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Department of Political Science

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Vaania Achuthan

PIR student
Why did you apply to PIR at the Department of Political Science, UCL?

I applied for PIR - Politics & International Relations - at UCL, because of the holistic and interdisciplinary nature of the course. I like that I am able to study things that I am passionate about - from global environmental politics to political violence, political journalism, research, policy analysis; I am able to fulfill all my desires within academia, through this course. This course also sets the precedent for multiple internship opportunities, translating into meaningful jobs and a career long term, in the NGO, Charity, Private and Government Sectors. I also wanted to be within the Department of Political Science, because of the vast nature of the Department at UCL. The Department plays host to multiple speaker events, exclusively to those students within the Department and also provides research opportunities, working with professors who have very similar interests as you.

Why come to London to Study?

Simply put, London is one of the most International Cities in the world and given that I am an Indian and belong to the educated LGBTQ+ Community. I wanted to be in a place where I find likeminded people, who also in a way look like me. As an international student, I knew that I wanted to live in a multicultural society and there is no better place than London.   

What were your first impressions of the department?

My first impression was that I knew that the department would act as a safe space, where differing opinions would be voiced, heard and addressed. The professors are very friendly and do their utmost to bridge the gap with the students. Dr. Julie Norman specifically, hosts coffee mornings and interactive sessions, where one can talk about literally anything they feel like, irrespective of how mundane this may be. How our day has been, what plans we have, about anything related to our course, department or UCL- anything! Sessions like these have helped me to meet and interact with professors at a personal level. At UCL, specifically within the department of political science, you really do get to know people. Given that I joined university amidst Covid-19, I was afraid that my university experience would fail to have these human, personal interactions but thankfully that has been furthest away from the truth. In fact, I believe despite Covid-19 lecturers went out of their way in trying to make students feel comfortable and welcome by setting a positive, judgement free atmosphere during the online seminars and hosting a variety of online informal, social events.

What is the rest of your cohort like? Have you managed to meet them?

Friendly, helpful, intelligent, healthy competition, kind, fun and international!

Despite Covid-19, I have made some amazing bonds and friendships with the rest of my cohort. Although predominantly online, I have been able to meet them as in our first year, we organized a lot of online social events such as cocktail nights, pub quizzes, and speed friending, so I was able to form an excellent social environment. I am so glad that PIR has a socials committee made by students for students where a range of social events, both in-person and online are planned. Through friends that I made during these social events, I was able to form a reading group where we distributed the reading workload for modules amongst ourselves so that we could better cope with the degree. I can say with the utmost confidence that this reading group has not only helped me academically, but are also some of the closest friends I have made at university. I am looking forward to the social events that we will be planning this year and cannot wait to meet the new batch of PIR students!

Are you looking forward to face-to-face teaching after a year of online learning?

I am definitely looking forward to face-to-face teaching, in lieu of online learning. Although online learning has its benefits, in-person learning encourages more people to participate in discussions and debate, making the class livelier than an online class could ever be. I’m also extremely interested in activism which unfortunately had to put on hold due to Covid-19. However, now with things opening up I am really excited to be serving as the Intersectional Student Lead of the Gender and Sexuality Diversity (GSD) and Ethnic and Racial Diversity (ERD) Networks- a staff and student lead activist initiative for race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality, created as a part of the Department’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Initiative.

What do you like best about your course so far?

We have a good mix of lectures and seminars - while the lectures give us a solid basis of the topic at hand, the seminars allow us to engage in qualitative discussions, digging deep into the area of study we are focusing on. This way, not only do we get to hear about other perspectives that we may not have thought of, it also helps us engage in constructive debates with our peers. I also like that the Professors join in on these debates- our Professors are extremely approachable, treat us as equals and truly enjoy listening to our opinions, which I love!

With a good mix of theoretical and empirical readings as core teaching, I enjoy applying the theories we learn, to present day phenomena. Moreover, I like that we do not have the typical exam or essay to write end term, but rather are graded on a whole bunch of things - policy reviews, book reviews, class presentations, etc. These diverse forms of assignments have allowed me to always stay motivated and has prevented the course from getting monotonous.

What advice would you give to other overseas students wanting to study in the UK?

Lifestyle wise, be prepared for a cultural shock and physically, for a huge change in weather.

From an emotional perspective, you will need to gauge the support from your university to help settle down. For example, my personal tutor is also from Indian heritage; she helped me a lot by advising me on Indian shops near where I live, Indian dominant neighborhoods I could visit so I don't suffer from homesickness. She was generally always around as someone I could talk to about anything. Similarly, my transition mentor, an International student herself, was one of the first friends I made here which made me feel at ease. It was a great feeling to chat with someone who was in the same boat as I.

And finally, these are Covid-19 times – so do check out the support system that the university has in place. I had to isolate thrice during my first year and it was difficult. However, UCL assisted me a lot through this - I was provided with food vouchers during all of my isolation periods and received checkup calls from the Student Resident Ambassadors at my accommodation. UCL Wellbeing Services were also really helpful during these periods.

Would you recommend your program to prospective students overseas and why?

Most definitely, for its pedagogy and its holistic and interdisciplinary nature. And importantly, as mentioned earlier for the evaluation process.  To expand on that, a module I have really appreciated is ‘Political Violence’ – perhaps the toughest, but also the most fun module I have studied so far. I found it difficult because the readings were extremely dense and we discussed a lot about emotionally taxing topics such as genocide, war, rape and other brutalities amidst war. I was able to set up a reading group with friends which significantly reduced my work load and helped me cope with the module better. I found it the most fun as it made me realize that I have a passion for solving and preventing terrorism and extremism, a career field I was never interested in previously.

As a beneficial fall out, I was so intrigued by the different aspects of terrorism we learnt and how they apply to both historical and modern-day acts of terrorism, that I applied for an internship with The Counterterrorism Group in the US. I secured the internship and over the summer I worked as an Intelligence Analyst in team CENTCOM, focusing in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Lebanon for The Counterterrorism Group and I can say with confidence that I applied my learning in this module to intelligence reports that I have prepared during my internship.

Another rewarding aspect for me was that this course exposed me to a lot of extracurricular opportunities. For example, I serve as the Editor-in-Chief of the International Public Policy Review (IPPR), which is a student-led academic journal, blog and podcast published within the department of Political Science. Serving as the Editor –in - Chief of the IPPR ignited a passion for political journalism that I didn't know existed, and has improved both my writing and editorial skills. These skills helped me land a job as the Research Assistant to Jennifer Hodge - a PhD candidate at UCL - building the first ever Peace Community Database.

What is your favourite spot-on campus?

Undoubtedly The UCL Refectory because it has a café attached that is 50% vegan and allergy friendly, so it is very inclusive. You bump into friends from other courses and post graduate friends. It is also a good study store. And has a lot of food and drinks and a beautiful social environment, with a lovely balcony attached to it. I also like that it is closely attached to the Wilkin’s Terrace as it is a lovely place to relax and take a break from studies.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

The UCL Animal Rights Society, that I Founded in January 2021 and now has 80+ members is one of my greatest achievements.

Despite COVID-19, I was able to meet other individuals online who have the same passion for highlighting key animal rights issues and abuses. UCL has allowed me to amplify my animal rights activism. With the help of these friends, I founded the Animal Rights Society and currently serve as its President. Setting up this society has expanded my leadership, communication and time management skills tenfold and I will forever be grateful for having this opportunity.

The Animal Rights Society has already hosted numerous events such as a vegan cook-along on campus which 50+ people attended. We also run a campaign called #students4animals and as a part of our campaign we have themed months focusing on animal rights issues in different industries such as the fashion industry, sports industry, food industry etc. We are also currently hosting London’s largest clothes exchange with 7 other societies from 6 other London universities to encourage slow fashion and the usage of second hand clothes.

By founding this society and serving as its President, I have learnt so much more about animal rights related issues than I could have ever imagined. I have also now found a lovely community of animal lovers and vegans within UCL and it’s great to now meet up with such like-minded individuals.

What is your favourite book?

Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? by Michael J Sander

This is a book that was recommended as a part of the preliminary readings when I first started this course. Like every other first year, I didn’t take it very seriously to do all of the preliminary readings but I still chose to do this one specifically as it seemed interesting. This book completely caught my eye because of how philosophical it is. After every chapter, it really makes you stop and think about your morals and values and how you live life and your perspective of life. It also uses a lot of metaphors which I enjoyed. I was introduced to different theories of Justice- from Kant to Aristotle, all of which was new to me. I also learnt about different perspective, for example, how libertarians equate taxation with slavery which is clearly a very peculiar outlook.

I definitely learnt a lot from this book but after reading it I wasn’t sure if I would ever apply what I learnt to real-life I but in term 2 when I studied the module titled Justice, I was shocked to see the amount of overlap between what the book stated and what we studied. In fact, I even cited this book in both of my assignments that I did for this module. In hindsight now, I would definitely encourage all students to do the preliminary readings as you never know when you might find it useful!