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, News

Humans of Bristol University: Emily, Maya, and Tom.


From Left to Right: Tom, Maya, and Emily.

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerability’

It’s lunchtime on Woodland Road. The autumn skylight floods in through the bay window at the Multifaith Chaplaincy. The meeting space is bustling with a few members of staff and dozens of students all giving friendly greetings and catching up over complimentary tea, coffee, and today’s affordably priced soup: Thai Style Pea, Mint & Coconut.

I weave through groups of students immersed in conversation and try to capture a few snippets of student conversations, thoughts, feelings, and perspectives centered around dis/connection, failure, and feedback that make up our experiences of vulnerability whilst at the University. The approach of this Humans of Bristol University feature is to turn towards community spaces at the University and the people bringing these spaces to life.

What brings you to the Multifaith Chaplaincy?

Emily: I love this space. I love the soup. I love what these women are doing here; affordable soup is such an incentive to meet up with friends and grab lunch on campus. The meeting room has a calm and relaxing atmosphere.

Tom: Yeah. I feel like it is a much better working environment than some of the larger libraries across the campus with clinical lighting and intimidating atmospheres. For me, the Arts and Social Science Library might be a good spot if you are doing work at 3 AM and want to stay awake. But I find the space quite clinical. In often feels like a sad place in the daytime, so I tend to come to the Multifaith Chaplaincy to study in a more relaxing ‘Living Room’ environment.

Do you think University staff and students could benefit from more of these community-oriented spaces and the services and support they offer?

Maya: Yes! Especially if staff are also involved. Some of us have so few interactions with staff members because of our limited contact hours.

Tom: Also, I feel like there is a demand at the University for spaces like this one. I mean look at the popularity of the SU Living Room… it is so busy there now. In a way, the space has become a bit too busy, so I still think the Multifaith Chaplaincy is the place for me. We definitely need more community hubs on campus to offset the demand of the SU Living Room and to not run the risk of our social and community spaces quickly becoming overcrowded.

What are your thoughts on the growing importance of the ‘Ways to Well-being’ strategy at the University? What do you think is working and where do you think the University needs to improve?

Emily: This year I know where the well-being advisers are in our department; we receive a lot of e-mails about this. I think the University has done a lot more than people tend to give them credit for. The University is getting better at preventative strategies despite the wait-time for counselling remaining rather disappointing.

Tom: I think overseeing student attendance at lectures would be nice. And it does seem to be working for the courses that already do this. The University should grow from this strength. It’s important to check up on how students are doing, whether they are faring well, especially those who do not feel up for coming into University.

Emily: It would be nice knowing the university actually cares about us as people beyond our academic production.

Maya: Also, I think the fact that we do not meet our personal tutors very often is quite detrimental to student well-being. I mean my personal tutor meets with me like once a term officially. Me and so many of my friends feel like we do not know what we are doing most of the time. Then we get grades and feedback returned and feel confused as to how we ended up with the grade: good or bad.

In terms of negative feedback, how do you feel reading back on comments from markers?

Emily: Most of us enter University with optimism and high expectation, we often feel the pressure to make the most out of the experience and excel in the best way we can: whether that is socially, in our extracurricular activities, or in our academic grade. Sometimes, given the random collection of factors and unexpected events, we do not succeed in our personal aspirations at University – this can unsettle us emotionally.

Tom: I guess most of us don’t feel well-equipped to cope with failure. University needs to prepare students for failure and educate us on mechanisms for coping and reflecting on that failure. A disappointing mark is never just an academic failure, but it can feel like a personal failure as well. 

Where do you draw energy and support when you are feeling vulnerable or a little lost at University?

Maya: I think course mates have become so important for me. Actually, without them I would feel so lost. We have created group chats and can help each other out with notes and support each other in both the administrative and academic sense.

Emily: Yeah, I am lucky because biology is quite a friendly course.

Tom: Oh really? What? Does everyone really get on with everyone? My course feels so cliquey.

I point out how the opportunities to forge connections across our academic cohort and to develop a sense of belonging should not be left to mere chance and luck. Instead, the ‘importance of course mates’ should be part of the University Well-being Strategy and we ought to think about how much our teaching and learning spaces are conducive to forging personable connections.

Do you recall memories of a time where you had positive engagement with academic staff and how you benefited from it?

Tom: I actually remember a time where the absolute inverse happened. I remember a time where I was snubbed by a member of staff. I was sort of following him after a lecture and I went over and said “I am really interested in (X) you presented and (Y) in the slide, could you tell me more about how (Z) might fit into what you are talking about?”

He replied by saying I should go and research this myself and find it all out for myself. But, you see, I was trying to do that, but I was confused. Despite expressing interest and showing engagement I seemed to hit a wall. I felt like this particular staff member really did not care about me. I think the overemphasis on ‘independent learning’ makes me feel frequently deflated.

Emily: I agree. I find the whole ‘learn by yourself’ style of teaching quite isolating. If I am trying to engage with staff after a lecture or in consultation hours, then I think we are within our right to ask for a bit more personable support and guidance from staff rather than relying on their signposts to research papers. For me the learning is in the process, and staff should be contributing to that learning process. Sometimes I feel like the only recognizable outcome of our academic pursuits is the grade, but what about the learning process required to construct the essay argument itself? I guess a 2000-word essay can’t really encompass all the intellectual growth spurts we feel throughout the term. Nor can all of our learning be neatly certified in a 60 or 69. Yet we still feel like a failure if we do not receive the numerical grade we hoped for.

Tom: Yeah, failing has so many negative connotations to it. But sometimes our failures can create moments of learning. It could be cool for us to reorder the popular narratives around failure and success. At the end of the day we are all imperfect and we could use this attribute to transform how we respond to challenging experiences of disappointment and inadequacy.

Emily: Instead of saying, ‘What grade did you get?’ me and my friends ask, ‘Are you happy with the grade you got?’. We then start to talk about our feelings around expectation and disappointment rather than ending our conversations with a numerical grade.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, December 2019

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

Humans of Bristol University

Humans of Bristol University: Dave Jarman

Spotlight on ‘Voicing Vulnerabilities’

Dave Jarman is a Senior Lecturer of Entrepreneurship at the multi-award-winning Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Dave greets me at the Centre which sits high on the Clifton hilltops in the Richmond Building to reflect on well-being and the value of failing for growth. Large windows bring uplifting natural light into open learning spaces set up primarily for collaborative groupwork – something feels different here.

So Dave, what sort of initiatives are happening at the Centre for Innovation that consider staff and student well-being?

We do a scheme called ‘Random Coffee Trials’ started by NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. The charity got to 60 people and realised not everyone knew anyone anymore. The meeting was half an hour, a formal set-up (so staff knew they had to attend) but there was no agenda to the meeting, they had to invent the meeting agenda themselves. What NESTA found is that staff got to find out what everyone else did. They realised that many of them lived near each other, they had kids going to the same school – they got a great community piece out of this scheme. So, what we do is ask students to volunteer to participate every two weeks, we got 52 to participate in the scheme and I match them together and give them a 2 for 1 coffee voucher to meet and have a chat.

That’s great because I think the University community could benefit from ‘Random Coffee Trials’ facilitating interconnection outside of their familiar friendship networks and also between staff and students.

Yes, because loneliness can be a big issue in academia. Particularly in the masters and postgraduate communities.

So, I am trying to prompt more honest, open conversations about the meaning of success and failure to students and staff within the University. To represent the more vulnerable side of the Humans of University of Bristol rather than fabricate picture-perfect narratives that offer little opportunities for reflective thinking around our personal shortcomings, inadequacies and uncertainties.

