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Bristol University and the Climate Crisis: Reflection on The Role of Higher Education Teaching and Public Engagement in Addressing the Climate Emergency

I am a student with considerable climate anxiety. I worry constantly about how my own actions could possibly lead to the demise of human society and am often left apoplectic with rage at the seemingly blasé attitude of governments around the world, and occasionally that includes my own university. Although it is a significant accomplishment that Bristol was the first university to declare a climate emergency, I often look around at the computers that won’t turn off or the enormous amount of plastic and paper wastage at Freshers Fair and think, is this enough? How could the university be doing more? 

Although this conference did not solve the climate crisis, it was a great relief to see a variety of staff from an array of areas expressing their concerns and thinking of possible solutions. Not to mention, the guest speakers from universities in South Africa offered an insight that we should be considering significantly more when talking about the climate crisis: we are not the ones that are bearing the brunt of the climate disaster. Our university does not have droughts or 4 hours on then 4 hours off of power. You thought the strikes were bad? Imagine only being able to use the internet half of the day. Professor Coleen Vogel illustrated this beautifully and although her talk did not soothe the anxiety, it did contribute to the sense of urgency that characterised the day and brought a universality to the crisis.  This conference demonstrated to me that the university not only has to mitigate these consequences for itself but has a responsibility to inform students about how their actions impact people across the world. 

One of my favourite speakers of the day (other than one professor who sang and gave us a deeply needed wake up 3 hours into the conference) was Professor Keri Facer, who spoke about ‘living on a lively planet’. What really struck me about her talk was that it went beyond the doom and gloom approach to climate change, lecturing on how we need to reexamine our relationship with the planet and each other. For the first time (to me) it presented climate change as an opportunity for growth and learning, rather than a signifier of the apocalypse. I often feel that climate change can be disempowering, particularly for young people, as it undeniably presents some giant obstacles. This outlook, however, is less than useful as it means that every step in the right direction feels like dropping a stone into a void. Keri’s lecture demonstrated a different approach and climate change finally felt like something that could be a learning process for the human race. 

The other speakers were absolutely fantastic, open and urgent but also presenting options for how to move higher education forward. It was incredible to have staff from such a wide variety of backgrounds, meaning that conversations were extremely interdisciplinary and each talk brought about a wide variety of responses. The talks themselves also included an ‘arts-based approach’, including creating a transformative engagement toolkit to building lasting partnerships with civil society. Hearing this side of the argument was refreshing, as the science-heavy focus has often felt like it leaves fifty per cent of the population in the dust, not to mention that the inclusion of community engagement already had me absolutely invested. 

However, although I enjoyed the day and was grateful to be part of the conversation I couldn’t help but think: Is this how we treat an emergency that is causing half of Australia to catch fire and kill over a billion animals? That’s caused three cyclones in Fiji in the past two weeks alone? This event demonstrated to me that the university needs to take its role as a world leader seriously but also that there are impassioned academics who are trying to take that role. One of the professors said that climate change presented an opportunity for academics to use the social capital we have been afforded and to use it to create change. We have the opportunity to truly lead the charge in the fight against climate change and for that, we need drastic action. 

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Hussain Abass

Photo sadly not in Bristol

Hussain Abass is a third-year aerospace engineering student and president of the Islamic Society (or ISoc). We met in the bustling SU Living Room for a poignant discussion on his experience of Bristol University, and how engagement in student society supported him taking risks.

So, what has your experience of Bristol been like so far?

It’s been very up and down. At first, when I came here I struggled, I was living up in Stoke Bishop and feeling really isolated. Then in second year I became involved with ISoc and the BME Network and I started to engage in student life. That was the turning point for me. I guess I started to see Bristol as this amazing community of young people where I could really feel at home. This is my third year here and Bristol is starting to turn into more of a home. It’s going to be hard to leave when I graduate!

How did you get involved in ISoc and has it changed your experience of Bristol?

I don’t know really, last year especially they needed help so I started getting involved in that, and then suddenly it was like ‘here’s a chance to lead’ and I said ‘Alright fine!’. I did the election and won the vote and said sure, why not. For me, it’s weird because you would think that if you join a religious society and especially if you’re leading it, that you end up surrounding yourself with people who are the same as you. Actually, I found that this year is the year where I’ve made connections with people from all backgrounds, all identities, all nationalities. Because now I’m involved. I’m meeting people from other groups, other societies and people in the SU. So I’m meeting people completely different from me. I mean, yeah, I don’t know how many new Muslim friends I’ve made this year and it’s so counterintuitive! But it’s been an amazing experience because like you just end up broadening your understanding of where people come from, why they have these things that they do, why they have the backgrounds that they do and that sort of thing. It’s definitely made university a lot richer for me. Originally I really wanted to go to Imperial to study, but now I realise I never would have had the opportunity to meet the people I’ve met and be involved in the things I’m involved in now. Bristol is cool!

So what does being in ISoc actually involve?

