Fighting the Falmouth Town/Gown Divide

With student numbers ever increasing thanks to the foolish rapid expansion plans of both Falmouth and Exeter Universities, it is inevitable that town and gown relations are going to deteriorate in the coming months. Locals are at risk of being priced out of their own communities in both Penryn and Falmouth. For many, Falmouth has been a place where they have been born and bred. Imagine how you would feel if your home village/town/community was systematically altered by the addition of thousands of students in just a couple of years? We students like to be seen as saintly, but there is absolutely no doubt that we are having a massive impact on the local community, whether we like it or not.

I work in a shop in Falmouth, and we have a excellent rapport with our customers. I enjoy talking to our regulars, but they all talk of the issues the students are posing locally. Whether it is loud house parties, the odorous scent of marijuana on the streets or a fight after a wild night in Club I, we have to admit as a student body that we are part of this problem. For the most of us, and probably most of you reading this, these issues may seem like they belong to someone else. But they do. The locals see us as ‘students’ collectively, not singular, and perhaps this needs changing. Whilst they see (and hear) all about these issues, who is telling them about all the great work our students are doing? Other than Science in the Square, are we doing enough in the local community?

For a long time, our student community has asked a lot of the local community, and we’ve received a lot in return, thanks to the efforts of the FXU and other concerned bodies. We have cheaper bus fares, student discounts in lots of shops locally, plenty of houses are being converted for student accommodation and by and large, we have received a pretty good deal locally.

I argue, however, that the time has come to turn this on its head. To paraphrase a much better orator than I, ‘Ask not what this community can do for you, ask what you can do for this community’. 

We have loads of student societies doing great things locally, but lets tell them about it. Let’s get the locals enthused about the great Green Living Project, and all the other things we are doing. At the moment we get to hear about our deficiencies in the local press, social media and in person, but isn’t this all they are hearing? We need to learn to celebrate and advertise our wonderful successes locally, and to make our community proud of what they do. Half the people I speak to in the shop literally have no idea that there are two universities on our campus; I hope you find that as shocking as I do. Importantly, we do have successes! We have some incredible artists on campus, amazing performances, world-class research, inspirational future leaders, a fantastically diverse community and some truly impressive feats from our various societies. Why don’t we actually make an effort to tell the locals this? Be it in a biannual event in the town hall, community events or press releases, this would be a step in the right direction.

Now I’m no grand marketing strategist, but I’d argue that the current strategy isn’t befitting the impact we are making on the local community, and this is something we need to work on.

We have some great volunteering schemes, but I strongly believe that it is time to create a ‘Falmouth Student Volunteer Corps’ for specific use within the Falmouth/Penryn community, as opposed to helping out on well known beauty spots around the county. Through the town council, the local press or a local forum, the local community should have the power to decide what said volunteer corps do. Perhaps cleaning a local stream, or helping out at a struggling local club; whatever the local community decides is most needed. It could even be improving a poorly-maintained area of Falmouth. We can do so much in this community that there is no need to stop there! How about society-sponsored sports competitions? A Town & Gown 10K charity race?

We need to commit to this community, and help dissolve the divide between students and locals. There will always be grumpy locals, in the same way that there will always be marijuana-toting students, but there is absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t challenge the current perception of us. Rather than seeing ourselves as part of the problem, we need to recognise that as a collective community, we are also the solution. Once we’ve realised this, perhaps the locals will begin to see what we are capable of too, and begin to be proud of what their local students can do for them.

It is time to stop ignoring the issues, and face them head on.

Only then will we see change.

More excitingly, we can make it happen.

(Nb. This isn’t to demean the efforts of our sabbatical officers, who have done a brilliant job in pretty tricky circumstances lately. This is what I think we should be doing on top of what we do already, and I really hope we do. If anything, this can only make the sabb officer jobs better, right)?!




Back to University: Week 1 Review

After a year out of university due to illness, I finally returned this week to start second year afresh.

With most of my lecturers (and old friends)  out in California and New York on a field trip, my first week back was decidedly bereft of lectures themselves, with only 3 actually taking place! All the modules were new though, and I’m suprisingly satisifed with my module choices. I had assumed that I would change one of my modules to a politics equivalent, however having tried my two likely drop-options, this is now unlikely to happen. Evolution of Human Societies looks like a brilliant module, and I am so glad that I have taken it. To me, it seems like we are being taught the essence of Jared Diamond’s brilliant, seminal, Guns Germs and Steel, but with the latest developments that have occurred in the intervening years included. Assuming my fellow peers are also aiming to help tackle some of the global issues facing the world today, this module should provide an excellent grounding in a fascinating, vital part of human development.

The Politics of Climate Change and Energy is another good module it seems, and whilst it was my most likely module to drop, I’ve really taken to the style of teaching employed by the lecturer. It is a big class, with around 70-odd students it seems, and thus it might be a bit harder to make my work stand-out. The assessment methods for this module are great though; 3 blogs combined to make 2000 words, a concept map and some Policy Analysis. I’ve done some policy analysis before, thankfully, the blogs should be my ‘bankable’ marks (I hope at least), and the concept map is something completely new. I’m more excited about the concept map than the others though because it looks like a really good way of detangling complex issues, such as Perhentian Islands Development or some defence analysis on Central Africa. Ideal.

The work will kick off in earnest next week, however this week has been a really nice induction back in to the swing of university life. I had a meeting with a departmental figure to officially say hello and plan for any future illness, which was lovely, and have spent most of the week in the library reading about Islands Biogeography. I’ve honestly learnt so much in such a short space of time, it really must be something about the university atmosphere and experience. Being back at university does feel like a great big safety net has been thrown over me again, and I think this is perhaps part of the undergraduate experience. Having spent time out of university, I learnt life skills that my course simply wouldn’t have taught me, and I guess I have sympathies with the people I have spoken to recently who have said that the graduates they have employed in the past have been hopeless – not because they don’t know how to do their jobs, but because they lack basic life skills to get them through the week.

I ended the week on Gylly Beach late at night, watching the supermoon and the stars glisten over a calm sea, as a fire crackled in front of me and some of my closest friends.

A lovely, calm start to the semester, but to be honest I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in properly. I’ve done my reading, I’ve planned a couple of my climate change blog posts, I’ve got loads of Malaysia plans in the works, and I’ve nearly finished the Perhentian Ecology website.

Roll on week 2! P1150243

Road to an Expedition: The Provisional Team

Part 1 of the ‘Road to an Expedition’ Series. 

With just under a year to go until Perhentian Ecology kicks off all over again, the time has come to recruit a new team for next year. There were 3 of us in 2014, and from experience, that wasn’t quite enough for a fully fledged ecological expedition (and it wasn’t, it was a feasibility study). Whilst 3 was too few, any more than 6 would limit the mobility and flexibility of the expedition, and with the potential of teaming up with a Malaysian university, a compact, flexible and experienced team is exactly what is needed. In a simple posting on Facebook, I’ve already managed to assemble a very strong team, although a few people who said they would like to join have skill-sets that just don’t match the task at hand.

Provisionally, and ultimately in my head, the team stands as follows.

Billy Burton, Expedition Leader: Making it happen. Performing surveys, planning, grant applications, social media, medical support and all the other fun things that come with leadership. I’m very experienced on the Perhentian Islands and know exactly what needs to be done to make our research be as valuable as possible. Theoretically at least, I am currently one of the authorities on the ecology of the Perhentian Islands.

Rhian Grey, Director of Science: Rhian is a zoology graduate of the University of Exeter, with an impressive array of field experience, including stints in Borneo and China. Rhian will add ecological authority to the expedition, ensuring that our methodologies are as effective as possible and that they are planned and adhered to properly. A good photographer in her own right, Rhian will slot into the role like a glove.

Josh Gray, Head of Photography: Josh was a member of the original 2014 expedition, and is entering his final year at Falmouth University, studying Marine and Natural History Photography. He is an extremely talented photographer, and is highly experienced in tropical rainforests, spending the Summer of 2014 embedded with Ecoteer, venturing for days at a time into Taman Negara. The quality of the images Josh captures are second to none and thus he makes a no-brainer for 2016.

Jamie Bubb, Expedition Logistics and Management: Jamie is perhaps the most ‘left-field’ selection, but it is this that makes him a brilliant addition to the team. Jamie is studying business at Lancaster University, and spent last year on a year abroad at a university in Bangkok, Thailand. Highly motivated, with excellent organisational and management skills honed in a number of internships, an ecological expedition will admittedly be a new experience for Jamie. I have no doubts, however, that he will be vital in getting this project off the ground, in the terms of organisation, networking and managing the day-to-day operations on the ground.

This team offers a much more holistic approach than was possible last year, and there might still be room for one more person. Space could be made for one outstanding candidate for sure. Another bioscientist perhaps, or a skilled videographer to film a documentary based around the expedition and the islands.

Our research will invariably focus on herps, and I discovered a neat little trick use by Expedition Manu, Peru, in the Amazon this year. In order to gain ID shots of smaller herps, they used a glass plate upon which the reptile/amphibian was placed, enabling them to capture detailed shots of underside of the specimen, which can be highly valuable. This is a neat little trick that we will be hoping to use next Summer.

To round off, I am really happy with the prospective team for next year. There might be room for one more, and current members may decide they don’t want to go. However, as it stands, Perhentian Ecology is going to produce some excellent science next summer!

Back to the Perhentians?

With some good news today, it seems like I will be heading back to the Perhentian Islands in 2016 to carry out further research on the terrestrial environment. This is pending a few important things; securing a research permit from the Economic Planning Unit of the Malaysian Government and securing funding, for a start. I intend to team up with Neil Hinds, of Blue Temple Conservation, who will be welcoming researchers to his HQ starting next year.

There are a vast number of options for my research on the islands, and it will take a while for me to come up with a final plan- and I’ll certainly need lots of advice from university faculty! I’m looking to go down an interdisciplinary path, as my current research interests involve the impact of development on the environment.

I’d be interested in measuring the abundance of Varanidae (Monitor Lizards, of which there are two species present) in certain areas- comparing their numbers at different distances from major resorts. I suspect that at a couple of sites, particularly in a landfill area, their abundance would actually increase close to the resorts. The number of Varanidae is very high on the islands due to a lack of predators, and thus the Perhentians offer a relatively unique opportunity to study their response and adaptations to human encroachment on their territory.

Other than that, it would be amazing to be able to use an IR-Converted camera on a drone in order to create an NDVI image of the Perhentians, hopefully displaying environmental degradation around resorts and also revealing where the last pristine refuges are the species on the islands. It is in these areas that I anticipate further species that are new to science to be found.

In any case, I’m delighted to be able to put Perhentian Research back on the calendar, and to have the opportunity to continue the work I started in 2014.

Road to Grad School: The Hunt Begins

With my long-term partner now back in her homeland, and about to start her PhD at the University of Michigan (a pretty great school), I’m left stranded a long, long way across the pond. I have a visit scheduled in for December to go and see her, in the middle of prime Lake-Effect snow storm time. At least I’ll get to see some proper Geography in action, even if I will risk hypothermia just leaving the house!

My aspirations post-degree have always been Postgraduate study. In the UK, whilst estimates vary, it is accepted that between 30 and 50% of the population have an undergraduate degree level qualification. Thus it is evident that you need something to set yourself apart from everyone else, in order to secure that ‘dream job’.

I’ve done a lot since I’ve been at Exeter (Cornwall Campus), and I’m quite pleased with my resume. I don’t think it is enough at the moment to get into a great grad program, but I’m sort of lucky. I was ill, and thus took a year out. This leaves me two more years at Exeter, and a heap of motivation in order to secure that place abroad. With the guidance of my partner, I’ve come to understand how the grad school application system works, too, which will be very helpful in the coming months.

So in the immediate future, I need to start looking at the GRE and putting a lot of preparation into it. I really good score can give your application a strong boost. A poor score could see your application wiped out at the first hurdle, especially at the top US Grad Schools. More importantly though, I’m still searching for that X-Factor. I’ve organised a conference, led an expedition and won a student’s union award- but I’m still missing that big name, or perhaps that bit of gold dust that says ‘hey, this kid is special’. Opportunities abound, in a way. I can head back to Malaysia, collect my dissertation data and perhaps assist in the establishment of a flagship ecological research program there. The British Council offers a number of compelling schemes abroad, including nearly fully-funded Chinese internships. There is also the option of more generalist ‘big-brand’ internships, though I don’t think that would be a great match for me personally.

Whilst searching for that x-factor, I’m not lying on my back, dreaming of the future. I’m being proactive, looking at all manner of schools in the US. Ok, that might be a lie. I am definitely lying on my back, dreaming of the future, but I feel equipped and ready to start the long journey forward.

Onwards and Upwards!