Category Archives: Student Life

My Second Term at University: Final Grade, Volunteering, Working and Others

(Before reading this post I recommend you to read the previous one linked to this topic, “My First Term at University: Independence, Studying, Socialising & Wellbeing”.)

The last four months of my first year in university went by quickly. I had a mixture of seminars, workshops and lectures every week, together with daily readings. Lectures are my preferred teaching method. Seminars and workshops are nice now and then, but I don’t feel like interacting with people constantly and the sessions can be exhausting. My modules for the second term were: Institutions of Aid, Global Politics of the Environment, Key Thinkers in Development and Issues in Development. Key Thinkers in Development was my favourite one, I liked learning about different theorists every week. I also discovered intellectuals I want to learn more about, such as Frantz Fanon and Naila Kabeer.

As part of my assessments, I had to write two 1000-words concepts notes (Key Thinkers in Development), do a group presentation (Issues in Development), complete a 2000-words essay (Global Politics of the Environment) and take two unseen exams (Issues in Development and Institutions of Aid). My results for the concept notes were the most disappointing ones: 64 and 61 (out of 100). The grades aren’t bad, they are equivalent to 2:1. The problem is, I worked hard on those short essays, I even sought feedback after getting just 64 in the first one, but ended up getting 61 in the second one. I was upset because I saw no progress from my previous concept notes.

On the contrary, the 2000 words essays went great, I spent a lot of time in it and I got a 70! The group presentation also went well, I had 71, despite my reluctance to do group work due to my individualistic tendencies. And, startlingly, the two exams were the best bit of my results: I had 72 and 84. My average grade for the whole academic year ended up being 69%, 1% off my goal, a first (the highest degree classification in UK). Nevertheless, I’m happy with this mark: I passed the year and improved from my first term to the second one. Taking into account how tough things were due to my poor emotional wellbeing (I had to take a week off lessons and put off exam revisions till a week before each exam), I’m glad I made it and didn’t drop out or fail.

When comes to life outside the academic world, I spent a few hours a week volunteering for my local Red Cross division. I applied and got accepted to be a “Project Research Assistant” on November 2015 and I went to the Red Cross office to work most Fridays till June 2016. My key role was carrying out a project as part of the Red Cross’s “Responding to Financial Crisis” program: building links between foodbanks / food aid providers and the organisation. I completed it with another volunteer, who was a third-year student in the same university and school as me. Our tasks included: project management, emailing / calling and visiting foodbanks / food aid providers, creating databases and directories, researching and producing a leaflet with all the data and information gathered.

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My Red Cross starter pack

Carrying out the project was a stimulating experience, my colleague and I were given huge flexibility, but also huge responsibility: we worked under minimal supervision. I tend to work better as an individual, yet the teamwork went great. My colleague was very nice and working with her was a pleasure, plus we often talked about non-volunteering related issues, such as our studies and our personal lives, during our breaks/free time. We bonded well.

Although it was not a remunerated position, I gained a lot from this opportunity: I acquired administrative skills and experience working with a non-profit organisation (perfect for my degree). I also participated in a 3-day foundation training course, in which I learnt about the Red Cross, humanitarian work, first aid, emergency response, supporting people in crisis, emotional wellbeing, safeguarding, self-care and responding to psychological distress. On top of everything, it was rewarding being able to help with a cause close to my heart and personal experiences (financial crisis).

Volunteering was not the only extracurricular activity I did during the last term: on March 2016 I found a temporary salaried job! I was very lucky to get it, I saw the advertisement on the careers hub of my university the day the vacancy ended. I swiftly sent my CV on an email, together with a short message about how I was fit for the role. I was amazed when I was invited to an interview and later given the position, but knowing that my personal-just-for-a-hobby blog made me stand out and get the job was the best part!

For three months I worked as a ‘Research Support Assistant’ for the World Association for Sustainable Development (WASD) and Science Policy Research Unit of my university’s School of Business, Management and Economics. My boss was a nice man and working for him was a good experience. My tasks included: desk research and data collection, database creation (Excel), website management (WordPress), social media management, article writing and email communications. It was a homebased position with casual meetings now and then. The aims of my role were improving the social media presence of the organisation and updating the information on its experts’ directory, which I think met. At least my boss seemed pleased with what I did.

I’m very happy I was given this opportunity, I got experience working for a global sustainable development organisation and my salary was nice (nearly double the amount of the minimum wage). Furthermore, I liked my boss’s vision and the goal of WASD, which is “to promote the exchange of knowledge, experience, information and ideas among academics, scholars, professionals, policy makers, industry and students to improve the mutual understanding of the roles of science and technology in achieving sustainable development all over the world”. The organisation and he made huge efforts to include people from non-Western countries in their work, from conferences to publications. I loved this aspect of working for WASD, because development and sustainability are often too based on Eurocentric ideas, even though many decisions taken affect primarily non-Western countries.

One of my aims whilst at university is, outside my lesson hours, gaining knowledge and skills for a future career in development, sustainability and/or social change. I have been able to do this not just by volunteering and working, but also by attending non-mandatory conferences / talks on contemporary topics, completing free online courses on subjects that my degree isn’t covering (deeply), and learning new languages.

I went to three talks during the year: ‘EU Migration and Refugee Crisis Roundtable’, ‘How can Diasporas Contribute to their Continent? Africa as a Case Study’ and ‘Asma Elbadawi (poet, opening act) and Akala (rapper, main lecturer) for Sussex Decolonizing Education Week – A talk on Hip Hop and Shakespeare’. I also participated in one conference set in my university, ‘Decolonising Education: Towards Academic Freedom in Pluriversality’. I completed three free online courses: ‘Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World’ by Smith College, ‘Anthropology of Current World Issues’ by the University of Queensland, and ‘Human Rights: The Right to Freedom of Expression’ by Amnesty International. And I enrolled on evening beginner lessons of Arabic while casually studying French and Portuguese on the side.

