengers and I would see it majestically arriving in the morning at the train station. A peak inside allowed me to see the impressive décor and was enough to take me a century back in time.
  • Marmite: Commonly known by its brand name, this product is also found under the yeast extract category. I heard people say that you either love it or hate it, and I happened to quite like it. I often venture with food combinations and I accidentally found out that it goes well with certain types of jam.
  • Quorn: I discovered Quorn in the UK while looking for vegetarian meat alternatives. It offers a wide variety of products and is a good source of proteins. I found it to be a practical food and it goes well in a curry.
  • Reflexivity: As a LUMS student, being reflexive not only got me high marks, but also made me aware of the way my learning affected my professional and personal development and my view of the world. I try to apply this process to both important events and daily incidents that became a part of my routine.
  • Critical thinking: Critical thinking is an expression that I frequently hear in my lessons at LUMS. It’s an essential yet challenging skill and we practice it when reading, writing and reflecting. I even use it outside of academic coursework, for example when choosing to watch a film.
  • Dispersed leadership: Even though it’s not the most common type of leadership that is found in academic and personal development books, it’s one that sparked my curiosity. This is because it made me realise the different aspects, people and places in which leadership exists, and so it helps me put myself in other people’s shoes and try to understand them, a skill that I find quite important when interacting with people at university and work.
  • Graduate social hub: The graduate social hub is another place that makes me feel at home. It is situated near the graduate students’ dorms. It contains a quiet room for studying and a social room that has games, books, a ping pong and a foosball table. It also has a kitchenette with an endless supply of tea and coffee. I would metaphorise it as the graduates’ living room.
  • Grad bar: The Grad bar is our meeting place in the evening. Pubs are an important part of community life in the UK, and Grad bar is our communal one. It’s a place where I made new friends and enjoyed live student bands and drinks.

Whether they relate to a place, food or thought, my experience of these words continues to be absorbing. Learning new words and experiences still happens to me now as much as it did when I first moved to Lancaster, and as I got more and more involved with the campus life, the studying, the shopping and meeting new people.

Volunteering in schools with Lancaster University Student Union

Lancaster University Student Union (LUSU) offers a wide range of volunteering opportunities and school volunteering is one of them. I chose to attend an introductory session on this project because, not only did I want to be engaged with the local community, but also I was interested in knowing more about the education system in the UK and in helping people achieve their potential. What unfolded during the session made this opportunity evermore compelling.

The session started with the reasons that inspired LUSU to develop the schools volunteering project. The project aims at bringing to pupils the opportunity to engage with university students and at helping them to consider going to university as a future option. The focus is on children coming from disadvantaged backgrounds or vulnerable pupils. Then the project’s development manager shared his experience with us on how children have different thoughts and impressions about going to university: while it could be a very possible option for some, for others, it was a path that they have never heard of.

The volunteering coordinator explained how LUSU will support us through this journey and how the different opportunities can be flexible, accessible and suitable to the volunteers’ passion and experience. The students who express an interest in school volunteering would be matched with a primary or secondary school, depending on the type of work they prefer. The aim is to get the best possible experience for both the volunteers and the pupils.

I am looking forward to starting my school volunteering placement in January. This opportunity will allow me to reinforce the positive impact that the project has on the community while engaging in a rewarding activity. I will have the chance to share with the pupils their classroom environment, as well as discuss with them my experience as a university student to increase their awareness of the option to continue their education in the future.

I am also looking forward to the impact that this experience will have on me. Through this project, I will have the chance to know more about the local culture as well as broaden my own future career aspirations. As an international student at LUMS, I am hoping to gain more international exposure and flexibility to discuss various issues with pupils, teachers and other students who are engaged in this project. Also, the activities will influence my communication and rapport-building skills, which have important and transferable aspects that I can use in a variety of situations. Last but not least, I am looking forward to this rewarding opportunity that will allow me to give back to the community and make a difference in other people’s lives.