Hannah Rustomjee

Hannah is studying BA Geography with International Study. Here she shares her experience of how studying at Manchester and abroad in Amsterdam has broadened her horizons and helped her explore her identity.

On choosing to study Geography

Hannah Rustomjee

As an individual of mixed heritage, I have always had an interest in understanding people, places and cultures as a way of also better understanding myself and my sometimes complex and confusing identity. Geography is a discipline that encompasses so many topics which are relevant to so many aspects of your daily life, and I found it so fascinating how everything I was doing could directly link to Geography in some way.

On transferring to Manchester from another university

I transferred to The University of Manchester in my second year because the course and city really appealed to me. I spent my first year studying a Geography course that didn’t suit my interests in a very small university within quite a remote town. Both the course, the university and the town were not representative of the diversity of the UK, and personally, I didn’t feel like I could grow and develop both academically and personally in a place where I couldn’t find myself reflected.

The University of Manchester on the other hand is situated within a very vibrant and exciting city, an aspect of university life which I came to realise was what I needed. The geography department at The University of Manchester also offered some very interesting Human Geography modules and gave me the possibility of taking a module each semester outside of Geography. For example, in my second year, I was able to take modules about Critical Race Theory within Sociology and learn about historic epidemics and issues within Global Health which have given me the opportunity to study and understand geography (and the current pandemic) through an interdisciplinary lens. In this way, the flexibility of the course and the opportunity to do a Year Abroad in my third year was very appealing.

On my year studying abroad          

The highlight for me was the opportunity to do a Year Abroad at the Universiteit van Amsterdam (University of Amsterdam) in the Netherlands. Studying Geography, the study of places and the relationships between people and their environment, it only made sense to take part in a Study Abroad Programme. Adjusting to different learning techniques has helped me develop cross-cultural understanding and stronger adaptability skills.

I am eternally grateful for the Erasmus grant I received which helped financially support me during my Year Abroad. It was an incredible experience that has helped shape my European identity, especially in the wake of Brexit. My mother is Spanish and fortunately, I’ve always felt connected to that side of my heritage thanks to also being bilingual. However, moving to Amsterdam also helped me to develop a greater understanding of what it means to be European in times of rising tensions over race and heritage, particularly within the UK and the EU.

During my Year Abroad I also became an Au pair to a Dutch family during the summer months which helped me to pick up some of the language as well as experience the Dutch way of life outside of the university. Having a whole year to explore a new place and culture gave me the freedom to also plan ahead for my dissertation and consider further study after my Bachelor’s. My dissertation has been heavily informed by modules I took in Amsterdam which inspired me to further explore my interests within the themes of decolonisation, Dutch colonialism and museums and heritage. The Universiteit van Amsterdam opened my eyes to these topics and I am incredibly grateful for their postcolonial outlook that I also encountered in their other modules. I enjoyed my Year Abroad so much that I will be starting my Master’s there this September in Museum and Heritage Studies. You never know where your Year Abroad will take you!

On the most challenging aspects of my course

The most challenging aspect of the course was probably preparing for my Year Abroad, despite this actually turning out to be the highlight of my four years studying. I don’t think you can really prepare yourself for being outside of your comfort zone and learning to adapt to a new environment. The effect of moving away on mental health is often not spoken about before departure, and this can potentially end up completely overshadowing what should be a year of making new friends, improving language skills and learning a new way of life.

On top of these concerns, I was also aware of the lack of representation of People of Colour studying abroad, as well as a lack of specific advice with regards to this. I noticed this whilst browsing the study abroad fairs and brochures both in Amsterdam as an Erasmus Ambassador but also back in Manchester when I was deciding on where to apply for. As the study abroad experience seems to mostly portray the generic white, middle-class experience, I wrote a blog post to amplify the experiences of those often not included in the brochures to hopefully serve as a helpful tool for anyone worried about feeling uncomfortable in a different environment. The blog post includes my experience in Amsterdam with some articles on specific factors to look out for when doing your Study Abroad research as well as first-hand experiences in different cities and countries.

On my fieldwork abroad     

I was able to go to Hong Kong as part of the second-year module ‘Research Design and Overseas Field courses’. In this field trip we were given the freedom to undertake research that could be tailored to our own interests and my group undertook ethnographic research on how identity is constructed within foodways. We found that Hong Kong’s colonial history sheds light on complex issues predominantly surrounding identity, memory and heritage and we wanted to explore how traditional foodways played into this through local cuisine in the context of rapid culture change. Visiting Hong Kong was an incredible experience and researching how cultural autonomy can be maintained through foodways also meant we were eating the most amazing food throughout the trip!

On my extracurricular activities

I am actively involved in the Decolonise UoM Campaign, a network at The University of Manchester that aims to unite students and staff who are committed to: deepening, improving and expanding upon the University’s existing social responsibility initiatives; empowering students and staff to take a critical approach to knowledge production and exchange at the University and beyond; promoting justice and equity both within the University and within our surrounding communities.