Although this might sound like a lot, I wasted a lot of time this academic year. Not just because of my poor emotional wellbeing, but because of procrastination and laziness. My goals for next year are attending more talks and conferences, catching up on my online courses and taking my language classes more seriously. I would also like to get actively involved in a couple of societies, campaigns or community work opportunities related to social issues or politics. Nevertheless, I probably won’t volunteer or work regularly (unless a really good opportunity knocks on my door or I find myself in severe financial hardship).

Last of all to mention is my social life, which was barely active for the same reasons as the first term. I only went out towards the end of the year, to have dinner with some friends before they left to their respective home countries and to attend an end-of-year ball organised by the Development Society in my university, in conjunction with others. Both events were pleasant and fun. I also hanged out a couple of times with a friend who does the same degree as me. We have various things in common, so is easy to talk with her about personal issues and be understood / understand her.

The only new thing I did on the second term was attend social basketball sessions on Sunday now and then, which were very enjoyable and I want to continue attending on the upcoming academic year. I like playing basketball a lot, I prefer it as an exercise activity to going to the gym and it helps to improve my mood. Indeed, improving my mood, or better said, mental health and emotional wellbeing, was one of my goals for the term. That’s why I attended counselling sessions every Tuesday for six weeks (the huge step I mentioned on my previous post about my life in university). Nonetheless, I don’t want to go in details about this, I will leave it for an upcoming post (and this time it is really coming).

(PS: If you want to have a look at more pictures of my time at university, check this link:https://www.flickr.com/photos/134519211@N08/albums/72157662839553059)

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BZU Work Camp in Palestine: Part 3. Lectures, NGOs & Volunteering

One of the main reasons I liked the BZU work camp was that it was not just about sightseeing: it was about understanding the Palestinian situation better. There were aspects of the Israeli occupation you could see (checkpoints, The Wall, destroyed infrastructure) but others required explanation because they weren’t visible enough. When applying to the program, I was hoping to learn more about the politics and social aspects of the issue. Fortunately, my desire was fulfilled. We had lectures from first aiders, an activist, a politician and an academic. We had presentations about different community groups. And we carried out experiential learning by volunteering with those groups. It was an enriching educational experience I want to share with you.

Palestinian Red Crescent Society

Representatives from the organisation gave us a small lesson on first aid the day after we arrived. The topics were heat related emergencies and bites, oriented towards real issues we could have during the camp. The West Bank is a hot and dry place full of nature. Although we normally had a first aider with us during the camp, it was good to be made aware of simple things that could be lifesaving. In addition, while I have attended various first aid courses before, I never went through those topics: it was a new knowledge for me.

Right 2 Edu (Right to Education)

Right 2 Edu is self-funded grassroots student campaign that began in BZU in the 1970s, with the objective of providing legal assistance to staff and students incarcerated by Israel. At present, other aims include: documenting, researching and raising awareness about the occupation; building an international campaign; advocating for a proper Palestinian curriculum; connecting with supporters from the international community; and opposing illegal violations by the Israeli state. At heart of the campaign is the desire of securing full access to quality education for Palestinians, covering from political to economic aspects. Currently there are around 80 students from BZU detained in Israeli prisons and the campaign offers them legal representation. The Right 2 Edu has carried out two tours in USA universities, visiting 40 institutions in the first one and 37 in the second one, with the purpose of explaining their ambitions and creating alliances.

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Campaign presentation.

Education is a very important element of the Palestinian cause. When the 1st Intifada happened, education was made illegal in Palestine by the Israeli government: educational institutions were shut down for 4 years. To keep educating themselves, Palestinians created circle study groups in their homes, were teachers taught them. After picking up on this, the Israel government introduced a ban than prohibited more than 10 people to gather, trying to prevent these study groups. Nevertheless, Palestinians kept circulating knowledge in smaller groups till the ban ended.

Another reason why education is significant is because of the role the curriculum plays. A Palestinian curriculum didn’t use to exist before, the alternatives being the Jordanian or Israeli one. Then, aid was given to Palestinians so they could create their own one, but conditions were applied: they weren’t allowed to mention “anti-Israeli bias”, such as the Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus after Israel was created), they had to study it as a war, not a catastrophe in which thousands of Palestinians had to leave their homes and became refugees. Another example is that instead of teaching about “resistance”, they had to learn about negotiations and deals.

This is an issue because in Palestine, there are two main types of violations: the visible ones and the invisible ones. The visible ones are for example the checkpoints, the settlements, the soldiers, and the Wall. The invisible ones apply to things like the curriculum: not being allowed to learn about their history and heritage correctly. This is a problem because Palestinians feel like if it makes them normalise their situation and it reduces chances for real resistance against the occupation. It can also make some feel a desire of leaving their country, linked also to a lack of opportunities in the region because of the occupation.

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Campaign presentation.

Although education is no longer banned in Palestine, quality and access are still an issue as well. Certain materials are not allowed to enter the region, such as some chemicals (under the excuse that they might be used inappropriately) and books, especially philosophical books and books about revolution. In addition, in some primary schools, Palestinian children are taught with books that show Israelis as progressive saviours who brought things like light to their country, while Arab-Palestinians are depicted as backward societies incapable of such. When comes to access, there are various restrictions that don’t allow Palestinians to build schools easily and location can become a big problem for children to attend school (the issue of construction in the West Bank is explained better below).