There’s a piece here about how we create value for ourselves. Something about people relying on external reference seems relevant to what you are saying. We often ask: ‘Am I doing this thing in the right way?’, ‘Which night out should I go on?’ ‘Should I buy this item?’. We become dependent on people around us to validate and evaluate what is worth doing, then eventually we start to build up a sense of what is worth doing. The problem is we don’t always recognise the value in something until a few years down the line.  When I worked in CV reading, I found that students were typically bad at reflecting on the value in certain experiences, especially the experiences interpreted as failures. You almost need someone to offer that conversational space to help you decipher the value. Yes, that is partly the role of careers. But relying on careers and PDP does not always address the well-being side of things; careers can be, for some students, as intimidating as any other part of the university.

I don’t quite remember to point in which I realised this, but I did have a moment of realisation that I was getting more value from the extracurricular things I was doing than my academic studies. I probably took a cost-benefit analysis, though I definitely would not have called it that back then. When I look back, I think… I got a 2:1 by the skin of my teeth. I could have done better.  But actually, the part of my undergraduate degree which was most valuable for me were the soft skills I acquired, all the activities I participated in. All of these elements were integral parts of my student experience. The University does have a role in helping students get the most out of their experience here in whatever capacity that may be.

Yeah. It’s probably unwise to focus on only one part of our experience and start to think about ourselves as a whole. We are human beings, not study machines producing first-class academic results.

And the employers at the end of the process don’t necessarily want students to be that study machine either. Both you and the employers will value all the other bits about your time at university. I guess the thing Higher Education must consider is that students tend to be unfamiliar with reflecting on the value of certain experiences in their undergraduate degree.

I believe there could be something mutually beneficial in having a little more openness in the pedagogical interactions between staff and students. Where both humans engaged in dialogue cultivate an awareness that we are all negotiating doubt and uncertainty by articulating (where possible) our honest moments of vulnerability in academia. Having someone to reflect on failure with at university seems like a crucial means of mitigating negative, if not catastrophic reactions to academic failure.

Personally, I think being human and building some kind of personable relationship with students is part of being a good educator.

…And some of the most resonating knowledge that has been given to me was in a more open conversational capacity.

I think the idea of sharing stories between both parties is worthwhile in revealing the humans on each side. By and large, the tone I am adopting in this conversation is a tone that I often would adopt in the classroom. Some colleagues are not comfortable with that, some perhaps are too comfortable with that. I think it could be inappropriate to expect all staff to take up this approach if they are uncomfortable. But also, it’s partly about how we set up conversations about success and failure within the curriculum itself. So, for example, creativity naturally has to go through a lot of failure, you are not immediately going to come to the most interesting answer right away. Ninety-nine ways of doing something creatively can at first seem stupid, students must be confident with the possibility of being silly in their learning. Imagine being in a group of friends where you are confident being silly: we know that they will forgive us. Then imagine being in a group of people where you are not confident being silly. The former relationships are really good for us; it is where we build personal confidence. That confidence brings resilience. There is something here about humility, it is not always about knowing where we are good but knowing about our shortcomings and how we might be able to grow from them. I have always liked the idea that wisdom comes when we are prepared to admit what we don’t know about everything with certainty.

How can we help students admit that not everything can be known with certainty?

I do better by offering students multiple ways succeeding and failing. I have set my student’s impossible tasks, so students can’t do it, but we are examiners are interested in the process in how the student’s go about it.

Yes, embedding uncertainty into learning could prepare us more for the inevitable uncertainties the modern working world affords. I really enjoyed your recent blogpost about ‘How to Succeed at Failing’ how far do these reconceptualised notions of success, failure, and negotiating uncertainty feed into your vision for the Centre? Does the curriculum here help students reflect on the value of failure?

We are prompting students to be more reflective in their group work, especially concerning giving and taking peer advice. In terms of self-esteem, having people around who can give you affirmation, constructive criticism, and support feels quite useful.

I have personally not taken too well to criticism and the pressures of group dynamics, perhaps out of a fear of rejection, perhaps out of a fear of failing. What do you think about current perfectionist cultures in Higher Education where acute fears of failure are high among a number of students?

The culture of Higher Education has certainly changed since I was in it. When I came through university 20 years ago a 2:1 was great! To be honest, I worked on the career side of the university for a long time and a lot of employers can sometimes be suspicious of a first-class degree. Given the way that academia has developed, the process doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the workplace. Many employers are happy to see 2:1 plus participation in sports, societies, and student media. A 2:1 shows you are capable. It demonstrates a more rounded set of skills. This is not to say university should only be rolling students out for the workplace – I would disagree with that. But there is a space in university life for students to engage in extracurricular activities and projects outside the classroom. I think the reason we’ve ended up in this situation is because we are dealing with ever greater numbers of students and we tend to resort to quite simple measures and metrics to find solutions. Lots of the important things we could talk about regarding well-being area tend to happen in smaller, more thoughtful, and dedicated educational settings. It is possible to build up better networks in smaller institutions. Having four people in your class can give rise to better networks than socialising with four hundred people in your class. Here, I am going to argue somewhere down the middle is probably the most appropriate response. Equally, academia is good at thinking critically. People like to be right: things are either wrong or their right. People rarely stop and say “Well that is wrong. But it is usefully wrong. I can build on what you just said. Or at least I can not pass harsh judgement. We can thank each other for our contribution and work out how to do something better about it.” Much of the academy is not doing enough creative thinking around failure.

What about you? How do you tolerate your failures?

My creative confidence comes from many moments where I feel like I just make things up as I go along. Also, I recall conversations with colleagues who have experienced serious and disruptive moments in their life. Me and one colleague discussed ‘how do you make the most out of negative circumstances?’ We realised as the conversation drew to a close that we must try and find a positive frame in response even though that can feel quite mercenary. We were saying how it is partly about the fact that we must move forward with our lives – whatever happens. The rest of life does not just stop. Up to a point we do have to be ruthless and get ourselves back up after falling down and keep going. It is not about denying the disruptive things that life brings but trying to pay attention to at least a few positive aspects in our challenging day-to-day lives. Whether we deal with the challenges of bereavement by focussing on the present or by paying attention to the positive memories of a loved one. We do not deny the reality of their death but find a new frame when responding to negative things.

I see the power in your outlook, Dave. I often spend some time in the evening reflecting on moments I welcomed throughout the day. Sometimes the moments can feel seemingly simple like the sensation of a juicy orange on my tongue, or the feeling of connection between me and a friend on an evening spent catching up. The reflective process might not work for everyone, at times recalling the day can feel tedious, but in the long term you feel more secure, more satisfied. So, I will keep that close to me.

Owen Barlow, BILT Student Fellow, November 2019.

An interview with..., Humans of Bristol University, News, Student Voice

Lizzie Blundell

Lizzie Blundell is about to graduate with a first-class degree in Liberal Arts. Bathed in the blossoming summertime sunshine, Lizzie and her daughter, Maria, joined me on Brandon Hill to blow some bubbles, to eat some treats, and to discuss the state of university accessibility.

IMG_3142
Taken on 1st June 2019 on Brandon Hill

So Lizzie, how did you come to take Liberal Arts? What was your journey into your degree?

I didn’t do conventional A-Levels. I physically couldn’t take them because of my health. I had a load of surgeries at that point, and I was in A&E pretty much every other day, so it wasn’t really feasible to continue at the school I was at. There weren’t many access things out there for me to be able to use, and I was in a wheelchair at the time.

But I did want to go to university, and I was a bit upset to see everyone else go before me in my year. It was my mum who actually found the course called the Foundation Year in Arts and Humanities at the University of Bristol, and she suggested that I go for it.