So we’re involved in pretty much all aspects of what it means to be a Muslim student at Bristol. Whether that’s from our faith background or whether that’s from on the ground realities of what it’s like to be a Muslim in Bristol. We’re involved in organising group prayer sessions, educational activities to do with faith in the contemporary world and generally trying to make the experience of Muslim students here in Bristol more enjoyable. Working closely with the Students’ Union, working closely with university outreach and diversity teams. We’ve been done a lot of charity work during Charity Week and you always see ISoc making bags of money every year!

Also focusing on the representation of Muslim students we’ve been obviously we’ve just come out of Islamophobia Awareness Month and we’ve worked closely with top academics in the field, for me personally it’s been an amazing experience actually working with people who are the top brains on issues like Muslim identity in this country. But also it was about celebrating our culture and it’s been a very enjoyable experience.

Very impressed you manage to do all that and an aerospace degree!

I think what I’ve learned is that actually the more you get involved at uni, the more your studies benefit. You find a lot more value and confidence in your being here. You meet people who help you. One thing I’ve found is that when people realise that you’re actually engaged in something which is beneficial for the wider community of students here, then they are more willing to help you out with your work and anything you’re struggling with in life.

So you mentioned that when you first arrived you felt quite isolated. As you became more involved in university life, have you felt more supported to take risks?

Definitely, I think that becoming more confident in your identity means that you are more willing to take risks. Naturally, when you have a clear support network there are so many facets of your life to fall back on in case something doesn’t go well. I think that’s influenced the way that I have approached my being visible at university. In my first year, you know people would know I’m Muslim but I tried to do that thing where I’d make it very clear that “I’m Muslim but…” I actually came to realise that first of all no one cares. Do you know what I mean? It’s that cliche that you once you realise how little people actually think about you, you stop caring about what they think. It’s okay to be more forthcoming in your identity.

I think that’s influenced the way that we’ve approached Islamophobia Awareness month this year. So actually, we’ve been a lot more politically engaged and we’ve spoken about the effects of government policy in this country. Racist policy like Prevent which is the government’s strategy to counter extremism and how that has affected students of colour, but especially Muslim students. We’ve had discussions about how hate speech can masquerade as free speech. The argument of free speech is often used to hide the fact that what people are saying is rooted in racism. So yeah, definitely being more secure has definitely influenced my willingness to take risks.

That’s a really interesting answer, I think it’s a common student experience that they feel like they need to edit themselves in some way to make themselves more palatable to their peers.

Although I have to say, one thing I learned is that the student movement has always been a space where minorities have felt welcome, and it’s always been a very important tool through which minority groups have felt empowered. That’s something which we don’t get in all spaces.

So it is a testament to the students of Bristol, especially people who are more active in university life, especially some of the more political groups in the university. One thing that I came to realise is that there’s nothing to be shy or embarrassed about in my identity. When people understand, first of all, what a beautiful faith Islam is, and also the commonalities that Islam has with other religions and other faiths. There is so much beauty in all religions and once you realise that people, especially young people, don’t necessarily chime into racist Islamaphobic narratives, then you’re more likely to feel welcome. That’s pretty nice.

So, I think my last question is what do you feel like the biggest risk you’ve taken is? And why did you choose to take it?

Within the engineering department, I’m involved with a lot of super-curricular activities, so actually working on actual engineering projects. In my first year of university, I didn’t do well in my studies and part of that was because I felt quite disengaged with university as a whole. So I sort of took it upon myself, I was like right, I need to fix it up. So I started getting involved in a lot more engineering projects, which if I tell you about a lot of people would be like, how the hell did you manage to source that for yourself? So after my first year, I had an opportunity to work on aerodynamic analysis for this British Touring Car Championship racing team. I’ve had the opportunity to work with a World Record holding jet suits manufacturer, designing a wing for them. I’ve had a lot of opportunities because I’ve managed to step out of my comfort zone. After my first year I kind of felt like a rubbish student, I thought I’m just gonna be a really rubbish engineer. So I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and went to work on these crazy projects, which have put me in contact with some amazing people and taught me some amazing skills.

ISoc itself is something that has taught me a crazy amount of skills and really helped push me out of my comfort zone. So for instance, engaging with the SU has always been something I found difficult. I felt a little bit nervous at first because I always saw it as there’s an in-crowd and there’s us on the outside. But now I’ve realised the value of engaging and showing people your worth and people really pick up on that. I have a lot of skills that I didn’t know I had. If six months ago you told me to do public speaking in front of an audience of 300 students in a debate in the Students Union, I would have thought it would be crazy to be involved in that. But now that’s the kind of stuff I’m engaged with.

Thank you to Hussain for coming to speak to me (on a very miserable day). You can find out more about the Islamic Society here.

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol: Elsie Aluko

Spotlight on ‘Supporting Risk’

Elsie Aluko is a second year Physics student, and founder of the AfroLit society. We meet to grab a coffee at the Hawthorn’s Café and are lucky enough to find one of the coveted window seats. We get the opportunity to reflect on the pitfalls of the ‘university bubble’, and discuss the risks and rewards of starting a new society.