To learn more about the Right 2 Edu campaign, visit this webpage: right2edu.birzeit.edu

Lecture on Jerusalem: Planning, Siege, Segregation, Colonisation &Apartheid

A professor of Urban Planning in BZU gave us a lecture about the geographical issues surrounding the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire till 1917. Then, the British Mandate took over. Afterwards, the Balfour declaration was passed by Britain, in which it was articulated how a Jewish homeland would be established in Palestine (important to point out that a minority of Jews already lived in Palestine, alongside a minority of Christians and a majority of Muslims). This lead to an increase in Jewish migration to Palestine and to growing tensions between the populations in the region. In 1947, the UN created a partition plan, leading to the end of the Palestine mandate, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

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Lecture.

At present, Palestine is often described as being comprised by Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem as capital (this view is disputed for a variety for reasons, some will be explained in the next blog post). The West Bank is geopolitically divided in three areas: A, B & C. This was as part of a temporary agreement that came after the 1st Intifada, which was extended after the 2nd Intifada. Area A is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority, most urban communities are located there. Area B has shared control between Israel and Palestine. And Area C, which comprises 60% of the West Bank, is controlled by Israel, and Palestinians have a very restricted allowance for construction (from schools to agricultural infrastructure). This pushes many of them to construct illegally and risk demolition. Overall, not being allowed to manage 60% of their land has a negative impact for Palestinians, due to limitations to enhance their economy and promote the development of their region.

When comes to Jerusalem, the creation of the Wall on the Palestinian side led to a decrease in Palestinian land. Palestinian villages and refugee camps were demolished and partitioned. It is important to note that East Jerusalem is an economic, social & cultural heart for Palestinian communities. It was separated from West Bank cities like Bethlehem by Israeli settlements, a division more empathised by the Wall. The expanding settlements are negatively affecting the lives of the Bedouin, an Arab semi-nomadic ethnic group who live there: they have severe restrictions to construct and rebuild, which is considered a strategy by Israel to kick them out. Another believed purpose of these settlements is connecting East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem. Their existence also makes it harder to cross from the North of the West Bank to the South of the West Bank.

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Lecture.

Many Israeli settlements in the West Bank were constructed on bought state land (e.g. natural reserve), even though the Geneva Conventions say that state land is for indigenous communities. Several of these settlements are illegal, but no solutions have been found in the International Court of Justice. They contribute to the fracturing of the West Bank, not only because of their existence, but because of the creation of highways by the Israeli government to connect them with Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem.

Meeting with Minister of Culture

On the 4th of August we had a meeting with Dr. Ehab Bseiso, the Minister of Culture of the Palestinian National Authority, who received us on behalf of the president, Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke to us about a variety of things and answered some of your questions. I took some notes, below are some highlights.

The Israeli occupation in Palestine makes it challenging to run a system and administrate it, especially the settlements, which are illegal according to international law. When a country occupies another, it is a war crime, according also to international law. The settlements are expanding and not randomly: it is systematic policy to diffuse the chance for Palestinians to have an independent state. Currently, it is illegal for Palestinians to buy products made in Israeli settlements. Not long ago, the EU decided to label settlement products, which is a step forward for Palestine. The settlements don’t only create economic issues, but also threat the political stability and security of the region. Settlers attack Palestinian families, like when the house of a family in Nablus was burned down and only a 5-years-old survived.

The Wall and the checkpoints are another significant part of the occupation. The Wall is 8 metres high, and it imprisoned Palestinians in their own land, apart from taking land from them. Not just empty land was separated, but also schools, farms, houses, etc. The Wall is controlled by electric gates that open three times a day. This is a problem for the daily life of Palestinians, to go to school, to see their family… In addition, confrontations happen, and there are attacks, arrests and deaths. When comes to the checkpoints, there are 550 in the West Bank. Some are fixed (always there) while others are mobile (appear and disappear). In some way, it could be said that time in Palestine is measured by checkpoints and not minutes! These are not only time-consuming, but also humiliating.

Israelis complain about Palestinian violence, which is taken out of context and ignores the Palestinian suffering. The occupation is violence and to the end cycle of violence you need to end the occupation. In addition, a good question is: can victims of colonisation be a real threat to colonisers? Waiting in checkpoints for hours, the need for permits, house raids, house demolitions, street raids, and arrests without reasons: that’s the occupation. It is violence, thousands of daily crimes. However, it is not true that there is no hope for a Palestinian state: international solidarity and community support are important for the political struggle. Some examples are boycotting settlement products and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). There is also the academic and cultural boycott, through which academics and intellectuals in Israel and abroad are encouraged to support Palestinian human rights. Boycotting is a form of resistance and it is not about individuals: it is about policies and systems.

When comes to Hamas, the international community needs to respect political leaders and the choice of Palestinians. The elections were democratic and transparent, Israel didn’t accept them and there was a siege. There are radical parties in Israel, some Israeli ministers come from them. Hamas is part of the political system, democracy and elections. Diplomacy wise, it is not easy. Some Israeli ministers live in settlements. The Palestinian president created a committee to engage in conversations with Israeli civil societies. But the president of the committee got his permit removed as a punishment and the committee was accused of “diplomatic terrorism”. Negotiations can be a waste of time and there is a need of international involvement since it is not sure if the Israeli offer for peace is genuine.

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Group picture with the Minister of Culture.

Armaa’ Organisation

This is a Palestinian educational and cultural NGO based in Jerusalem. They specialise in Palestinian kids between 6 and 18 years old. They run different activities and workshops, from learning to write & read to leadership training. They have a partnership with the British Council to be sent an English teacher. They also do after-school activities, Ramadan celebrations like iftar and summer camps! We visited them during our trip to Jerusalem and volunteered with them on the morning. I did some play work with toddlers around 3-5 years old. My Arabic is very broken so communicating with them was hard at times, but it was a nice experience. Afterwards, we were invited to have breakfast with them. The organisation was very welcoming.

