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A life-changing experience

Libby Clark (PtJA Project Manager) interviews Emma Dolby (Undergraduate Research Scholar) about her three years with the project

Libby Clark: Emma, tell us a little bit about your role in PtJA and what you have been working on over the last three years

Emma Dolby: I’ve been the Undergraduate Research & Leadership Scholar and I’ve been working with PtJA for three summers. In June 2015, at the end of my first year, I helped the team to run the ‘Magnified and Sanctified’ conference, and then I spent 10 weeks helping to collate information to form a portable project exhibition. It was the first time I had been in a research environment and it was quite exciting to meet a lot of researchers from all round the world. That summer involved a lot of emailing, a lot of corresponding and Skype meetings. I started editing things, which I had never done before, and then talking to a graphic designer which I had never done before, talking about how the design could work, looking up the different kinds of physical exhibition we could have. It was the first time I’d had to help to manage a project and that was quite exciting.

In my second summer I used the content from the exhibition and turned it into a draft educational package for schools. So it was thinking back to when I was at school and how I could make the material accessible for school pupils. I even ended up phoning my old teacher! I also phoned a lot of educational centres, which now has proved really, really useful because I am applying to be a teacher. So actually saying I have written a load of lesson plans is really useful.

And then in the summer of 2017 I went with the team to the Cape Town festival and helped with the festival logistics; and finally, I helped to manage logistics for the Future of the Archive project conference at the British Library in January 2018.

PtJA exhibition at the Prague Conservatory, 2016

Libby Clark: Looking back over the three years you have worked with PtJA, could you reflect on the key skills that you have learnt through this scholarship scheme?

Emma Dolby: I feel like research, leadership and event management are three skills that I have really built on. I feel like in comparison to had I just done my degree on its own, I would have learned more about research because you’ve got to do it for your essays and dissertation and all those sorts of things, but I understand a lot more why research is important, what the context of it is and actually what happens to the research. Because as undergraduates, our essays go from us, to the lecturer and back again, they go nowhere, I’m glad they don’t, but actually being in a project where the research matters and it actually affects people’s lives, and it’s to do with learning about real people who existed, I think that has been a really important skill to learn: actually what is research, why do we do it and how do we do it. And again, just being able to talk to professional academics and researchers that do this on a daily basis, and they have been really lovely and kind and patient and explained everything to me and, without trying to sound clichéd, have taken me on the journey of PtJA.

Another skill is leadership. I think being – and this is a good thing, not a bad thing – I think being thrown in at the start and just being given an exhibition and being told, right, this is your job for 10 weeks, you do this, we are here to support you, but you do it. And at first that was quite daunting. I was only 19 at the time and I was thinking, ‘I can’t do this, you are all much more qualified than me, what am I doing?’ And actually over the 10 weeks, I started to build my confidence and understand a bit more how you manage a set of people, how deadlines work, how you have to set them before the actual deadline, because things go wrong, people go off ill, or people can’t send you things, or actually, you receive them and then something happens that means you can’t do anything with it. So time management has definitely come into that!

Finally, learning about the management of events was another side of it that was really exciting because with this scholarship you do see lots of different elements of a project. At the first project conference in 2015, I was just doing what I was told and was happy to do as I was told! And then I feel that each time I’ve done a conference or festival I’ve learnt a lot more so by the last one, I knew how a conference worked. I knew what sort of delegates would be turning up, I knew how a session ran and I also knew the team a lot better so I could actually talk to them and communicate with them about what was happening. And those skills, I’ve really been able to bring into this event that I’m organising – The Undergraduate Research Experience – because now I’m helping to project manage that, it means the skills and observations that I’ve made over two conferences and two festivals I’ve been able to bring into this event.

University of Leeds Undergraduate Research Experience

Libby Clark: So you have mentioned an event you are organising – The Undergraduate Research Experience. Could you reflect on what you have learned from working with PtJA and what it might have been like to manage that event without the experience you have gained?

Emma Dolby: Without trying to sound too clichéd, I think without PtJA I wouldn’t have done a lot of the things I’ve done at University. I think the number of doors it has opened has been ridiculous. And it has been amazing and without PtJA I genuinely don’t think I would even have applied to organise the Undergraduate Research Experience conference, because I would have had no clue how to run an event, no clue how to plan an event and I think almost all of the skills I’m using for this event have either been developed from or completely made from PtJA. Obviously some of the stuff is just using your initiative, but it’s being able to use your initiative effectively and I think that has really been something that I have had to build on. Everything from when we were in South Africa and the exhibition didn’t turn up and I think if I had been on my own at that point I would have gone ‘well, I don’t know what to do’. But being able to observe what happens at that point was really good. And I think that’s the joy of this scholarship, it runs alongside your degree and now, actually, it takes it even further because going into teaching being able to say ‘I’ve run an event, I’ve managed a team of researchers for the exhibition, I’ve gone to a different country and had to help out at a project in a different country’ and I think PtJA for me has been one of the biggest changes to my University experience and a very, very enjoyable and positive one. I think it has really benefited my skills and really helped my confidence as well. I’ve managed to spend my spare time at University building up skills, developing myself and by doing something different that I didn’t expect.