The Foundation Year is a relatively new initiative, isn’t it?

Yeah, so I was in the second year that it ran in 2014. You complete the foundation year and then you can apply to get into the University of Bristol again the next year for undergraduate study, where you can choose specifically what you want to do.

(NB: The Foundation Year is a fantastic educational initiative founded by academics at Bristol, and you can read more about it here: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/study/foundation/)

Could you talk a bit about what the Foundation Year exactly entails?

It’s a bit like Liberal Arts in the sense that each week you have your set reading with seminars and lectures, but it’s from a different department each time. You get to try a bit of everything.

Because the classes were so small, you’d have such a great relationship with your tutors, like Josie McLellan, and I was still able to access the other things that undergrads would be able to do, such as accommodation and the experience of being a fresher.

And I guess there’s going to be so many people from different walks of life as well. When you enter a conventional undergraduate degree, everyone tends to be from very similar backgrounds, traversing similar academic trajectories.

There were more mature students on the Foundation year, and people from different backgrounds. Some people had been out of education for years, so coming back to university was this big thing, and it was still exciting.

That’s what I especially like about this course. It’s suggesting that education is for whatever point in your life, a lifelong thing. It’s not just something that you do from 0 to 21. You can come back and dip in and out of it throughout your life.

Exactly. And the Foundation tutors were so supportive of me because my health went in and out at some points, and I ended up back in a wheelchair. They were rallying behind me and trying to push for changes at Bristol, because I had loads of issues with accommodation. They put me in Durdham Hall which is at the top of a very steep hill. Let alone the fact that I couldn’t reach any of the things in the accommodation when I was in a chair, and the doors couldn’t open automatically. But I was able to talk to Sarah Serning and Josie and they said “look, this is what we’re going to do” and I really appreciated that.

How did you find the change to Liberal Arts and the transition into your undergraduate following the Foundation Year? What were the biggest changes?

It was mainly the difference in who was actually around, especially as I’d been used to people who were mid-thirties minimum. But because I already knew the university setting, I felt more at home and more comfortable with speaking up in class.

That being said, I felt quite a shock when I was in seminars. Suddenly I seemed to be the only one who didn’t come back from a “normal” background in education, and I sometimes felt that I couldn’t speak up because I didn’t have their experience, even though I was used to that university setting. I also suppose it was obvious that I wasn’t the same age as everyone else.

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That’s interesting. At least the Foundation Year is starting to ease that transition and democratise the academic voice irrespective of backgrounds. So going on from that, and this is a big question: what do you think about the state of accessibility at this university – physically and maternally speaking?

So physically, it’s hard to get around the university. We’re in a city campus, so you have to understand the limits there. But also we’re on hilly terrain, so actually getting from A to B can involve quite a lot of steep areas, especially depending on the care that you’re in or depending on how well your mobility is that day. It can be completely different from one day to the next.

In somewhere like Woodland Road, the parts that are wheelchair accessible are still quite steep, and recently with the new renovations to the Arts complex, they did put in some ramps. But these ramps were quite small, so they wouldn’t fit every type of wheelchair.

So you go in there expecting to have the same level of treatment as an able-bodied person, but you don’t. And you don’t want to make a fuss about it, because you don’t really want to think about what you can and what you can’t do because it’s already quite physically exhausting, let alone the emotional exhaustion of constantly having to push and be like “Please just get me a ramp!”

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that buildings play in the identity of universities. There’s a pride in old buildings as they point to prestige and tradition and stuff, but this pride can be isolating for people if they’re not willing to adapt the building to make it accessible for everyone as times change.

So I have an invisible disability. I have Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which means that I dislocate everything quite frequently, like earlier today I dislocated my jaw. Not a big deal! But having to use the things that I need to get by and looking the way I look, especially when I’m not in my chair, is quite isolating as my disability cannot always be visibly seen.

Those are the main mobility issues, but Sarah Serning, who I believe is the greatest woman that the university has to offer, is always there to help with these things and she’s amazing and I don’t think people know enough about her.

What is Sarah’s specific job?

She’s a senior tutor, so she’s there to just help you, in the most basic of terms. You think “senior tutor” suggests that you only go for academic purposes, but no! She’s there for everything. And it was great to go and talk about the problems I had.

But I suppose this year has been more about me being a mother. When I was on maternity leave, I was worried about how it was going to be coming back. Because firstly, I had taken a year out of education, so I wouldn’t be at the same level as everyone else doing their third year, academically speaking. And then it was a case of just being able to navigate everywhere financially physically and emotionally, so Sarah was really great at helping me with all of this.

For more context, I found out that I was pregnant when I was on my year abroad. I also found out that I was pregnant when I was 32 weeks. So I had 6 weeks of pregnancy. I had to come back from America because I was studying in Boston at a Jesuit college, nonetheless.

Wait, Boston College is a Jesuit university?

Yeah! The first question they asked me when they found out that I was pregnant was “How has your faith been moved?”

And what did you say?!

“I think I just need to talk to my mum.” It was down the phone as well! They had me in this tiny room. There was even a crucifix!

But anyway, I decided to email my personal tutor, Emma Cole, saying “Hi Emma Sorry for the late email, just found out I’m 32 weeks pregnant. I’m going to fly back on Friday.” She sent a lovely email back laying out all my options.

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And what were your options?

 Either to come back or not to come back to Bristol. So I came back and decided I was going to finish my third year.

But obviously I had a lot to figure out. At that point I was on universal credit because I had no income and I was a lone parent. Her father decided he didn’t want to be involved. So it was just us two, and my parents who were very supportive.

I had to figure out accommodation for me and Maria, as well as how I was going to manage being at university, so had to sort out nursery and its fees. Money was the big issue. I came back with a huge economic disadvantage. I had more money coming through student finance but more coming out.

I now have my accommodation through the university which is for parents, but it’s not great. I’m in a one bedroom small flat. Maria won’t let me sleep next to her, so I have to sleep on the floor. There’s no washing machine, so I have to wash everything by hand. There’s also a bit of damp which has given her asthma, and I pay quite a lot. It was going to be a push, I knew that from the beginning.

My place doesn’t have wheelchair access, so I had to choose between my physical ability and my maternal needs. There’s a duty of care with this accommodation which I don’t think is being met. I thought I could get through it, but it’s the end of the year now and I’m ready to move out of that flat.

So what’s happening next year?

I’m going to be doing distance learning for a research master’s. It’s easier for me. I think that’s one of Tom Sperlinger’s things isn’t it? He’s a big fan of distance learning, and the notion of education being an ongoing process. Next year, I’ll be undertaking a research on breastfeeding and metaphors of the body.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about breastfeeding on campus!

There’s no place to breastfeed on campus! There’s no parents’ room or anything. I’ve only seen one other mother breastfeeding at the university, and that was at the library. Now I am very pro-breastfeeding. I used to breastfeed in public. But I also always liked having my own space to do it as well. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it in public, but there’s something more secure in a private space, especially if you’re feeling uncomfortable. I think it should be a right to have that space and change your child, to sort out anything they need.

Recently in Beacon House, I even had an issue where they didn’t want me to enter the building at all with Maria. I’m guessing because of health and safety, and I know other student parents who had similar issues with different buildings. But if you’re not being given the same respect or treatment as other students and the main cause is having a child, then that’s maternal discrimination. There’s no other way to put it.

So there are times when it’s tough, when she’s teething, when I haven’t slept the night, and I still have to go in and still be the same student as everyone else, while being very aware of my limitations. But the fact is that, as I wrote in my dissertation acknowledgements, maternity should not be a barrier to education.

