Wednesday, 25 June 2014

My Journey to Social and Cultural Geography



By Dr Suzanne Beech (@suzanneebeech)

Hi everyone! I am Suzanne and I joined GEES in October last year. Being a geographer is very much in my
Walking the South Downs Way in the Snow (April 2013)
blood. My mum has been a geography teacher since the 1970s and I not only followed in her footsteps in terms of choosing to study geography but by going to the same university as she did, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), and even being taught by some of the same academic staff as well. I loved reminding my PhD supervisor, Prof Steve Royle, that he had also taught my mum when he first arrived in Belfast. That is (sadly?) where the similarities end. My mum would definitely consider herself a physical geographer, whereas I would very much describe myself as a social and cultural geographer – people are my business, in particular international student mobility has been the focus of my career to date. So, how exactly did I end up in Hull, and when did I realise that being involved in research and teaching was the job for me?
  
The Lanyon Building at QUB - a typical 'QUB Postcard' Image
I went to QUB straight after school – admittedly I was not sure about this at first. Queen’s had been my second choice, I did not think I would actually end up going there, but my Biology A-Level did not go quite as well as perhaps it should have done. Consequently I went determined not to enjoy myself. This is something I really laugh about now given that I ended up spending over eight really happy years there. Back then doing a PhD was not really something that was on my radar (I was convinced that I was supposed to be a primary school teacher for quite a long time). Research did seem, though, like something that would be a really rewarding thing to do, and I really looked up to all of the PhD students who often helped with teaching in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology (GAP), but they all seemed so intelligent and clever and all a little bit out of my league. You could perhaps say that research is something that has always been at the back of my mind, but was definitely not something that was set in stone.

My attitude changed completely during the third year of my undergraduate study. I was enrolled on a four year degree programme that included a year spent overseas in Spain on the Erasmus scheme and in September 2007 I moved to Madrid where I studied at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM). This was a bit of a shock to the system in a number of ways: first, I had never actually lived away from home before; second, at the time the population of Madrid was about twice that of Northern Ireland and I felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of people; third, my Spanish was nowhere near as good as I thought it was when I left home and therefore studying Geography in Spain in Spanish was a bit of a challenge for the first three months or so. I recall going on a fieldtrip to Extremadura in the West of Spain on the Portuguese border shortly after I had arrived where I spent a weekend in blissful ignorance, with no idea where exactly we were, what we were doing, or what the point of the whole expedition was. I came to realise that fieldtrips were a common feature of the Spanish higher education system, in Geography at least, and every few weeks it seemed we were off doing something in the field whether for a day or a weekend.


Selected Fieldtrips in Spain
Clockwise from top left: The Extremadura landscape, a lighthouse in Galicia, the Old Town in Toledo, the castle at Segovia
My year in Madrid was one that changed me in so many ways. By the time I left at the end of June I had matured massively, spoke Spanish pretty fluently (sadly while my Spanish is still good, I am definitely no longer fluent) but more importantly gained a huge understanding into what it means to be an international student. This included the cultural and social implications of being in a totally different country, the financial costs (Erasmus is funded, but it can still be quite an expensive venture) and also the emotional costs of being away from home. I had, therefore, gained all of this first-hand experience, but I also decided to do my dissertation research into student exchange programmes when I was there. When I was writing it up I became absolutely certain that this was something that was very much for me. The student mobilities literature was exciting, dynamic and really stimulating, and I felt like what I was doing was actually making a difference. My supervisor must have seen something in me as well, because he suggested turning it into a larger PhD project. I could not believe it when I actually managed to secure myself a studentship at Queen’s – at that point I really felt like I had made it (I did not realise just how much more there was left to do!).

Prof Steve Royle - a good likeness
I began my PhD in September 2009, just after I had finished my BSc and spent the next three and a bit years researching and writing up my findings into the motivations and influences for international student mobility to the UK, under the supervision of Prof Steve Royle. It was the most fantastic experience and I loved spending my time with lots of international students, from all manner of backgrounds and nationalities and hearing their stories of how they found themselves to be studying in the UK. Learning about their decision making and how geography and place were critical to this process was an exciting time – albeit one that was filled with blood, sweat and tears. People are always putting pictures of their babies on social media – I posted a picture of my thesis, it is my baby.



Students waving field notebooks at me in Amberley Working
Museum, West Sussex
Doing a PhD is a really unusual time. I loved it, but it drove me a little mad sometimes as well. I also knew that deciding to stay in academia would not necessarily be an easy option. However, I had really enjoyed the research and all the things that go with it (like conferences and meeting proper famous geographers), and I had loved all of the teaching opportunities as well, particularly teaching in the field. I applied for several jobs and worked in Queen’s for a few months on the School of GAP’s Athena Swan bid (an initiative which recognises moves towards greater gender equality in academia). I was also offered a post in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, which I turned down because I had a feeling that something better was just around the corner – some people thought I was a little crazy given that I had been trying hard to get a job. This included my friend and office-mate Catherine who tried to convince me otherwise but to no avail. I was certain that something else was coming, and literally a few weeks later I was offered my job in GEES. The last eight months have been amazing and I have no regrets whatsoever (although I do get homesick sometimes). Things have been a real whirlwind, I have taught my own research-led module on transnationalism and have had my first paper published in Area. I cannot wait to see what the next year at Hull has to offer me, and I am really excited to see what happens thereafter!

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