The past eighteen months have changed so much about the way that we study, learn and share knowledge. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust seemingly insurmountable challenges upon everyone, including those of us in education and academia—both teaching staff and students. However, it has also provided us with opportunities to become more creative in how we connect, and to build resilience in dealing with the unexpected.
These were exactly the opportunities (often masked as challenges!) facing the organising committee of the SOAS Development Studies 2021 Working in Development and Social Change Conference. Billed as an annual careers conference for the Development Studies department, the event is designed to equip students with the knowledge needed to decide on a career path in development, and more importantly, secure a job in what is a highly competitive field.
The first opportunity/challenge was the format: 2021 was the second year that the conference was run online. This time round, however, the committee was well aware of the Zoom fatigue we were all feeling. But we recognised the value of the platform in bringing together speakers from across geographies and time zones, as well as connecting with students who hadn’t been able to travel to the UK to undertake their studies.
Which led us to our second challenge: engaging those speakers and students! Over the course of some months we used every tool at our disposal to find and reach out to expert practitioners in various areas of development work. Personal contacts were called upon, we all became very familiar with LinkedIn (if we weren’t already), and knockbacks were handled with grace—after all, we were all there to support one another in making each panel worth both our speakers’ and our audience’s time. WhatsApp groups were used liberally to spread the word among students and drum up enthusiasm. The work was chaotic on occasion, but also very rewarding.
The conference took place over three days, 15-17 June. During that time, the Development Studies Department and SOAS Careers Service hosted eighteen sessions, including panel discussions, lunch-time drop-ins with our speakers, and post-study careers guidance. Although we ran each session through the Zoom platform, we knew we needed to think smart to engage our audience. We varied formats: from formal panel discussions with Q&A, to informal meeting-type gatherings where attendees could interact with their host and speakers, and virtual coffee breaks. Each session was recorded and uploaded to our online learning environment—in recognition of the fact that the global spread of Development Studies students meant that some would inevitably be going to bed or just waking up as sessions started!
The conference opened with a distinguished panel of SOAS alumni, including a University of London professor, CEO of a major UK charity, a long-standing development professional and MBE, and a seasoned activist and advocacy campaigner. The message was clear: a degree from SOAS can take you far in development. Throughout the remaining sessions we heard from practitioners in the areas of: conflict, security and humanitarian action; development banks; displacement; ESG; community-based development; racial equality and race relations; think tanks; sports, gender and development; ethical partnerships in CSR; consultancies; social enterprise; social justice in the UK.
Our panelists provided us with rich discussions, drawing upon their practical insights of working in development to offer both careers advice, and a flavour of what it means to be a development professional. A strong theme emerging was the importance of being able to demonstrate technical and analytical capabilities, to secure that all-important first job. Fortunately, a SOAS education is well recognised as a strong foundation for those very skills, and while it can still seem daunting to enter the world of development practice, many of our speakers assured us that students from all backgrounds can enter the field ensuring they work hard, they are passionate, and they are driven by their motivation.
Of particular interest to many of us was learning about the challenges of working in the development sector—at the personal level, in terms of being a development professional, but also in the ways that development actors interact with the political, economic and social realities of the locations in which they operate. It is one thing to gather in the classroom to discuss gender discrimination and racism within development, and quite another to hear the lived experiences of seasoned professionals who have been affected by them. Perhaps even more illuminating, and especially more encouraging, was hearing about people speaking up and tackling these issues head on. And there was a clear message coming through: everyone has to and can make their own contribution.
As many of us move into the final stages of our studies, what we heard during the conference will no doubt provide motivation to seek roles in which we can make a real difference, aware of the challenges we will inevitably need to navigate. To those of us with further years of studies to complete, we can’t wait to see you in the field!
Simon Loveday is a student on the MSc Migration, Mobility and Development programme at SOAS. He is currently researching migration in the context of climate change, focusing on how the narratives surrounding the phenomenon impact on our ability to advocate for climate justice. Simon is a passionate climate activist, and a BSAC scuba dive instructor in his spare time at SOAS.