For me and other student parents, we are constantly trying to navigate being a student and being a parent and having two separate mind frames when at university. I can’t push myself as a student because then I’m not being a good mum if I’m tired and stressed, and being a mum is my priority. It’s trying to find that balance.

As we said, it’s about getting that shovel and digging everything up and readjusting it all to make education truly accessibly. No longer thinking of education as something for young people or for one particular demographic. If education is a universal right, it’s got to be for everyone at whatever age or stage of life you’re at. And that’s actually difficult to implement when education was not founded to be like that. It can feel like you’re hitting a brick wall sometimes.

So much research at university is being focused on gender relations at the moment, and that’s hugely important, but many people don’t see maternity as part of that parcel. I don’t really understand that.

Maybe it’s just internalised judgement on my behalf, but I feel guilty for being on benefits and being a young mum, especially as I chose to go back to education rather than choosing to go to work straight away.

But that internalisation is still significant, because we live in a society that allows you to internalise that guilt; the system makes it very difficult for you to balance all of these facets of work, learning and maternity.

I never expected to come to university and get pregnant, and so I also feel the guilt of having to rely on friends and family for emotional support. But I was raised to believe that education is one of the most important things, and I stand by that.

At this point, Maria gets bored of blowing bubbles, so we carefully take her down the steep path to the play park at the base of Brandon Hill. Lizzie rocks her on the swings and answers some quick-fire questions.

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What’s been your favourite class at Bristol, and why?

I really loved ‘Literature and Medicine.’ I’ve been really been getting into medical humanities. One of my last essays was on the relationship between sign language, AIDS and posters. With most of my units, I tend to take an interdisciplinary approach, and I find it quite liberating.

I actually really enjoyed ‘Public Role of the Humanities.’ I wasn’t expecting to as it was a compulsory unit for Liberal Arts. We had a guest lecturer each week from around and beyond the university. And the question they each answered was “What is the public role of the humanities?” They would respond from their own discipline, and most of lecturers came from an interdisciplinary angle.

One of the core elements of the module was a work placement, so I chose to work in a library. Someone worked at Colston Hall. Someone worked in a theatre. People did loads of different things.

Whenever you get a chance, what do you do to relax?

Drag Race. I love Drag Race. I love watching films. I suppose I feel sad I can’t read that much anymore during the day. At night I just need to switch off, so I never read for fun anymore. But I’m hoping now that the dissertation’s over, I get more time to do that. When Maria’s in bed, my head turns to house work. I can’t really switch off and of course I worry about her.

Aside from the academic side of things, what has university taught you?

Don’t underestimate students from different backgrounds. They bring so many different arguments and experiences. For me, that’s defined everything I do because I relate to things differently and see things with an alternative perspective.

What advice would you give yourself if you were starting university now?

 Just because it went differently doesn’t mean that it’s not ok.

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Interview conducted by Phoebe Graham, BILT Student Fellow.

Humans of Bristol University

Walker Grevel and Patrick Shannon

Walker (4th Year Civil Engineering) and Patrick (3rd Year Biology) met in Clifton Hill House back in their first year. They remained close friends ever since. I caught up with them back in March to talk about their university experience at Bristol…

Taken in The Life Sciences Sky Lounge on March 7th 2019.

What made you decide to come here to study?

Patrick: I just had a really good feeling about the city. Funnily enough though, it was actually one of the only universities I didn’t visit… I still firmed it though! I just thought it would be a good place to be, the student life was good and the course was highly regarded. Bristol had this ‘prestige’, whilst also being very relaxed, lively and liberal.

Walker: Well, I went to an open day…

Patrick As you should! * laughs *

Walker: It was great! I went with my mum, it was a beautiful sunny day…I had also visited Bath the day before, but I thought the campus and city were a bit too small for me. Bristol was larger and more interesting. I spent a lot of time exploring the city, going to the Harbourside, the markets, and I completely fell in love. I remember telling my mum I wanted to come here to study.

Did you always know you wanted to go to university?

Patrick: I never entertained the thought of not going! I think that’s a product of the college I went to. They would say that there are alternatives out there, but they didn’t give you an awful lot of information about that. They would say, ‘Oh, I guess there are apprenticeships’ but everyone had to submit a UCAS application whether you were going to university or not. It was a way of keeping future options open!

It was very much pushed on us that university was the way forward, that it was a good career move… I don’t think I was influenced by that college mentality. I was very much into learning and biology. But I think there are people who were influenced by that and felt ‘pushed’ into it.

Walker: For me, I didn’t view this as an option or choice. I always thought it was something I was going to do. I guess it is because of how I was brought up. My parents taught me ‘once you go to school, you then you go to university.’ Unlike Patrick’s college, most people didn’t go to university at my school. It wasn’t really pushed upon anyone. But if you had ‘okay’ grades, you were expected to apply because that was seen as the normal thing to do. I think most people in my sixth form were open to explore other options.

Do you remember what your expectations were for university? Have they been met?

Patrick:  You know what, I don’t know what my expectations were! I really don’t think I had an image in my head…  I was nervous about the independence and the social aspect of it. I thought it would be challenging to make friends because I was really shy when I first came.

I was most excited for the academic side of university. I was excited to be taught by the best and to interact with the best researchers in the country… But I did expect the course to be more hands on. Biology is very, very independent. I don’t know if that independence is part of every course, everywhere in the country, but if I could change anything, it would be that I wish it was more interactive. I think I expected it to be a bit more like college.

Walker: I just assumed life would start when I got to university. Before that I didn’t do much. I just went to school and did my homework… It was a bit dull. But once I started university, there was so much to do and so many people to meet. I think you do meet new people that you will probably stay friends with for the rest of your life.

Patrick: I also think every university experience is personal. There are so many options out there for what you can and want to do! You’ve also got such a broad spectrum of people here… Some people are extremely active and constantly social. Some are more reclusive and not doing as much because all this change is overwhelming. There is a bit of pressure for your university experience to be great all the time, which is not good.

Walker: I agree. When I went abroad, people always used to tell me ‘this is the best thing that is going to happen to you in your life.’ I don’t think this should be advertised like that because that is not always the case. Change is hard and many people find that difficult. I didn’t really enjoy being in a new place for the first part of my study abroad, I really struggled. But once I started to meet people I connected with, things changed.

Patrick: I also think those ‘best’ experiences can kind of sneak up on you. You shouldn’t feel pressured to have the greatest time. It’s probably why I enjoyed second year more than my first year. I was doing a lot with societies, keeping on top of work…etc. But I wasn’t actively doing things to make my experience the ‘best’ time. I was just doing what I wanted to do.

What would you say to your first-year self?

Walker: Well, in first year I wasn’t as social or as chatty to new people. I’ve become more mature and more confident as time has gone on. I was, and still am involved with the Third Culture Kid Society, but initially, I was avoiding their socials because I was intimidated by meeting new people. My friends kept telling me ‘Go, these are exactly the people you would get along with.’ I resisted going for the longest time, but when I eventually did go, it was amazing.

I think I would tell my first-year self to push herself a bit more! It would have gotten involved in societies a lot earlier!

Patrick: I would tell myself to stop spending so much money. I got Dominos a stupid amount and I really saw my overdraft as free money… It’s not that at all!

I think I was very carefree and I think I made the most of it in a lot of ways. I wouldn’t say too much to my first-year self. For the age I was and the place and setting I was in, I made a lot of friends and I kept on top of my work pretty well… That’s all you can really hope for in first year and it went well!

Walker: I was too stressed in first year. I wish I wasn’t like that.

Patrick: You were too stressed in first year.

Walker: * laughs *I think I treated my university work like A-levels and spent way too much time studying instead of trying new things. I was basically a fourth year in first year.