Palestinian Circus School

The institution started in 2013 and it has hundreds of students. Its aim is to create behavioural and social change among Palestinians by trying to build trust, respect, cooperation, self-esteem and confidence. Their circus shows have a variety of messages: fight for power, refugees, water, recycling…

Youth Village

This is a project run by the Sharek Forum, a youth organisation that runs a variety of activities for young people. They decided to create a village for outdoor meetings and activities because young people got bored with only being indoors. The Youth Village is located in Area C, where it is not allowed to build full buildings or buildings with constant ceiling. There is a small area of the Youth Village in Area B as well. Weekly groups of young people participate and volunteer to build in the area. They also organise camping activities while being there for 2-3 days. After learning about the project, we divided ourselves in groups and helped to move around construction materials, work on a ceiling and pick up rubbish in the surroundings.

Shoruq Organisation

NGO based in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. Their main focus is advocating for refugee rights. Shoruq means “sunrise”, symbolising a new beginning. The organisation was established in 2012 by residents. Their aim is to empower children and youth, so they aware of their rights. They run activities for girls, summer camps, dance activities, music activities… It works a safe space where children and young people are given opportunities, such as media programming and professional training, to express themselves. They also offer psychosocial support. And they advocate for their “right to return” and their right to life and human dignity. “Right to return” refers to the right of Palestinians evicted from villages, which are at present in the state of Israel, to return to them. Israel expected younger generations to not remember their villages of origin, but children and young people are taught about their heritage and ancestors. Following a presentation about the NGO, we did some voluntary work painting around the refugee camp.

Naim Khader Community Training & Development Centre in Cooperation with Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung / Centre of Education for Renewable Energy

One of the biggest NGOs in Palestine. We did some gardening voluntary work with them and then we had a presentation about the institution. It is funded by the EU and aiming to have local support. The idea for the organisation came from volunteering and camps. It started as a small tiny idea, then became very large. The NGO works in many fields: youth, women, engineering, development… It is the 1st organisation that worked in lands threatened by Israel control, trying to develop agriculture and water sources. New technologies for agriculture were introduced. They also established the Palestinian Women Association, one of the biggest in Palestine. They help farmers to harvest olives and others products around Israeli settlements, which is not an easy task.

It is first organisation that works training agricultural engineers since 1992. 20 engineers from Gaza and 20 engineers from the West Bank stay in a centre to train for nine months. There are three centres: one in Jenin, another one in Gaza and another one in Jericho. During the training programme, engineers are taught computer skills, language skills, managerial skills, marketing… They focus on practical skills to enrich theoretical learning. At the end of program, the engineers are given lands and supervised practical work to see how the training went. In addition, they offer scholarships for creative engineers, so they can fund their own projects

The NGO has divisions for voluntary, social, water and organic agricultural work. They also try to use solar cells as electricity source since the Israeli occupation doesn’t give electricity sometimes. In Jenin, there can be 2-4 hours of no electricity a day. Another problem is the use of water. Waterlines were opened and people awaited till the water reached them, yet the IDF destroyed them. There are also issues with farming. Sometimes Palestinians aren’t allowed to farm, others time they are. Israeli planes survey the area for buildings and give warnings if they see something they don’t like.

(P.S: Sorry if the writing in this post seems poor. I’m currently not feeling physically well and I’m trying my best to end the blog series while being as informative as possible.)

 

GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU: Part 5. Farewell Dinner, End of Course and Departure

Welcome to the fifth and last part of my blog series “GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU”! In this post I will talk about the farewell party, end of course and departure. Hope you enjoy it!

Farewell Party

On the afternoon of Monday the 25th, the Farewell party took place in the Nanyang Executive Centre. As the Welcome Party, the first part of the evening was composed of a presentation by the director of the program. He proudly talked about how  217 students took part in the GEM Trailblazer Program by NTU this year, from 19 countries and 52 universities. The first year in which the program run (2013), the participants number was much smaller: just 27! NTU has made a lot of efforts to increase participation and will continue to do so over the years. While highlighting the importance of the studies we carried out in NTU, the director also pointed out the importance of the friendships we made and keeping in touch via social media, and even visiting each other. And lastly, he sent us on a mission to act as NTU ambassadors in our home universities, talking to prospective summer students about the good and the bad of NTU!

The presentation was followed by some performances from participants of the program. Chinese language students sang a song in Chinese, a group of Australian girls sang a song about their home country and a girl from Hong Kong sang a song to show us her heritage. Afterwards, there was a prize draw for those who submitted pictures of their time during the program (I didn’t because I forgot). And then, it was dinner time! The food was as good as the one for the welcome party. My company too: it was the last time all my pals and me got together to have fun (this is because I got ill & I couldn’t go out anymore for the rest of the week). It was a bittersweet moment: we cracked jokes, took pictures and had fun for hours, yet realising we were celebrating our departure was hard to digest for me. I actually felt like if many of those students were my friends, and I don’t use that title lightly. They had seen a part of me that many haven’t in years because of my struggles to socialise. And they never let me aside or forgot about me, I was included in their plans normally. I was genuinely sad about our separation. I just hope we stay in touch despite the distance (bless social media).

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End of course

Another moment of saying goodbye happened during our last cultural intelligence lesson on Wednesday the 27th. Instead of the usual 9:00am to 12:30pm session, we had a 10:30am to 12:00pm session. Our teacher gave awards & certificates to the best film, actor and actress from the group project presentations we did days earlier. She also gave awards and/or certificates to the top contributors to our Facebook group. I won an award for this, which was a box of chocolate! During the session we also discussed how we felt when the module started and how we felt when it was over.

