Dare you to dance at your orientation

It’s 7.15am and my alarm is blaring inconsiderately. I’ve already hit snooze three times, so I finally silence the thing to quit annoying my flatmate in the next room. Forty minutes later, I clamber down the steps from my apartment as I leave for my first class – yes, some of us have already started class.  I’m running late, so find myself half-running past a mountain, baseball stadium and skyscrapers before scrambling into the arts building at the centre of McGill campus. So begins another day on the international exchange programme.

Having abandoned George Square and the dingy basement under the Pleasance that is The Student’s office, I have been in Montreal, Canada for the past three weeks, an exchange student at McGill University for the next year. As I mentioned, classes have started already, and I am surrounded by a pile of books almost as big as I am as a write this. It seems that there is no gentle induction week here – the workload so far seems to suggest that that whole ‘academic growth’ part of my application wasn’t exactly a matter to be taken lightly.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Back in Edinburgh, you will just be beginning Freshers’ Week, and the reality of actual work to do is more of a vaguely familiar notion that you might remember from before those long months of summer. Out here, we don’t have Freshers, we have ‘Frosh’. It lasts a weekend, rather than a whole week (which may account for the reduced numbers of those incapacitated by Freshers’ flu) but it has all the traits you might associate with Freshers’ Week – slashed t-shirts, wristbands and even green plastic beer mugs. Plus huge club queues – sorry lines – excessive alcohol consumption and throngs of first years going wild in celebration of their recent escape from parental curfews.  However, there’s also plenty this supposedly well-seasoned third year hadn’t seen before. You know those stereotypical red-cup ‘college parties’ of American TV fame? Oh yes, they actually happen – complete with beer pong, flip cup, punch and the arrival of hundreds of absolute strangers. It could only spell hilarity, especially as my fellow exchange students marvelled at the red plastic cups and failed miserably at beer pong.

While we’re on the subject of stereotypes, a note on orientation. Edinburgh Freshers, this is my prediction for you: a 30 minute talk somewhere in the depths of DHT, Appleton or KB, followed by the retrieval of a few guidance sheets and maps that you will forget to look at, well, ever. If you’re particularly keen you might take a campus or library tour, then it’s on with the Freshers’ festivities. Foolishly, I had similar predictions for the Canadian system. Nope, orientation here is an all-singing, all-dancing event oddly reminiscent of High School Musical on tour. Megaphones, acapella, mass dance moves and 1000 pizzas were the order of the day. I can say in total honesty that I did not see that one coming.

To the Freshers – or should I call you Froshies? – I wish you a Freshers’ Week full of fun, new friends, and hopefully little in the way of Freshers’ flu. And I dare you to dance at your orientation.


New Articles on Nerditorial

So here are the links to some recent articles on Nerditorial.com. I’ve been really fortunate of late to be able to write on some challenging and important issues, from the bullying tactics of the British tabloids to drought crisis in Kenya, to the Bedfordshire slave scandal.

Feel free to check them out:

The Chains We Didn’t See: Slavery in the 21st Century

When the Rains Don’t Fall

What Price a Headline? The destructive power of the tabloid press

E-Petitions: Facets of a New Democracy or Fictions of Change?



“It’s Facebook Official”

It’s 11 pm the night before that horrendous deadline which has been hanging over you for weeks. You are tired, drained, and less than half of that 3000-word essay is actually written. You are firmly in what can affectionately be termed ‘the screwed zone’ and it is increasingly clear that this is going to be a very long night. Then your phone beeps: one new message. You cannot ignore it; it might be important. When it transpires that it is merely your flatmate in the next room informing you that they are also in ‘the screwed zone’, you know you should just put the phone down and carry on typing, but you cannot resist. You text back, informing them of how you are actually going to die and have no hope of finishing said essay.

Then, considering that you are already wasting time, you figure that you might as well check your email account. And the other email account. And Facebook. Now you’re in trouble. An hour later, you realise that you do not actually care whether or not that annoying girl you knew at school has changed her relationship status, and that you don’t even like the guy you are Facebook-chatting with.