Patrick: But it’s good to keep up that level of work, because I think it’s easy to drop your working habits drastically between sixth-form and university… It’s also easy to forget how much is expected of us as years go on. I find it hard to maintain my productivity now!

Has there been an academic or member of staff at Bristol who really engaged you and inspired you? What did they do?

Patrick: Yes, many of them, but I wouldn’t say a single person did that. I think the teaching staff is strong here, but it is also quite varied. There are lecturers who make research their priority and don’t enjoy teaching. But there are other members of staff who love lecturing and who really care about students getting the most out of their experience at Bristol.  They want to make sure you’re dealing with things ok and that you’re getting on with work.

There’s one lecturer, Rosemary Crichton, who always does little meditation sessions in the middle of classes. She’s also done other fun little bits and bobs… You can tell she’s gone away and read about education to learn how to keep people engaged and how to keep their concentration levels up. She’s always pushing to try new things in class.

I know that some of my friends preferred getting more straightforward lectures, but I really appreciate seeing someone making an effort to make us learn in new ways.

Walker:  James Norman, he is amazing. He’s one of our favourite lecturers ever. Especially back in 2nd year, we had 3 hours of lectures every Thursday and Friday morning at 9am for the entire year… That was hard. But he would always lecture for 20 mins, then take a break for a couple of minutes to get water and relax, then he would resume lecturing for another 20 minutes and repeat this throughout the class… He just knows how to keep us engaged, even when some students were half falling asleep!

My supervisor Rachel De Ath is also incredible. She is so inspirational. She works part-time, lectures part time, has a family, is a chartered engineer… It’s incredible how she manages to juggle it all! Working two jobs and taking care of two kids, I don’t know how she does it!

We also have this lecturer called Dimitri who is hilarious. Always talking about football with the boys in my year…

What do you do to relieve stress?

Patrick: I do a lot of running. It’s something I discovered at the end of first year. Initially, I hated it. But I thought I needed to do something active because I realized I never did anything before. I wasn’t particularly good at any sports in school and that kind of turned me off. I always felt I was getting compared to my peers.

It was nice to find an independent activity like running where you’re only judged against your own standards. You’re aware that you’re better today than you were yesterday, you’re quicker today than you were yesterday… You could even go an extra kilometer today!

I think that was the activity I needed because I finally learned ‘ you should only compare yourself to yourself.’ Also, if I run at the start of the day, it energizes me and makes me want to keep up that streak of productivity. But I can’t lie, doing it first thing in morning is the hardest part.

Walker: I’m with Patrick. I just love running because it really helps you clear your head. It puts you in the right place. I also started bouldering, which is super fun and challenging. It’s great because anyone can try it out and get good at it. I also really enjoy meeting up with new people, grabbing a coffee or having dinner and catching up with friends! It distracts you from other things that might be stressing you out.

Finally, what’s your favourite thing to do in Bristol?

Walker: When I have time, I just love going on walks around the city with friends, exploring new areas of the town,  trying out different restaurants, taking photos…things There’s so much to do, I don’t think I can choose a single thing!  I also absolutely love being here in the summer. Between 2nd and 3rd year, Patrick and I stayed back in Bristol and got to enjoy the city under the sun…

Patrick: I really like all the different events that go on around the city… ‘Wildlife Photographer’ at M-shed was so good. There are so many varied events for every person’s interest. I just love that you can search ‘What’s on in Bristol?’ and there will most definitely have something that will catch your eye.


This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Humans of Bristol University, News, Student Voice

John Gilbert

In the crisp sunshine of a Saturday morning, I walked to Whiteladies BTP to have a coffee with John Gilbert, fifth year medical student and former Faculty Rep for Health Sciences. John pioneered the establishment of the University-wide Student Mental Health and Wellbeing Survey. We talked about John’s journey into medical school, his university experience and his time working as a faculty rep. Imagine coffee clinks and a persistent hum of steam in the background, which underscored our conversation.

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Taken on the 25th May 2019 at Boston Tea Party on Whiteladies Road

Content Warnings: discussions of issues pertaining to mental health, suicide and self-harm.

So John, what inspired you to apply for medical school?

I suppose it’s probably because my brother and sister are both doctors – that had a lot of influence. I looked at other things to do, but medicine just seemed right at the time. It’s quite young to decide what you want to do, but I think I’ve been quite lucky because I’m still enjoying it.

I used to live with a medic and I was really interested in the Bristol medical course because, despite being a degree that is quite scientific at heart, you do creative and practical, as well as more traditional forms of assessment, and I was wondering if you could tell me about the kind of things that you get up to in journey to becoming a doctor?

 So there’s an element we do call ‘whole-person care’, so instead of just focusing on the disease and the treatment, the medical school are really keen for us to focus on personal treating, as that’s what makes a good doctor – you don’t just come in and treat the cancer or the lung condition, you treat the human that’s sat there and it makes the process a lot nicer for everyone. So a lot of it is focused around the dualism between the doctor as a scientist and the doctor as an artist – we explore how creative you need to be for innovation and to make change in medicine, and there was a lot of opportunity to be creative.

The other quite fun ones are called ‘OSCE’s’, Objective Structured Clinical Examination. It’s made up of ten-minute stations where you’re asked to break the bad news of Cancer or do a cardiovascular examination, all checking that you have the real-life skills to be a doctor. Depending on the unit, we might have to do a presentation or an essay as well, it’s really varied which is quite nice.

Absolutely. What did you do for your whole person assessment?

I think I did a print about Alzheimer’s, and it was just the Alzheimer’s word repeated. At first it started multicoloured and then it faded to grey scale, and then the word just faded out completely – just that sense of losing everything.

See that’s what I think is so good and interesting about this course – I find your diversity of assessment, while I guess it is tailored to becoming a doctor, should nevertheless be applied to lots of different subjects. How do you find that range?

I think it reflects the whole spectrum of specialities that doctors end up in, and I think that’s the key thing. You’ve got surgeons at one end, or psychiatrists on the other and the range is just trying to satisfy and get people interested from an early stage in what they want to do.

 I guess it goes back to the fact that if you only have one form of assessment, then that’s only favouring one kind of brain and one kind of speciality. Medicine’s variety of assessments is much more democratic.

 The nice thing about medicine is that in the past couple of decades, there’s been a massive focus on evidence-based medicine and that has transferred into medical education and medical assessment. In terms of all the ways we are assessed, medical schools across the UK try to evidence that these are valid tools of assessment, shown to make a safe doctor. So as a student, you can feel confident that you’ll be good enough if you pass, which is quite nice.

Yeah absolutely. Just to feel like you have a safety net, and you feel secure. What’s been the highlight of your university time so far?

I’ve been really lucky to be involved in a lot of societies. I’ll be going into my sixth year of university next year, so I’ve had a lot of time to do fun things. I think one of my favourite trips has been diving in Gozo in the Mediterranean with the university’s underwater club, and that was incredible. It was a really fun trip and a great society. Other things that have been really fun…just sports at Bristol. I know they get a bad rep, but if you’re just looking for something fun to do, I’ve enjoyed it.

I don’t think it’s the sports themselves that get a bad rep, it’s the wider culture.

 Yeah, sometimes the culture of intense initiations can exclude so many students. One of my friends was really involved and became the chairman of the medic’s rugby and completely changed the culture of it. He got so many more people involved and opened it up to vets and dentists, and essentially anyone who wanted to play. He got the highest turnout to training ever. They have fun drinks but there’s never any pressure to drink and it completely turned the club around.

So tell us a little bit about your time working as a faculty rep for health sciences. When did you do that? What initially compelled you to apply? How did you establish the Mental Health Survey?