On top of everything, we received a second CQ report that showed our CQ improvement over the last three weeks and a half. After receiving my first report, I decided to improve my culturally intelligent leadership, my planning and all the components of my CQ Action. Fortunately, my report showed improvements in all of those areas, mainly culturally intelligent leadership. I was very pleased and surprised to find this out. Just as delighted as I was when I found out later on the day that I had passed the course with grades between A*-A for all the different parts of my assessment! Although it was a short course, I think that learning about a new concept (Cultural Intelligence) has made a huge impact in my personal and professional lives. Keeping and making friendships, navigating and succeeding in cross-cultural organisations will be easier from now on.

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Departure
Thursday the 28th was my last day in NTU & Singapore. My roommate left early on the morning; saying goodbye was hard. I left around 4pm, closing my room and giving my keys to reception. When doing so, I had a flashback about my arrival. I left NTU in the same way as I arrived: sweaty, with heavy bags and mixed feelings. Nevertheless, this time I wasn’t feeling curious and scared; I was feeling grateful and sad. Grateful for the opportunity I was given, sad because I had to leave.

My last week in NTU and Singapore arrived faster than I expected. Before I could realise, the summer program was over. When I applied, I thought one month would be long and I would have time to enough to explore Singapore fully, as well as other South East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. Needless to say, I was very naive. The month went by very fast, and due to a series of reasons, from money matters to poor health, my to-do list was far from complete by the end of the program. However, I would be lying if I said I’m miserable about this: looking back at every fun moment had, everyone I met and everything I learnt, I wouldn’t change anything about my time in NTU and Singapore (except my poor health). Hopefully, me and that beautiful country will meet again in the future.

(For more pictures of my time in Singapore, click here)

GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU: Part 4. Dialogue in the Dark, Course Assessment, Chinese Heritage and Peranakan Tour

Welcome to the fourth part of my blog series “GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU”! In this post I will talk about CQ activities, course assessment, Chinese heritage in Singapore and my participation in the “Peranakan tour” cultural activity. This post will be a mixture of educational, touristic and cultural occurrences. Hope you enjoy it!

Third week of lessons: Dialogue in the Dark

On Monday the 18th, my classmates and I had to wake up early to participate in an activity outside campus for our cultural intelligence module: Dialogue in the Dark. Dialogue in the Dark is an indoors exercise in which groups of eight people experience moving around in total darkness. I carried out the activity with seven other classmates and it was an interesting experience. The exercise lasted an hour, and it showed us a small portion of how blind people experience the world. In fact, a blind guide helped us to move around while in the dark and each of us received a white cane as a walking aid. During the activity, we followed a set route, hearing and touching a variety of things, from wind and water to plants and fruits. We also carried out challenges such as boarding a boat, ordering food and drinks in a café, and crossing a road. It was a very intensive and interesting exercise.

The purpose of participating in Dialogue in the Dark was practicing a component of CQ Strategy: awareness. We had to focus on the moment, being aware of the present and what we heard, touched and tasted. While in the dark, I realised how all my senses (except sight) were briefly enhanced. At times I tried to practice mindfulness, and it felt weird being so conscious of the sounds near me (birds, water, wind…). I’m not good with awareness, my mind is rarely on the present and always focused on millions of things at the same time. I think I mindfulness is something I need to develop, not only to improve my CQ, but to be more open-minded and to avoid rumination (which can improve my mental health).

Course assessment: Reflections, Videos, Quizzes and Group Project

The assessment for the cultural intelligence (CQ) module is divided in three main parts: cultural curiosity (40%), group project (40%), and tests (20%). The first part, cultural curiosity, is about our curiosity conversations, the main way of enhancing our CQ. 10% of the mark for this part relies on us sharing our curiosity conversations on a Facebook group created by our tutor and engaging on the posts of other classmates. The other 30% is putting together our curiosity conversations and doing a short reflection on them. The deadline for the reflection was Wednesday the 20th. At the first, I did individual reflections for each conversation, till I realised it had to be one for all (fortunately, my roommate, who does the same module, told me!). It was not a hard essay although keeping it short (400-500 words) was a challenge. Here are some screenshots of what I shared in our Facebook group, so you know what curiosity conversations are:

The second part of the assessment was a group project. We had to produce a film in which a cultural value caused conflict between people from different cultures, show two possible solutions, and present our work in front of the class. I don’t like working in groups, I actually hate it because I’m very individualistic, I can be very controlling and I don’t like being responsible for others. However, I had a good time carrying out the project with my group, which included two boys from Korea and one from Uzbekistan. Fortunately, the three of them were nice, and we didn’t struggle to choose an idea and divide tasks between each other. We wrote the script and filmed our short video on the same day, it wasn’t hard. Two days after, we presented, and it went well! Working in a multi-cultural team wasn’t as difficult as expected and the teacher seemed pleased with our work. 30% of the mark for this part was for the film (all members of the team got the same grade), and the other 10% was for our individual contribution to the team (each member of the team gave marks to each other).

Lastly, the third part of the assessment included three tests: two short quizzes with five questions each about CQ theory (worth 5% each quiz) and a test about a video showing a cultural conflict (worth 10%). Four out of five questions for the short quizzes were multiple choice although the questions were tricky, and I only scored 3/5 for each quiz. When comes to the test about the video, this was about identifying the cultural value causing conflict, explaining how it was causing conflict, looking for the position of the two parties (what they wanted) and for the interest (why they wanted what they wanted), and creating our own resolutions for the conflict, striving always for one that fulfilled the interests of both parties (which sometimes are the same). I enjoyed doing this part of the assessment: I believe it is the most useful way to put CQ into practice because it reflects conflicts and misunderstandings that can easily happen when being part of multi-cultural environments.

Discovering Singapore: Chinese Heritage

On my third week in Singapore, I explored the Chinese heritage and culture in the country.