So how has your experience been of Bristol so far? You’re allowed to say bad things but no swearing…

I wouldn’t dream of it! I think’s it been an interesting ride, initially I found it quite difficult, settling in to the city, and feeling like I belonged at the university took a while. I don’t know if I’m even really there yet. It’s a very different experience to my time at school, I think the university is quite disjointed to the city, initially that made me feel quite confused. Now I feel like I’m at home here, I’ve made friends, I’ve made connections with people that get me and I feel settled in my department at university. I feel like I have a community here and I love it. Sorry I’m not sure that was very cohesive!

No that was a lovely answer! You said the university feels quite disjointed from the city, why did you feel that way initially? Do you still feel that way now?

I definitely do still feel that way. I think it’s symptomatic of the city as a whole, I think Clifton, Redland, the city centre, I think the parts of the city that the university buildings are in are disjointed from the city. It’s really easy to feel like the triangle, Clifton and Eat-a-Pita, are the only things that exist in Bristol. No shade I promise! But there’s so much more to the city, there’s so much history, there’s so much culture and there’s so much going on. It’s so easy to get stuck in the uni bubble, and although it’s not a campus uni, it feels like a campus. You have to actively break out of that bubble or you’re going to spend your whole time here not knowing even ten percent of the story. So I didn’t feel like I had a place within that uni bubble initially, finding that there were other spaces outside of that bubble really helped.

How did you find those other spaces?

I think to some extent I just stumbled upon things. I think every now and then they’ll be opportunities that crop up in university that kind of draw you out and bring you to see that there are other things. Yeah, I think also through the community I also had at my place of worship. That made me feel I had a connection to the city, because it was a community completely outside of the university.

So this year you started AfroLit society, what does that stand for and why did you decide to start it?

So AfroLit is the African Literature society, the idea is that it’s a place that you can learn about, engage with and talk about literature produced by people of African descent. It’s essentially a book club. But I also want it to be a portal through which people can find opportunities, events and things to do with arts and culture produced by black people in this city. I started it because I always loved reading, but I’d not always read books by African authors, I’d just not done it. It’s not really something that is encouraged in school when you do English literature, the books I was presented with were all very specific white European authors, I wanted to widen my scope. Literary palate is the word I’m trying to avoid, it’s low-key pretentious! But yeah, that’s what I want to say. I think it’s important because I’d like to consider myself well-read but if you don’t read widely then you can’t be well-read.

This is particularly close to my heart because I’m Nigerian, so reading books by people that I can relate to more directly helps a lot with learning about myself. Literature is a great way to learn about yourself, to learn about others. That’s also kind of the point, you don’t have to be Nigerian to read Nigerian literature, you don’t have to be from the places that these authors are from or have been through the same experiences to appreciate it. In the same way that I didn’t live in Victorian Britain, but I can still read Dickens and appreciate it, because it speaks to something deeper than who we are on the surface, I think it’s about who we are as people. I wanted it to be just a chance for people to learn more about something I’m passionate about.

Do you feel like starting up a literature society was a risk?

Yeah, definitely! I do. I first had the idea for it in 2017 when I read ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‎ and I wanted to start this, but I was way too scared to do it. I didn’t think I was up for it. I didn’t know if anyone else would want to have me, or if anyone would care or anyone would want to be involved. I don’t like doing things that fail. I’m ‘allergic’ to failure, unfortunately for me, even though I do fail a lot. It’s really funny, I was at an assessment centre for a TeachFirst internship and two people I met there asked if I was involved in any societies. I told them I about the societies I was already involved in, but I had an idea for a society and they told me that I had to go for it. I just felt like these two people who don’t go to my uni, who don’t know anything about me are telling me to go for it. What is the worst thing that can happen? The worst thing is that it fails and that’s okay. So, I’m glad, because I was so close to not doing it.

Do you feel like the university encourages or supports you to take those kinds of risks?

I think to an extent yes, the whole point of university is learning and discovery, of yourself, of your subject, of politics, of arts. I feel like it does foster an environment where you are allowed to and encouraged to try new things. So far, I do feel like I’ve had a lot of support. I guess it depends on what kind of risks you’re taking, in AfroLit people have supported me way more than I thought they would, people have shown way more interest than I thought they would. I wouldn’t be here without the support of people. I think people appreciate it when you take risks at university and they want things to work for you, especially if they care. So yeah, I think you are supported in taking risks here.

That’s actually really encouraging to here, it’s interesting talking to people, when it comes to academia some of the students I’ve spoken to felt really nervous about taking risks. They feel such intense pressure to do well. So, taking any sort of risk becomes a big dangerous deal, but it’s nice to know that there are areas where students feel really supported. What are your aspirations this year for yourself and the society?

I want to be able to balance it alongside my degree, I don’t want to let it overrun my studies. For the society my only aspiration is that people who are involved in it enjoy it and feel like it’s worthwhile. Because I started it for myself because I wanted to join a society like this, but it’s not about me. I want to create a space where people can come and learn, no judgement, you don’t have to know anything. I don’t know that much, so you can know literally nothing, you don’t even have to have read a book in the last three years but I want the people that come to our events to feel like their opinions are still valued and feel like they’ve learnt something or enjoyed something. In that sense that’s my only real aspiration for the society. But I’d love to be able to pass it on, that I’ve created something that can be sustainable.

Marnie Woodmeade, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019