At the time was as I was applying, a lot of my friends were suffering from mental health issues but they weren’t really willing to go to the university about it, and that really shocked me. I was asking them why and people were scared of things like Fitness To Practice, so potentially being struck off, not being allowed to complete the year, or being forced to take the year out. There was a big myth around what the General Medical Council did, and how willing it was to stop you studying medicine, as you have to show that you’re fit to practice. And I think that was partly one of the issues around students not approaching the university for mental health help.

I guess it means you have to grow up very quickly, as well.

 You do, yeah. And when you’ve got mental health issues and you know you’re being overseen by a professional body, it’s a massive barrier to seeking help. So the survey started when I spoke with Zoe Backhouse and Helen at the SU, and we just wanted to do a small in-house survey at the SU, so we designed a survey and started asking a few personal questions about drug use, self-harm and suicide. It got quite serious and the university said that we couldn’t ask these questions unless you get ethical approval. Eventually after three attempts, with the help of some really kind academics from the School of Social and Community Medicine, we got ethical approval and ran the survey in May of 2017. We got a really staggering response rate of over 50%, and some really useful data for the health sciences, so that’s the short story.

We wanted to run the survey again, and the university suggested that we disseminated it across the whole university. I haven’t been involved since, but I think there hasn’t been as much student involvement since we first did it. Since a student hasn’t been directing it, it hasn’t really got as good a response rate, which is a bit annoying. Students are always hounded with requests to do things, and I think I was particularly persistent in trying to get students to fill it out because it was so important at the time.

It’s difficult isn’t it. Most people will always respond to a Student Union dissemination, and obviously the Student Union does need to be separate to the university to hold them to account, but at the same time that divide also creates a rift of engagement.

 Yeah, so I think the challenge for the future will be, as with all surveys, trying to get a better response rate. I’m obviously very biased but I think it is the most important survey that Bristol has to do.

Off the back of that, what steps can be taken to improve response rates?

 You need big billboards in libraries with a QR code, you need to get the SU on board, lecturers involved, you need heads of student societies and presidents on board and it just needs so much more student involvement and engagement, and getting an email from someone you’ve never met before from the senior management team at the university probably never gets read. They should be monitoring if these emails are being opened and if the link’s been clicked on, and they definitely have the capability to do that.

What steps do you think this university, and universities across the country, can take to improve their stance on mental health?

 I think Bristol is under a lot of pressure because of the suicides that have happened here, and that puts a big spotlight on Bristol. One thing that I’ve noticed recently, especially in the press and with peers, is that everyone’s been very critical of Bristol. And they’re allowed to be, and I fully understand why they’re being critical, but not many people are offering solutions or ideas for change. All I’m seeing is an anti-university rhetoric instead of a ‘this isn’t good enough – change it’ attitude. That’s what I feel, but I’m not sure if that’s right and I’d be happy to debate that with people.

The NHS used to provide a lot of these services, and it’s faced massive cuts over the last few years. Coming from an NHS background, you do see these cuts in person when you visit psychiatric hospitals or see that a GP only has ten minutes to deal with any patient. The NHS also has a massive role to play in student health.

In terms of the university, mental health services need more funding, we need to cut down key student concerns like waits for student counselling, or encourage more positive help, such as group therapy and better access to mental health services. It’s a really difficult question and I think if there was an easier answer it would have already been done. Nothing that’s worth doing is easy. We need to start thinking about, not just universities, but how we as a society and a national health service, are to look after these students and provide for them.

Aside from academic knowledge, or medical knowledge, what has your time at university taught you?

 I want to say, more than I’ll ever know. I don’t think I’ll know what it’s taught me until after I’ve left university and I’m a few years away. I’ve gained so much from being at university. Just being a more confident person, engaging more in things, dealing with when things go wrong, growing up as an adult – learning big adult things. Learning how to relax is a really important one. The most important thing in life is just to have fun, and enjoy yourself.

I think that’s an interesting point about feeling the impact but not being able to articulate it yet – that’s a sign of personal transformation. Following on from what you were saying about the importance of relaxation, what kind of things do you personally do to chill out?

 Whilst I was studying in Bristol, and I wasn’t away working at hospital, I joined a lot of clubs, I did diving, Judo, I did a triathlon for a year just to get a bit fitter. Nowadays, I just do a bit of cycling. I really enjoy making pizza. Otherwise, just a bit of Netflix – often I’m just a bit tired so I like to lounge around and do nothing!

This takes us back to the importance of sports and exercise. I find for me that exercise, and the release of endorphins, is often the best way to make me feel better when I’m feeling a bit lower than usual.

 I have the perception at Bristol that sport is a competitive thing and you need to be good at it. This goes back to the previous question of what I would do to try and improve mental well-being at the university. I’d try to create far more opportunities for inclusive sport where people don’t need to feel judged or good at something.

Performance sports is all great, but if you’re applying for performance sports as a club, and you have to show that your top teams are completing at a high level, how are those clubs expected to provide for people who used to play social netball or hockey or rugby or swimming at school? Those people aren’t going to turn up anymore, as it’s not the right environment, and you’ll be forcing people who used to do it for a bit of fun into a highly competitive atmosphere. This puts so many people off from doing sport and I disagree with that entirely. I think there needs to be a major rethink of sport and exercise at university.

I completely agree – there’s not enough opportunity to take up a new sport as well!

 I think a lot of students at the university would do more sport if it wasn’t so exclusive and competitive and there’s definitely not enough opportunity to go and have a bit of fun, and do something once a week, or just to try things. The Sports Officer a few years ago did a good job of trying to change that around and make it a bit more inclusive, so there was freshers’ week and a second week in January when you can go and try another sport, as a taster.

So speaking of tasters, if you could take on another subject aside from medicine, what would it be and why?

 I’ve always really loved planes and helicopters and part of me really wants to be a pilot, so probably aeronautical engineering, I find it so fascinating and cool. I love those really boring plane documentaries about airports and how do they do it and how do they build it – it’s really dull, but I love it.

What are your top three places to hang out in Bristol?

 Cabot Tower’s a really nice, free place to go and get an amazing view from Bristol. I like places with really good views, so the suspension bridge. Then either the top floor of the Bristol Royal Infirmary or the top floor of Biomedical Sciences, where you can look out across the whole city.

Shout out to biomedical sciences, that’s such a beautiful building! Do you have anything else you would like to throw in before we wrap up?

Just make the most of university, get involved, make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way we learn. We’re all very afraid of getting things wrong, failing and whatever.

I think we could do a whole other interview about fear of failure among students.

I really think we need more life lessons from a younger age: learn to fail, relationship advice, money advice, all the things we never get taught – there’s more to life at that age than learning how to do trigonometry and calculus.

I think we’re facing so many problems in this world that we have no idea how to solve, so we need to instil a better sense of discussion and critical thinking in the next generation. I just think there’s a much larger place for philosophy and critical thinking in our education system. I just think there needs to be a massive reform in the nature of our education, as it stands.


This interview was carried out and transcribed by Phoebe Graham, BILT student fellow. 

Humans of Bristol University

Dr. James Norman

James Norman is a Lecturer in Civil Engineering and an Academic Fellow for BILT. I caught up with James on the 10th of May to talk about his path into academia, his passion for teaching and engineering, and student engagement.

Taken at Coffee + Beer on the 10th of May 2019

Tell us a bit about how you got into academia.

My path into academia was a little different from everyone else’s…

I did an engineering degree at Nottingham, which is pretty normal! After I completed my degree, I got a job working in industry. I worked for about 3 years, then started doing a PhD and became a Research Assistant.

Research Assistants are usually hired after completing a PhD, but I hadn’t started mine at that point. What I had was industry experience. That definitely persuaded the university department to give me that post-PhD position without even having a PhD. That job was a lot of fun!