By now it is clear: the interruptions and distractions of technology are endless. Our dependency on technology is ever-increasing to such an extent that it has been called an addiction. We are all too aware that our irresistible urges to obsessively check our phones, emails and Facebook are detrimental to our studies. Recent research from the University of Kent has now highlighted the way in which even small interruptions such as a flashing Blackberry or one-minute phone call can increase our reading time by up to 17 per cent. This means that if you hypothetically spent 20 hours over the course of the week ‘focussing’ on reading for an essay, you would waste an additional 204 minutes re-reading sections of the text because of these small technological distractions. Unfortunately, this doesn’t even account for Facebook and all its glorious opportunities for procrastination.

The statistics for Facebook usage are nothing short of incredible. According to the statistics, there are over 200 million active Facebook mobile users who contribute to the 500 million people that have logged in during the past month. Moreover, a report by the Global System for Mobile Communications Association showed that people in the UK collectively spent 2.2 billion minutes browsing the social networking site in December alone. With such figures in mind, it seems social technology is nothing short of a national obsession. Moreover, these ‘addictions’, aside from their grievous effect our time-keeping intentions, can also have a significant impact on other areas of our lives. Research is consistently showing that, for better or for worse, our friendships, relationships, privacy and even our safety can be affected by our obsessive emailing, texting, BBM-ing, phoning, IM-ing, tweeting, blogging and especially Facebook-ing.

In some respects, social networking can be seen as good for our friendships and relationships. As students, we often live miles and miles away from our closest school or ‘home’ friends, and it would be nothing short of idiotic to say that it isn’t useful to have such a cheap and easy means of communication. Snail-mail seems to be a rare thing these days, despite the student enthusiasm for post that isn’t bills or bank statements. Texts, Facebook wall posts, threads and the odd phone or Skype call are now the way we do things. It’s called ‘social’ networking for a reason. Never has it been easier for us to keep in touch with old friends, stalk new acquaintances and spy on distant enemies.  We can keep in contact with more people than ever, no matter where they are in the world and all for the minute price of an internet bill and some evil glares when you log on in the library. Group messages are simple; events can be organised and social lives managed all with a few clicks of the mouse. It definitely has its benefits.

However quick, easy and convenient such ‘social’ interaction might be, it can also be impersonal. Sending an instant message just does not compare with an actual conversation, whether this involves a phone-call or – wonders will never cease – a face-to-face catch up. Who can honestly say that a Facebook chat session, which is conducted whilst the half-hearted participants lazily scroll through the pictures from last week’s trip to the Hive, is as valuable a contribution to their social interactions as actually speaking? Plus, if you’re spending your life tapping away at a computer keyboard in perfunctory efforts to catch up with your nearest and dearest, the relationships that you could be developing in person may well suffer for it. As Jackie Ashley, a Guardian journalist, wrote in 2009: “You cannot have a full human relationship without being in the presence of another person”.

Furthermore, research suggests that having so many ‘virtual’ relationships can cause further social problems, with our relationships becoming increasingly superficial. Diana Palmieri, a philosophy instructor at Concordia University and the University of Western Ontario, claims that the issue here is not merely one of time consumption, but that “the ‘positive feedback’ we get from superficial online interaction may take away our desire or our perceived need for further, more intimate, real-life relationships.” She continues, “the need may very well be present, but it isn’t perceived or ‘felt’ right away because we seem to be getting all that we need in our superficial interactions”.

Partly due to the time constraints and partly because of our emotional capacity, the average person does not have the ability to sustain many particularly close relationships at any one time. So the idea of attempting to keep up with dozens, maybe even hundreds of ‘friends’ at once suggests that the relationships we have with people – perhaps including our ‘closer’ friends – do become shallower and less meaningful. If we see and share what we’ve been up to, comment on what’s going on and generally have an idea of peoples’ lives without so much as even speaking to them, can we genuinely expect this to constitute a real friendship? Surely, when you discover big events in your ‘closest’ friends’ lives because you saw it on Facebook, something has gone askew. Furthermore, experts have professed a belief that our obsessive use of social networking sites can lead to an increased sense of social isolation, especially amongst introverts or those who do not use the sites, as a sociological study by McMillan and Morrison argued.

Whether you love it or loathe it, in light of the popularity – and the addictiveness – of social networking and communications technology, things are not likely to be changing any time soon.  Chances are that we will continue to check our emails, Facebook and text messages multiple times per day. We probably won’t stop turning up late to social engagements because we were instant messaging someone else, or switch off our phones to prevent interruptions when we meet friends for a catch up. We almost definitely won’t be able to resist that flashing red light on our Blackberries when we’re supposed to be finishing that essay. But we can be aware of our addiction, and make the effort to sustain our ‘real’ as well as ‘virtual’ relationships. Meanwhile, I will ignore the fact that since beginning writing this article, my phone has been defiantly bleeping at me, and I have checked Facebook more times than I care to admit.

[Originally published in The Student, March 2011)

Summer of blurs

This short piece was written for the Ampersand Journal (McGill University) Summer Issue 2011.

It was a summer of blurs. Six cities, five addresses, four countries, three jobs, two suitcases, one girl. A student summer – when it’s not spent wasting away in front of the TV in that new-found post-finals freedom – generally consists of one or more of the following: job, internship, travel. This summer, my last in Europe before coming to Montreal as an exchange student, I decided to try my hand at all three.

First on my list was Edinburgh. I’ve lived there for two years, and yet in my post-exams freedom, it struck me anew just how beautiful a city it is – domes and steeples, bathed in light, tripping over history in the streets.  A short flight later and it’s on to Oslo, in all its artistic grunge and glory, set against the clear and pristine glass surface of the fjords. When we heard about the shootings there two months later, the memory became inexplicably more sombre – the peacefulness we remembered was so distant, as if underwater.

By that point, I was back in England, having braved the five hour drive from Edinburgh to Birmingham. By British standards, that’s something of a long journey. A few weeks later, I had spent a few days in Nottingham and was living in London, reminded daily to mind the gap as I left the tube. The London life was everything I could have imagined – a magazine internship, dinner on the South Bank of the Thames, underground cocktails – and the photocopying, book-logging and coffee-runs at the office. I remember struggling down the street with six cups of coffee in hand (I say in hand – I mean cradled precariously in my ungainly arms) prompting a passer-by to yell “Intern?” with a look of simultaneous amusement and pity.

Regardless, interning in London was more glamorous than the jobs which followed it in my attempts to save for the year ahead of me. Having received job rejections almost everywhere from Selfridges to Starbucks (and Starbucks in Selfridges, come to think of it), I found work as a cleaner for a little old woman in Staffordshire who took rather too keen an interest in my love life. Many, many hours of vacuuming and many cups of coffee later, I left to work in Edinburgh for the Festival. The atmosphere was astonishing. Each day, when I left my job as a kindergarten worker, let my hair down and changed out of my uniform, I was struck anew at the vibrancy and life of the city around me. People swarmed in masses of colour as singers, dancers and mimes performed in the streets, offices, pubs, parks, and alleyways.

And all too soon, it was the last week of August. Several trains, two flights and a few minor immigration issues later, my two suitcases and I find ourselves in Montreal for my exchange year. And so begins another blurry adventure.

Inspirational: Chouchou Namegabe

This article was written for a special double-page feature for International Women’s Day, which discussed inspirational women in the world today.

Chouchou Namegabe

You don’t need me to tell you that there are hundreds of inspirational women out there. We females make up one half of the world’s population, so there’s plenty of choice. So when I sat down to think about who I would choose to write this article on, naturally there was an array of choice. Audrey Hepburn came to mind, with her immortal style and humanitarian work. Mother Theresa seemed another obvious choice, with her selfless love of Calcutta’s poor. I thought of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi in all those years of house arrest in Burma. More and more names darted into my head: Marie Curie, Emeline Pankhurst, Florence Nightingale, JK Rowling, and – dare I say it – Margaret Thatcher. Each of these exceptionally well-known women achieved something remarkable, something truly inspirational, but there is another woman, a little less famous, whom I believe to be truly inspiring.