On Tuesday the 19th I went to the Chinese Heritage Centre, which is based on NTU. I visited two exhibitions: the ‘Nantah Pictorial Exhibition’ and the ‘Chinese More or Less’ Exhibition. The Nantah Pictorial Exhibition showed the history of NTU: it was established as a Chinese language university to serve the needs of the Chinese population in Singapore. The creation of the university involved a lot of community work to promote the idea and fundraise money for it: Chinese communities across Singapore and Malaysia worked hard to raise money to build NTU. This impressed me a lot: I’m very fond of grassroots movements and I liked how a community came together to create something for themselves. In fact, the community work didn’t stop after NTU was founded: student activities and services served the wider community in Singapore, from cleaning up lakes to improving amenities in villages. Learning about the story of NTU was quite fascinating and it made me realise I know little about the history of my university, Sussex.

While I enjoyed the ‘Nantah Pictorial Exhibition’, the ‘Chinese More or Less’ exhibition was my favourite one: its purpose was to explore Chinese identity overseas (outside China). My favourite display was one that showed the difference between how the Chinese view themselves and how Westerns view the Chinese, raising awareness of Orientalism (how Eastern societies are depicted, often wrongly, by the West). This display reminded me of the post-colonial theories I learnt about during my first term in university. As a black person, I’m aware of the stereotypes and caricatures that my race suffers from, and while I try to be aware about the discrimination that other groups are victims of, I have never walked on their shoes, hence it is hard. Nevertheless, I think the exhibition was a brilliant way of making a point and dissipate any stereotypes of the Chinese I may have had. It tackled things such as the oversexualisation of Chinese women by white men & Western cinema, the demonization of Chinese men as abusers of white women, and the view of the Chinese as monopolisers of all goods and services.

On Thursday the 21st I visited Chinatown and Haw Par Villa. Chinatown is a historic area of Singapore with a high concentration of traditional Chinese shops and food outlets. There wasn’t much to see or do in terms of exploring Chinese heritage, other than shopping and exploring the Chinatown Heritage Centre, which I didn’t visit because I wasn’t feeling well. It was also hard to walk around because every two minutes a vendor tried to get my attention to enter their shop and buy something. The area was somehow expensive compared to others in Singapore. It also had the highest concentration of tourists I have seen in the country: Chinatown seems a commercial area oriented towards foreigners.

I bought a few things, but sadly, I couldn’t spend a lot of money and I ended up leaving shortly after arriving, heading to Haw Par Villa. Haw Par Villa is a free theme park that depicts Chinese folklore and mythology. While walking in it, I explored the different sculptures and scenes narrating Chinese legends. Unfortunately, I wasn’t feeling well, and I had to head back to campus early. Here are some pictures:

Another way in which I explored Chinese culture whilst in Singapore was by learning to eat with chopsticks! My roommate from Hong Kong taught me and I learnt quickly. Here is a video of me eating Prata with chopsticks: https://www.instagram.com/p/BIH2R-fgk7d/?taken-by=bitxibitxina

Cultural activity: Peranakan Tour

On Saturday the 23rd I had my last cultural activity organised by NTU: Peranakan Tour. I woke early to get to the NTU administration building, where a bus and other summer students awaited, including some of my pals. On the way to our first stop, our guide, called Gene, talked to us about what is a Peranakan and their story in Singapore.

Peranakan is a term applied in Singapore to a minority of mixed-ethnicity descendants of Chinese immigrants, such as Chinese-Malaysian, Chinese-Indian, and Indonesian-Chinese. Their existence dates back to when the Chinese were exploring South East Asia. When they discovered Singapore, they were in awe with the country’s rich culture. Due to bad weather, they had to overstay in the country, and later decided to settle and marry local Malay women. Their descendants were Peranakans who mixed Malay and Chinese customs, creating their own culture and identity, from food to traditions. Gene himself was a Peranakan and seemed very proud of its diverse roots and the diversity of Singapore. He even asked us about our origins and encouraged us to come back one day and settle here to make the country even more multicultural (this was odd to hear when coming from a country in which immigration, diversity and multi-culturalism are under fire!)

The first stop during the tour was the Peranakan museum. The building of the museum was an old school set up by Chinese Peranakans. During our time inside, we learnt about things such as ancient Peranakan wedding celebrations (they lasted 12 days, were quite opulent and were full of symbolism), Perankan women’s roles at home (by the age of 12, Perankan girls knew to cook and sew, they were trained to take care of the house) and religions followed by Peranakans (Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity…).

Afterwards, we got on the bus again and went to Geylang Serai market, a local Malay shopping complex. Gene showed us food used by Peranakans to cook, from ginger to turmeric, and we then had a few minutes to explore on our own. Following the visit, we headed for lunch to a Peranakan restaurant, Chilli Padi ‘the Nonya Family Restaurant’. The food there was excellent: I enjoyed it a lot. And to finish the tour, we visited traditional Peranakan houses. Their architecture style had a mixture of Malay, European and Chinese designs. Overall, the tour was very educational and fascinating. I discovered a new community I had no idea about and learnt about their culture. It made me fall in love with Singapore even more.

(For more pictures of my time in Singapore, click here)

GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU: Part 3. Developing CQ, Campus Life, Sentosa Island and Prata Journey

Welcome to the third part of my blog series “GEM Trailblazer Summer in Singapore’s NTU”! If you haven’t read the previous parts, you can find them here and here. In this post I will talk about developing cultural intelligence, campus life in NTU, my visit to Sentosa Island and my participation in the “Prata Journey” cultural activity. This post will be a mixture of educational, touristic and cultural occurrences. Hope you enjoy it!

Second week of lessons: Developing Cultural Intelligence

Doing a module on cultural intelligence (CQ) may be the best unplanned decision I ever made. Not only because I’m learning new things that will power my career, but because I’m learning more about myself. On my first week of lessons I was asked to complete an online survey to get self-reports on my learning style, my personal cultural values and my cultural intelligence. I obtained the results the following week. Some were more surprising than others.

For my learning style (preferred ways to learn about cultures) I scored 67/100 for concrete experience (trying new experiences guided by my feelings) and for reflective observation (observing others interact, reflecting on my beliefs and assumptions), 45/100 for abstract conceptualisation (coming up with my own theories and concepts to understand things better) and 56/100 for active experimentation (testing understanding through practical actions). The most effective way to learn is by improving the 4 styles, still there is always one in which you are stronger. I’m not a brainy person, so I’m not surprised that abstract conceptualisation is my lowest style. I will try to improve it during the course.

When comes to personal cultural values I received scores on eight: collectivism (1/100, I’m 99% individualistic), power distance (18/100, I expect equal rights and I question authority), uncertainty avoidance (100/100, I prefer rules and structures, I’m uncomfortable with unpredictable situations), masculinity (51/100, I have a slightly more femininity orientation than masculinity), long-short term orientation (51/100, I focus on the present rather than on the future), context orientation (34/100, I’m in the middle between being explicit/direct and being implicit/indirect) and being-doing orientation (73/100, I care about actions, proactive behaviour and results more than reflections, quality of life and relationships). I would say that all results are quite accurate although I’m not sure how I scored so low for collectivism when my political beliefs are leftist. Yet, it makes sense because I’m don’t like to work in groups, I don’t have many strong relationship ties and I don’t have a sense of belonging to any community.

Lastly are the results about my CQ. CQ is measured by four factors:

  • CQ Drive: “the energy and confidence to do things”. It helps to make efforts and persist when things get difficult. There are three components: self-efficacy (confidence), extrinsic motivation (benefits) and intrinsic motivation (satisfaction).
  • CQ Knowledge: “understanding how cultures are similar and different”. It has two components: culture general (involves being aware of different social structures and value systems in the world) and culturally intelligent leadership (how to motivate and lead a multicultural team).
  • CQ Strategy: “the capability to perceive yourself, the situation and dynamically adjust your response as the situation unfolds”. It has three components: planning (based on previous knowledge), awareness (paying attention to the present without judgement) and checking (reviewing assumptions and adjusting knowledge).
  • CQ Action: “being flexible with your behaviour so you can adapt to different cultures”. There are three components to be adapted: non-verbal behaviour (e.g. gestures), verbal behaviour (e.g. tone) and speech acts (e.g. apologising).

Overall, my CQ is an average of 61. I have to improve a lot my culturally intelligent leadership, my planning and all the components of my CQ Action. I can do this while carrying out my curiosity conversations whilst in Singapore. Here is my full CQ report:

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Campus Life: Living in NTU

While I sometimes miss Sussex (my university) and my room on campus, I got used to live in NTU’s campus quite quickly. In fact, there are aspects of it which I wish Sussex had, although there are others which I’m glad Sussex doesn’t have.

On the one hand, food here is much better. Singapore is a melting pot for cuisines from all over Asia, so it is unsurprising the cuisine variety you can find in NTU. For every two halls (more or less), there is a canteen. All the canteens have various stalls from which you can order food. I’m lucky that my hall has a canteen close to my room. In it, there are 6 stalls, one for drinks and snacks, and the rest for food. Two are Chinese food stalls, one is an Indian food stall, one is a Noodles stall and the last one is a Western food stall. When I eat in this canteen, I normally order from one of the Chinese food stalls, asking always for fried rice, either chicken based or vegetable based (one of my favourite dishes in Singapore). I also order normally lemon iced tea from the drink stall (one of my favourite drinks in Singapore).

Apart from the one in my hall, I also eat in other canteens: one close to the building where my lessons take place and one close to the supermarket near my hall. When I eat in any of those canteens, I normally order lemon chicken rice, which is my ultimate favourite meal here and costs around the same price as fried chicken rice. Two whole meals for just $3.60-$3.90 (£2.13) each! In Sussex, food is more expensive (meals are above +£4.50 without the drink) and there is not that much variety at all (the few bars serve the same junk food, while the two central restaurants serve various meals, yet not as many as the various canteens with various stalls in NTU!). NTU also has a big indoors plaza, North Spine, where you can get food from known outlets such as Subway, KFC, McDonald’s, Starbucks etc. In it there is also a supermarket, a library, a hairdresser, a bank, a printing station and other services available. Yet, I rarely go there, and I rather eat proper meals while I can, before leaving back to England and getting not-so-excellent food again!

On the other hand, while I think NTU is a beautiful green campus, it is hard to move around without using the campus bus. This makes it difficult for me to get to my lessons on time since controlling the buses is hard and walking is a tricky option due to the distances and hot-humid weather. Sometimes I wish my classroom’s building was closer to my hall. Another inconvenience is that I have to share room. Don’t get me wrong: my flatmate is a very nice person and I like her a lot. But I’m not a sharing-room type of person: I did it a lot while I was young and now I want to have my own personal space. I value my privacy and I’m a person who needs to be left alone sometimes because of my mood swing issues. In addition, my room doesn’t have Wi-Fi, you can only get Internet using a cable for your laptop. I was lucky to be told by my roommate that I could create a Wi-Fi hotspot from my laptop to use internet on my phone! Still, the hotspot comes and go. I miss having constant access to the Internet from my phone whilst on campus. And the last issue is that there are no fully equipped kitchens in my hall. There is a pantry room with a microwave, hot water, cold water and a small induction cook. I used to cook my own meals in Sussex, and while I love food here, it would be nice to have at least a fridge to store milk and yoghurt for my breakfast/snacks.

