Saba Aslam is currently studying an IDS master’s degree in Poverty and Development. In this interview she tells us what brought her to IDS and what it’s like studying here.
Watch a short video excerpt of Saba’s interview or read the interview in full below.
What made you want to study a master’s in Poverty and Development?
I come from a city called Karachi, which is one of the largest cities in Pakistan. I have an urban background, and have worked with a progressive social policy think tank, Collective for Social Research (CSSR). With colleagues at CSSR, I worked with rural communities in the Sindh province where we conducted a study that examined how women’s work in agriculture impacted their health and their children’s nutrition. I have also worked on different studies relating to marginality and social exclusion in Karachi. Having worked in the field for over four years on issues of marginality, vulnerability and social exclusion, I felt that I needed greater theoretical underpinning of these issues. And I wanted to have a deeper understanding of how people in other parts of the world have explored these issues in a nuanced way.
What appealed to you about IDS?
I chose IDS because it has an interdisciplinary approach. It brings together people from different disciplines who are doing work on issues of poverty and vulnerability, but who are also looking at it from a theoretical lens, for example, through anthropology, sociology, and with a very policy-oriented focus. And also, I think the best thing about IDS, what IDS is well known for, is its research tools; particularly qualitative research and participatory methods. I thought that this place would give me the right mix with people who’ve been doing development and who’ve also done a lot of policy-related work in different regions.
The other thing about IDS is that it gives you a lot of international exposure. You have people from different parts of the world also looking at the same issues that you’ve been working on. I felt that just engaging with those people would take me another step ahead in my career as a researcher from Pakistan.
Did you come here with a scholarship or were you self-funded?
I’m here on a scholarship. It’s called the IDS Graduate Scholarship and it’s given to six individuals from developing- and low-income countries.
What’s your experience been like so far?
My experience at IDS has been just like a dream come true. I always wanted to be here. It’s hard to put in words how I feel, because it’s a very emotional as well as intellectually stimulating experience. You interact with researchers who have been in the field doing work in different parts of the world, and the way they engage with you allows you to bring in your learnings from the field to the classroom and seminars. It’s been a great experience to have been interacting with practitioners, researchers and students from other parts of the world and to get a sense of what issues are there in their own countries and then to also draw parallels.
What did you think when you first arrived?
I was overwhelmed to be honest. Because I arrived late, I had a lot of things to do. I had to catch up as well. One step at a time I began to find my own space in this place, because there was so much going on – you’ve got lectures and seminars and you’re settling into a completely different country. But it’s been amazing, a very thrilling experience. Engaging with people from across the globe has been the best part of my journey. And also just spending hours in the library delving into theory and discussing those theories with other people who are part of the IDS community is a great feeling!
In terms of support, I think the University of Sussex has a very strong support system. For example, I spoke to the University of Sussex International Student Support department when I was coming here, about issues with respect to settling in and interacting with the different cultures. I also received support from them when I was facing some visa-related issues.
Is there anything about IDS or the course that surprised you?
Yes, the culture of having lunchtime seminars. These seminars provide a different space to learn about ongoing research at IDS, or find out about exciting research studies. It is an additional avenue to learn about emerging development themes and issues. They provide a very engaging way of learning and building your own networks and relationships with peers.
What aspects of the course are exciting you right now?
In the previous term, I took two modules, one on Poverty and Inequality, and the other one on Power and Social Perspectives on Development. What really excited me about each of the modules was that they allowed me to engage with my work more critically, allowing me to understand issues from a variety of angles. The course on Power and Social Perspectives on Development led me to understand theoretical concepts such as power, citizenship and mobilization in a very deep-rooted way.
Over the course, I also found that as development practitioners, we should be aware what the limitations of our work are, or what methods we’re using and what the implications those methods will have on our work.
What extracurricular activities are you involved in?
So, I’ve been involved in the University of Sussex volleyball games, and I learned that engaging yourself in sports is a very good way of knowing other people. Sometimes you want to be outside IDS – as well as having that intellectually stimulating space, you also want to have another space. For me, it’s either the library or the sports complex. I really enjoy playing with and meeting with people from other departments of the Sussex campus, like the School of Global Studies. It’s a very peaceful way of just letting myself be.
What advice would you give to anyone considering studying at IDS?
The advice that I would give to people who are either entering development, or who are in their mid-careers, is that one should be open to different disciplines as well as to new areas of research. And just engage with people through the work that you’ve done, through your own learnings, because I think the best thing about IDS is that whatever you’ve done, people are very welcoming and warm. So every time you have a contribution, they would definitely find a way to incorporate that in their own discussions. And finally, make connections: just be open and immerse yourself in this process and enjoy it.