Chouchou Namegabe is a self-taught radio journalist from the South Kivu Province in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In this area, she has emerged as a passionate voice for her people, speaking out for the countless women victimised by sexual violence in the civil wars that have ravaged the country, bringing this brutalisation to global attention. Having started her career as a presenter at local radio station Radio Maendeleo in 1997, Namegabe turned her microphone into a weapon for activism in the late 1990s as Eastern Congo was overcome by violence. “Why do they fight a war on women’s bodies?” she asks.

Her coverage of the intense suffering of women and girls subjected to rape and torture during the twelve-year conflict has come at a great personal risk, as she travelled great distances to give a voice to the women traumatised by their ordeals. She had the courage to publicly denounce the corruption and mismanagement of ruling authorities, and still continues to face severe threats, especially after her powerful testimony to the International Court of Justice in 2007, which urged The Hague to classify rape as a political weapon in the Congo.

Moreover, in 2003, Namegabe founded the South Kivu Association of Women Journalists (AFEM) to further her activism, train female journalists and equip more women with microphones.  Together with AFEM, she continues to cover more stories, on topics from women’s health and human rights – which are considered to be her areas of expertise – as well as government mismanagement and corruption.

Namagabe’s fearless work continues to act as an inspiration as she brings brutalisation to global attention. In addition to giving a voice to the otherwise voiceless victims of unthinkable atrocities, and demanding the global attention these issues deserve, she is actively equipping others to do likewise. Her efforts and selfless determination to find justice for the Congolese people are nothing short of heroic, and should be an inspiration to us all.

Nerditorial – The Ecological Crisis: Biodiversity in Freefall

New feature just published as Nerditorial‘s most recent featured article.


I’m so pleased with my new role as a contributor for this site – hopefully it should keep me writing nice and prolifically…

Exploited for experience?

Ok, so Semester One is almost over, meaning that the new year, new start mantra isn’t all that far away. With the inevitable ‘will lose half a stone’ and ‘will do course reading advance’ resolutions, the typical student will also be reminding themselves that it is time to get those future career plans in motion, and apply for the much-discussed summer internships. In a tough market where you often need previous experience to apply for a waitress or sales assistant, gaining experience before applying for graduate jobs has never been more crucial.

The best way to gain experience? That’s right, an internship. Whilst there is no guarantee of securing a job afterwards, you cannot deny it: internships are a good way in. They give us George Square / King’s Buildings bubble-dwellers an insight into the world after university. Helping us to figure out whether or not our chosen career paths will be right for us – and if we will be right for them. In addition to this, they are a massive boost for those graduate job applications.

However, not only are internship schemes notoriously competitive (at the Guardian newspaper, for example, a number of work experience placements are dedicated to those who have won them through award or bursary schemes) but controversies rage around the nature of internships and how they are paid, or not, as the case may be. The question has often been asked: are interns really a company’s source of young, intelligent slave labour?

It is important to consider that having unpaid internship schemes means that more companies are able to offer the opportunity, in contrast with internships where the firms have to pay. A number of internships are indeed paid, but it would be unrealistic for many companies to afford to do this, especially in the current economic climate. Julia Margo, journalist and Acting Director of Demos think-tank commented in a recent article, “The best way to ruin opportunities for thousands of graduates would be to insist that internships are paid. Employers would simply offer fewer placements if they had to pay.”

She has got a point, but this doesn’t change the harsh realities faced by many interns, for whom unpaid work is less than ideal. Many internships are based in London, where rent can be extortionate even by Edinburgh standards, and unless we happen to have family and friends living in the city (and even then are likely to have to cover our own public transport costs) there are few of us who can really afford to rent a place there for the summer, having blown the last of the student loan in a post-exams frenzy or spontaneous trip to Prague, Berlin or Malia.

Moreover, there are also interns, many of whom are represented on the online forum, Interns Anonymous, who claim to feel exploited, and that their work is being taken advantage of. Most interns put in long hours, working ‘just as hard’ as ordinary employees, but instead of receiving a pay-slip at the end of the month, they are riddled with anxiety over their rapidly encroaching overdraft limit. Is it really fair to say that some employers take advantage of their need to gain experience by giving them a summer placement on a cheap labour merry-go-round?

This opinion is widely shared: in July, a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research and youth-led social enterprise Internocracy condemned most unpaid internships, deeming them ‘illegal’. The report asserted the obligation of private companies to treat their interns as ‘workers’, paying them the national minimum wage. This is due to the nature of most modern internships – they rarely involve merely shadowing, and almost always have set hours, duties and obligations. Moreover, David Willetts, the Conservative Minister for Universities and Science has been reported to have said: “The exploitation of interns is unacceptable and employment legislation must not be breached”.
In an interview with Prospects graduate career service, Heather Collier, director of NCWE (National Council for Work Experience) stated that: “The main thing is for graduates not to allow themselves to be exploited. They should establish a time limit for the internship, get as much as they can from it, network for contacts and opportunities and when it is no longer mutually equitable i.e. fair to both parties, they should move on and use what they now have to look for the next internship or job. We recommend that if a graduate is adding value to a company they should at least pay the minimum wage but whether the intern is ‘a worker’ is for the employer to decide.”

Nevertheless, it is a seemingly common assumption that interns may be treated less than perfectly. Whilst some internships will enable you to undertake challenging and professionally relevant tasks, you must be fully prepared for the possibility of spending the majority of any internship or work experience placement running around making coffee for your superiors. When interviewing a second year student to see what her expectations of an internship are, she answers: ‘In all likelihood, I’ll be doing coffee runs, photocopying, and all the boring jobs that no one else wants to do. And be getting paid peanuts for it”. When I ask whether or not she thinks it is worth it, she replies: “Yes, I think it is. It gives you a bit of an insight into what the job involves. Some internships are better – if it’s a well-organised scheme, it’s definitely worth doing, but if you’re just filing and you’re not getting paid, it’s of limited use, although it is something to put on your CV.”

It is true; you cannot deny that internships look great on your CV. This is supported by a growing trend in the use of intern agencies abroad, which ensure that your job applications will stand out for the crowd… if you are willing to pay. Such placement schemes operate all over the world, and provide internships in many different sectors, including business, finance, media, healthcare and law.  Unfortunately, they come at a cost – and a rather steep one at that. InternOptions provides 10-26 weeks unpaid internships in Australia and New Zealand, starting at the small sum of £800. However, this does not include flights, insurance, accommodation or living costs, and hence the pennies will soon add up. Stand Out summer internships in Sydney will set you back at least £3700 if you want a single room, whilst with gap year agency Projects Abroad offers a month-long law internship in Togo for £1500 and business and finance work experience in South Africa starting at £1695. However, none of these figures include flights, insurance, visas or living costs, so regardless of how fantastic it might look on your CV, a placement abroad is going to cost you. And you might just be getting coffee.

So are internships worth all the unpaid hassle? Quite frankly, I would answer with an unequivocal ‘yes’. We might not like the fact that the tasks assigned to us may not always seem relevant. We might not think it is fair that interns are often unpaid. But that is not about to stop me applying for internship placements, and I am quite certain that I am not alone in that. At the end of the day, internships – even if they do lead to us being over-worked and underpaid – are experience in our chosen field. And with the exception of the fortunate few with prearranged placement as part of their degree, we have to question how else we would get the experience we need. Grumble all you like, coffee-fetchers, but be grateful for that little bit extra on your CV. It might mean that one day, someone is fetching the coffee for you instead.

[Originally published 12/12/2010 http://www.studentnewspaper.org/features/464-exploration-for-experience]