A regular lesson day for me in NTU (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) elapses like this: waking up at 8 am, getting ready by 8:30, taking the bus to The Hive (my classroom’s building) and arriving by 8:50-9, having CQ lessons till 12:30 (with a 20 minutes break and a 5 minutes break in between), going to a canteen to eat with my classmates, getting back to my room around 14:00, resting because of tiredness, writing/studying, having dinner at 18-19 (I used to go out for this, but at some point I bought various cup noodles from the supermarket and had that for dinner in my room), having a shower, and going to bed between 22:00 and 24:00. During non-regular days (Tuesdays, Thursday and Weekends) I go out to explore Singapore, I join group outings with my pals or I participate in cultural activities.

Discovering Singapore: Sentosa Island

On Thursday the 14th of July I spent the day in Sentosa, a popular resort island in Singapore. You can get to it by taking a 5 minutes train from the MRT Station Harbour Front, it is an easy and short journey. While I travelled there with a group of students from NTU, including some of my pals, I decided to explore the Island while they went to Universal Studios (I didn’t want to spend the day in a theme park, I don’t find them that exciting). I alighted from the Sentosa express train in Beach Station, the last stop, and stepped out to have a good day sightseeing the island.

The first place I visited was Siloso beach. It looked like a tropical beach, yet sadly, the weather wasn’t good, it was actually drizzling, so I couldn’t stop much there. I took some pictures and went to a stall near it to order a snack: coconut ice cream with coconut water.

After eating, I walked down the beach to get to Fort Siloso, the only restored coastal fort in Singapore. To get there you need to go through a skywalk: you can walk upstairs or take the elevator (the beginning of the trail is on the top of a high tower, it is better to take the elevator). From the skywalk you get amazing views of Sentosa.

Going to Fort Siloso was a very interesting experience. While walking around the tunnels, chambers and guard recreations I learnt about Singaporean history I didn’t know about, mainly the Japanese invasion in the country during World War II. Singapore was a British colony back then, it served British strategical interests. Following the Battle of Singapore in February of 1942, when the Japanese started bombing and invading Singapore, the British colony admitted defeat. The Japanese occupation of Singapore ended in 1945 after Japan was bombed by USA with nuclear weapons. Singapore went back to British rule till 1965 when the country obtained independence.

Following my visit to Fort Siloso, I took a bus to Imbiah lookout and from there I walked down to The Merlion, a 37 metre concrete statue that represents the icon of Singapore with the same name. I bought a ticket to go inside the statue and I learnt about the story of the Merlion as a national symbol. It is believed a prince discovered the island (Singapore) from far away while exploring in Bintan (an Indonesian island close to Singapore) and travelled by sea to the place. When him and his crew arrived, he reportedly saw a beast he identified as a lion (although lions aren’t native to this part of the world, hence some believe this isn’t true). Because of that occurrence, he named the island Singapura, which means “Lion city” in Malay. The Merlion is actually a half-lion and half-fish creature and it is known as the guardian of prosperity in Singapore.

Next, I took the train and alighted in Waterfront station. There wasn’t much to explore or see there: it is mainly a shopping and eating area, some attractions such as Universal Studios are located there. I just walked around the place for a few minutes and then went to have lunch to the Malaysian Food Streets, an indoors food court. I order Nasi Lemak, a Malay dish normally eaten for breakfast and one of the signature dishes in Singapore. It was delicious although a bit spicy for my palate.

Afterwards, I headed back to Beach station again and decided to walk around one of the other beaches in Sentosa, Palawan beach. It was similar to Siloso even though the weather around that time was much better and there were people in it playing around. From there I went to the Southernmost Point of Asia, a very small island attached to Sentosa by a suspension bridge. It takes just a few minutes to get there walking and there are two tall wooden stands from which you can enjoy amazing views of the beaches in Sentosa and of the sea.

Later, I took the train and went back to Waterfront to have dinner. I was craving pancakes and fortunately I found a place: Slappy Cakes. It wasn’t just a usual restaurant where they serve pancakes: you ordered the dough and toppings you wanted, and then made the pancakes by yourself! At the beginning, I didn’t really know how it worked so I ended up ordering too much. Still, it was a delicious dinner.

By the time I finished my dinner, the group of students with whom I travelled to Sentosa were leaving Universal Studios. I met with them and accompanied them while they had dinner in the Malaysian Food Street. Then, we took the train back to mainland Singapore and our day trip was done!

Cultural activity: Prata Journey

On Saturday the 16th I took part in a cultural activity organised by NTU: Prata Journey, learning about Roti Prata, a signature Indian dish in Singapore. A bus took me and other participants to a café called Big Street where the workshop took place. Roti Prata is a flat bread made up of fat (butter/oil), egg white, wheat flour, water, salt, sugar and condensed milk. It can have additional ingredients added to it, from fruit to egg and cheese. Prata has its origins in Chennai, India. There are others versions of it in the South Asian country: Paratha (North India) and Parotta (South India). There is also a Malaysian version known as Canai. It is believed it was brought to Singapore in 1819 when the founder of British Singapore, Stamford Raffles, arrived to the island with Indian troops, laundrymen, milkmen, traders and political prisoners. Early Indian immigrants in Singapore settled in what today is known as Chinatown.

During the workshop we saw how a chef made Prata dough and flipped it. Then, we tried to learn to flip the dough using fake dough. I didn’t manage to do it, but it was an interesting and fun experience! Afterwards, we were given plain Prata and chocolate prata to eat, accompanied by teh tarik, a hot milk tea commonly found in Malaysia and Singapore. Its name comes from the process of making the beverage, which involves pulling. Overall, I enjoyed the activity a lot and I left with a good taste in my mouth!

(Waitress making teh tarik)

(Chef flipping fake Prata dough)

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Chocolate prata, plain prata and teh tarik

(For more pictures of my time in Singapore, click here)