After 3 years of payed research I managed to finish my PhD! It was so satisfying but it was also one of the most difficult moments of my life. Only because, my second son was born 3 months into my 6-month write up. I was up with my son until 10-11pm, then worked on my PhD until 2-3o’clock in the morning, I was also working to earn enough money…

I was not a pleasant person for a little bit. Really unpleasant actually, my wife did not like me for a little while!

 I then persuaded the university to let me work for them on an hourly basis teaching one course unit. I did that for about 3-4 years, then I finally asked for a contract. I wanted a contract to have the security of knowing I would be teaching this every year instead of getting to that point when you think ‘Uhm, ok, it’s September, and I’m not even sure I’m going to be able to teach this again.’  

After working part time, I thought ‘I like working in industry, but I love teaching!’

So about 4 years ago, I asked my head of department for a full-time position as a lecturer. I kind of gave him an ultimatum… But that got me the job!

How difficult is it to secure a job in academia?

Getting an academic job isn’t easy. It feels like there’s a lot of serendipity involved.

I get to interview a lot of people for these jobs, and I don’t think I could get a job in academia nowadays. It is so difficult and competitive! There are days when I think, I shouldn’t really be here doing what I’m doing.

But ultimately, even though my experience was quite different from what people expect academics to do, it’s not better or worse.  And everyone has their unique path into academia. Not everyone knows they want to get into it.

All I knew was that I loved designing buildings! And I also knew I wanted to work in industry and at university.

How did you combine your work in industry with your interest in teaching?

It’s great to look at buildings that you designed and say ‘That is mine! I did all of that!’ Nothing beats that. But, ultimately, I also felt I had something to offer at the university. I didn’t want to just teach the norm of how things are in engineering. I think it is important to look at the industry and think about where we are going, what things might look like looking forward, and what are the challenges we are going to be facing in the future.

I like to bring in unusual buildings materials to my lectures. I like to tell students about them in the hope that they would go out into the world equipped in ways that I was never equipped.

I believe that teaching offers the biggest impact for change!

Would you say you do more teaching than researching at the moment?

I think I’m a bit more of a polymath. There is a company mantra that states ‘do one thing well’, well, I’m absolutely the opposite of that! I think it’s fun to do a bit of everything.

But I also need a bit of a focus. I am supervising 1 PhD student at the moment and I love doing that! But I’m not keen to have 100 PhD students at one time. That would be a lot!

I also love my research area on sustainable materials, specifically timber. It’s going to be an extremely important material. My students know how fond I am of it.

Would you be able to name most of your students?

I would love to be able to name all of them obviously, but I don’t know if my brain capacity is that big. I’ve got 300 names to memorise across 4 years. But I do try and take a personal interest in everyone. I think it’s very important to have a relationship with your students!

What are your thoughts on anonymous marking for big group projects? Is it possible?

That’s a hot topic! Most of the time, these projects are double marked, or even triple marked depending on the situation. But it is almost impossible to mark anonymously because group work involves supervisors and other members of staff to talk to students about their projects all the time.

 One solution would be to give everyone the same project. But we also don’t want to give all students the same challenges, it would be boring!

That’s why group projects tend to be more diverse. We want to make students have a choice in what they study. We tend to offer about 30 real-life projects that students can choose from. It is great to be able to give students a wide scope and range of topics. If you’re interested in international development, or water, or infrastructure, there should be opportunities catered for students’ and groups’ interests.

How do you get students to be engaged in their studies?

I don’t know how you feel about lectures, but I love lecturing! It is one of my favourite things to do!  But, it might be for a selfish reason. It is a bit like performance, like an actor or a musician. Everyone is looking at you and ready to listen to what you have to say… I think a lot of people like doing it, but don’t confess to that. Of course, I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily the best way to learn. But it is a great way of delivering information, so we should make it a performance that students enjoy and find interesting.

We also have smaller classes where we work through teaching material together. I find that it is sometimes hard to bridge that hierarchy between teacher and student. Therefore it is important to have times where teachers and students can discuss course material together. Students get worried if they are stuck on material from week 3 when they are supposed to be on week 7… But at the end of the day, it’s ok if you aren’t on that specific week. You should be able to ask lecturers anything because that is what we are here for. It is important to break down the barriers between academics and students to make their learning comfortable.

In my mind, the healthiest relationship between students and professors is seeing myself as a senior engineer and the students as graduate engineers. There is obviously a hierarchy of knowledge but you shouldn’t feel like it’s because you don’t know, it’s just that you haven’t learned about it yet.

Would you say that knowledge is collaborative?  

I don’t know. I would say that knowledge is acquired through a variety of ways. I remember going on a training course with ‘We The Curious’. The activity leader presented 3 different ways of making Bolognaise. The 1st approach, we were told how to make the bolognaise. The 2nd approach involved having a conversation about the recipe and asking audiences for suggestions. The 3rd approach was a facilitated discussion with the audience.

Even though most people thought we would like approach 3, all the Engineering staff liked approach 1.  I think it’s because we’re used to that kind of methodology: we take information and learn to apply it. And I don’t think it’s an unhealthy way to learn at all! I always look for experts to learn about new things because they use the right tools to learn from. It is obviously very different from collaborative learning, but it does not mean it is better.

The creation of knowledge is far more complex than you think and there isn’t a single ‘tool set’ to learn from.

Do you think Arts subjects will ever adopt a scientific methodology?

I was terrible at ‘the Arts’ when I was a student, so I’m not sure I can comment on that. But I do think that there are many ways we can design our thinking process. I think the sciences like to over-glorify the rationalization of ideas. But we should remember that not all ideas are naturally accepted.  Not everyone has the same views.

For example, I love music, and the music that I love, I love for an irrational reason. Because they are quirky and different. I find that the more people don’t like it, the more likely I am to lean towards it and listen to it. We all have our preferences and our own valuable ways of learning.

If everyone was learning the same way and doing the same thing, it would be very boring!

I also think that there is always a sense of narrative to explain how we’ve learned what we’ve learned.

For instance, when you write an essay, you should view it as a document journeying your learning. You have to have a conversation about what you’ve learned and how you learned.   Reflection is an important practice.

What’s one thing you learned as a teacher?

Learning is one of my favourite things to do. I am currently learning a lot about pedagogy! But One important lesson I learned was through a scheme called CREATE.

I had to write a reflective piece on my teaching practice. When I wrote the draft, I thought, ‘I nailed it.’ Everything was going very well, so I thought this was going to be brilliant. But when I got my work back, the reviewer really tore it to pieces, but in a very healthy way!

I remember sending about 10 revisions of my statement to Jane, who runs CREATE, and learned a lot through those revisions…

There are times you think you’re great at something, and when you suddenly aren’t, it can be a shock to the system. But it is important to experience these moments, both as a student, as well as as an academic.

Wwhat were your perceptions of teaching from when you were a student?

I think I had a pretty unhealthy relationship to teaching and learning when I was a student. I was pretty good at exams and cracked the system by memorizing past papers and answers. It was only in my 3rd and 4th year that I knew I wanted to design buildings and understand how they came to be. I remember walking through a building with a friend and finally seeing the connection between what I was learning and what materialized in real-life.

Honestly, I was a bad student… When I graduated, my tutor said I was one of the laziest students he’d ever had. I used to talk to my friends in lectures, and got in trouble because I had a pencil case full of toys that I would use during tutor time… I would get in trouble.

But education was very different back then. We didn’t have handouts, we wrote everything down, it was far less personable. One great thing was that one of our lecturers knew us all by name! I was always really impressed by that.