Libby Clark: Have there been challenges?

Emma Dolby: Yes! I think there is in anything you do, obviously, and I think without the challenges things would be boring. One that definitely springs to mind is running a conference without you! Sitting in that hotel room the night before going ‘well, this is interesting!’ So yeah, it was being chucked in in an amazing way and again, I really wish you hadn’t got ill because that’s not nice for you and it would have been a lot easier with you there, but for me personally having that as the end of my scholarship has shown me how far I’ve come. From my first day walking in here in my first summer going ‘I don’ know what I’m doing’, sat at the computer going ‘do I just send emails?’ And I remember I wouldn’t send an email without actually getting either you or Steve to check it at first, I couldn’t write one, and by the end I was running a conference. And I think that transition just never would have happened without PtJA. I think for me that was a massive development at university, that I think needed to happen and that I wanted to happen. I didn’t necessarily expect it to happen in anyway, let alone this way. And it’s also just learning a different perspective, you know, I think university sometimes can make you very tunnel visioned, I need to get these grades and that’s all that university is. But I have realised that university isn’t just about getting grades, there is a life out there and it is about enjoying learning, it’s about actually developing yourself and I think I managed to learn that a bit earlier on in university because doing summers working with the research team, really learning why research is important, rather than research just being to put it in a 4000 word essay, to give it to your lecturer to try and get a good mark. I think the context of why we do this is really important and something that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise

Libby Clark: Thinking about some of the skills that you have learned, what big things would you take forward and apply in the future?

Emma Dolby: Definitely leadership and management of things I think is really important career-wise for me. Being a teacher, yes I won’t be managing academics who are older than me, I’ll be managing tiny children, but if I can take those skills to any job it will be really useful. I’m now more confident in asking people to do things and I think as a teacher that’s really important; if I do end up being a fully qualified teacher with a teaching assistant in my room, I’ve got to have the confidence to ask them to do things without doubting whether my knowledge is enough, if that makes sense. So yeah, managing events, managing people, being able to work with people, being able to lead is definitely something I will take forward.

As I say, and I think I have touched on this, just having the confidence to know that I can do stuff because university is about – for a lot of students including myself – university is about learning things and then applying them to an academic essay and I think actually having the confidence to use that knowledge is quite important. I came out of school being told ‘you can do music, you’re practical’. I didn’t class myself as being clever because there were a lot of people at my school who were a lot more academic than me. But actually to be told, you have worked in an academic environment for three years, you have helped them, is quite nice. Although I know I want to be a teacher I can always see myself wanting to learn more and maybe doing research for other reasons. I can see myself, now I know how lessons plans work and that teachers can take things that they find interesting and teach the children that, I think because I enjoy research I’m going to enjoy making those lessons, because I am going to be able to learn at the same time as my students. And again, I don’t think that’s something I would have had the confidence to do, to think, you know what I actually really enjoy researching, I can research, I can look up things so that I can benefit the people that I am teaching.

Libby Clark: If you were talking to someone right at the beginning of their Undergraduate Research Scholar career, what advice would you offer them?

Emma Dolby: First off I would tell them how amazing it is, because there is no way I would have expected the amount of experiences and amazing opportunities that are given to you. And I remember being told, and I think it is one of the best pieces of advice, ‘when you are in the Undergraduate Scholarship, always say yes to things’ and I have tried to follow that as much as I could and it’s benefited me. When you said to me ‘do you want to go to Cape Town?’, if I had said no it would have been terrible! If I had been like ‘well, it’s so far away, and I don’t know if I can do it and I don’t know if it will fit in with me going away for my year in industry’ I wouldn’t have had one of the biggest and best experiences I have ever had. So I would say to someone, just take any opportunity that gets given to you, if it doesn’t go well that’s fine. And do you know what, you can always say to someone, ‘this is a little bit too much, but I wanted to have a go’. 

Also I would advise a future scholar not to think of it as research for someone else and you are only there to help them. It is actually something to help you as well. I’ve learned so much and it’s really exciting because I have had discussions with people about the research that PtJA do, and actually watching them get excited as well is amazing, and the joy of spreading that research to other people is really lovely. 

Emma with the PtJA research team at the final concert in Cape Town, 2017

Finally, the people you meet are incredible. I now live with someone I wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t done the scholarship, I frequently see people that I wouldn’t have met if I hadn’t done the scholarship, and the team that I have been on have been so lovely, so patient, have put up with me for so long and they are people I wouldn’t have met, and experiences I wouldn’t have had. So I would say to someone, take every opportunity that gets given to you, enjoy it and absorb everything because you are there to learn and the people around you want you to learn.

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