As a teacher now, I would never use ‘bad’ to describe any of my students! It’s not true and its certainly not helpful! As an academic, you have to remember that you are not necessarily your cohort. Not all your students are like you.

Do you think students get a bit too stressed about their education nowadays?

I can see both sides to the story. Students do worry a lot about their grades, and to a certain extend, so do employers. But if you have a degree and a portfolio of work that shows that you are a creative and collaborative person, these are also important assets.

Grades are important but are not everything. People are obsessed with the number, and it’s just a number. A number is immaterial; your job offers are placed around your portfolio.

Of course, we cannot ignore the fact that people put a lot of money into their education. It is an important investment and people want to see students succeed. Although it is easy to say the stress is self-imposed, it is because students want to do well, and so do academics!

This might be controversial, but I am often tempted to make the grade boundaries go from 0 to 75. And for every mark you get above 75, you get marked down. So if you got an 82, you would end up with a 68.

The reason I say this is because I don’t think we ever teach people that actually, in life, perfection is not necessary. Good enough is necessary. I don’t think people learn when to stop. They keep going and going and end up getting phenomenal marks, but the personal costs resulting from that are too much.

Teaching people ‘you can stop there, you don’t need to do that’ is important. I do have a lot of students come into my office worried and concerned about the future. But, in industry, you learn something very quickly… You learn that there are so many other priorities in your life too. We need to let people know that ‘good enough’ is a healthy attitude to adopt!

How do you usually tell yourself ‘good enough’ is enough?

I’m terrible at that actually. It’s always a dilemma! As university staff, you care a lot about what you do, but there is a point when caring too much can be detrimental to your teaching. I would love for all of my lectures and feedback to be perfect, but I need to balance that against the cost of other parts of my life as well as the sustainability of my work. I’d rather be doing 20 years of teaching really well, but not perfectly, rather than 3 years perfectly and then stop because of the stress I built up for myself. 


This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.


Humans of Bristol University

Dr. David Bernhard

This interview was carried out by Corrie Macleod, a Student Fellow.

Dr. David Bernhard is a Senior Lecturer in Computer Science at the University of Bristol. He was born and raised in Switzerland and worked as a software developer before coming to Bristol to start his PhD. I caught up with David to talk about his path into academia and his passion for teaching…

Taken in David’s office in Merchant Venturers Building on March 19th 2019.

Tell us a bit yourself and your academic path!

I’m David, my accent is German and I’m a teaching fellow in Computer Science!

I  grew up in Switzerland, completed my undergraduate degree there, then I worked for close to a year as a software developer. I then came over here to do a PhD. I liked Bristol so much I decided to stay on. I’ve been in Bristol ever since!

Who inspired you to go to University and study Computer Science?

My dad’s side of the family were mostly farmers and council employees. Going to university wasn’t really a thing they did. On the other hand, on my mum’s side, my grandparents were the first to get a formal education.They got this education as part of the military actually, because my grandfather was a soldier and my grandmother was in the Royal Navy Reserves.

After the war was over, they were able to train as engineers and teachers. As a result,  my grandma encouraged her daughters to go to university… So, I suppose my mum and her family motivated me to go too!

What were your expectations for yourself as a student?

I think that when I was doing my undergraduate, my expectations were a bit misleading. My mum told me about the university experience in the UK which was very different to how things worked in Switzerland. Going to university in Switzerland almost felt like a job… You turned up, went to lectures, listened to content and then went home and did extra work if you needed to. That was it.

So what are the main difference between education here versus education in Switzerland?

The biggest difference for me, and the part that I really enjoy contributing to as a lecturer in the UK, is the student support system. We don’t really have that in Switzerland.

If you go to a Swiss university, polytechnic school, or a skilled apprenticeship, you get told to consider other academic options or choose different education schemes if you don’t perform well enough.  There’s also no such thing as a personal tutor which means there is little one-to-one support.

There’s no tuition fees or strict admissions process either, which means that when you apply to university, anyone is guaranteed admission. But, 1 in 3 students are expected to fail or drop out at some point. Big reputable schools tend to only keep the top performing students.

However, over here, if we give you an offer to study at an institution, you are most definitely going to graduate. As educators, we really try to do everything for you to get your degree in the end!

What makes a great teacher to you?

The single best thing you can offer is time for your students. Time to stay back at the end of the lecture to talk to students and answer questions, time to hold office hours, time to go to events held by the Computer Science Society…  I truly believe that the ideal university would allow staff and students to support each other, have a coffee or grab lunch and chat about life outside of studies!

Did you always know you wanted to become a teacher?

I always wanted to do something that involved teaching. I think, like lots of undergraduates, I had the idea that a university was a higher teaching institution.  Then, when I came here I learned that Russell Group universities tend to be known as a research institution with a teaching dimension attached. But, I think that we are gradually emphasising the importance of teaching because it is an important part of getting a first class education!

As an academic, do you find the balance between teaching and researching challenging?

Right now, it’s a challenge to maintain a balance between teaching and administration. There’s quite a lot to do at the moment and there are jobs have to be done!  I currently have 24 personal tutees and I want to find the time to support all of them too. I recently had meetings with all my final years to ask about how their degree is going and how they are coping in general. I love to get to know my students as people!

What is a rewarding or surprising story you experienced as an academic in Bristol?

I can say this, since they will remain anonymous… We recently set up an online forum where people could give feedback about lectures or teachers they particularly liked. One person submitted an entry stating that they were struggling with mental health issues but that they got through it. They said ‘David literally saved my life.’ It felt great to get a message like that. It made me feel like I was doing something right as a personal tutor and I want to continue supporting my students in that way.

Do you think it’s a big responsibility for personal tutors to give pastoral support for students?

There are students who may need more professional support, like students with disabilities or long term mental or physical health conditions. But as personal tutors, we should still know how to guide them to the right people.

For the majority of students, tutors should create a place and time where they can talk about their problems openly. Talking and being supportive during those tutor meetings is important. I think everyone is qualified to do that!

Do you have any advice for students who might be worried about the future?

There are certainly big changes coming up, like our future with Europe! I’m actually more optimistic than the media, perhaps, but my personal feeling is that we will be ok. I know that the media headlines always tend to say that everything is terrible, that we are all doomed.

Those negative thoughts do concern me…  But I would tell people that worrying and fixating on the problem doesn’t fix the problem.

We should calmly talk to friends, family, tutors, even strangers, to get advice from other people in a similar situation. Sitting around worrying about it and making posts online complaining about the terrible things that are happening without talking to others doesn’t help.

We need to have discussions about what we might disagree on instead of ignoring each other’s concerns.  Even if things are terrible, we want to be using the bit of energy that’s left within us to try and do whatever good we can for the future!

What is your remedy for stress?

For many years, and I should actually start doing it again, I went hiking. As a PhD student, I was part of the hiking club committee. It was great because you would go on hikes almost every weekend and get to spend a full day outside.

There is a place in Wales called the Four Waterfalls Walk. It’s absolutely amazing and delivers what it says on the tin. It’s just a two hour drive away from Bristol. You should go there if you have the chance.

What’s one thing students should do before they graduate?

I would say that every student should get involved in one thing that has absolutely nothing to do with their course. It can be going on a hike with new friends, it could be playing a sport, it could be doing something creative, perhaps musical…. But getting involved in something different will allow you to invest in energy in something that you love and that you are proud of!

What’s your favorite thing to do in Bristol?

On a nice day, I really like walking around the Harbourside.  You don’t even have to go there for an event! Walking alongside shops, restaurants, bars and enjoying the scenery is enough. There’s also so much to eat there!


Come To David’s BoB Talk on the 26th of March at 1pm: