My Leeds story - NAME & COURSE HERE

We are extremely proud of the achievements of all our graduating students at Leeds, but especially our Class of 2020, who have completed their studies in such challenging circumstances.

We know that our graduates are keen to make a difference in the world, and each month we will be shining a spotlight on a Leeds alum who graduated in 2020.

In September we spoke to Victoria Purcell, a geophysical sciences graduate who overcame several challenges throughout her studies, and has spent the last few years balancing study and assignments with raising her son.

My Leeds story
Victoria Purcell

Start by telling us about your journey from working full-time to beginning your studies at the University of Leeds?

Before applying to the University of Leeds, I was working in a call centre for a bank. It wasn’t a terrible job – the hours were actually quite good and the pay was a lot better than my previous jobs in retail. Still, I didn’t love what I was doing and I couldn’t see it turning into a career for me. When I was 18, I hadn’t got the A-Level results I needed to go to university. I’d thought about retaking some of my subjects part-time while I was working, but I never got round to it. I can’t remember how I came across the foundation year offered by the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Leeds, but it made the whole process a lot easier. Instead of trying to study whilst still working full-time, I was able to become a full-time student at the University and then transfer onto the first year of my degree after the foundation year.

You shared on social media a post about some of the challenges you faced in gaining your first-class degree from Leeds – tell us about them and how you overcame them?

During my January exams in the first year of my degree, I experienced a miscarriage. This was devastating for me and my husband. I took two weeks off and didn’t sit any of the exams, but I decided to go back at the start of the second semester. It gave me something to focus on, and the staff who knew were very supportive and understanding. I didn’t feel able to tell many of my peers what had happened at the time. Despite miscarriages being quite common, it’s still quite a taboo subject. That’s partly why I decided to talk about it on my Linked In post. Unfortunately, I doubt I’m the first or the last student to have to go through this. Shortly after the miscarriage, I fell pregnant again and my son was born at the beginning of December in my second year. I had originally intended to do the first semester full-time and then have a full year off, but I had a difficult pregnancy so negotiated with the school that I would do 30 credits that year and the remaining 90 credits the following academic year. I sat two exams in the January after my son was born and one in the August re-sit period. My husband did all the night feeds the night before each of the exams, and then my dad sat on campus with my son whilst I actually took them. I cannot praise the School of Earth and Environment enough for how supportive and accommodating they were throughout the whole experience, and obviously I would not have been able to continue my studies without the support of my husband and family. When I returned to University the following September, I was only doing three modules in the first semester which was a good transition period for me. It allowed me to find the best work-life balance, and after that it wasn’t too much of an adjustment to go back to full-time in the January. It was a massive help that my son was able to go to nursery on campus, and this kept me working in the library some days when normally I would have gone home early and been distracted.

"Strangely, I actually think I’m a better student because of everything I went through. It made me very resilient."

Victoria Purcell (Geophysical Sciences 2020)

How have those challenges shaped you and to what do you attribute your success?

Strangely, I actually think I’m a better student because of everything I went through. It made me very resilient, and I learnt how to organise my time and work effectively. I really struggled mentally during the last few months of my degree due to everything happening with Covid-19, but the thought of wasting all of my hard work over the last 5 years kept me going.

What was your experience of studying at Leeds like – tell us about your course and what clubs and societies you were involved in during your time at the University?

In both my foundation and final year I was part of the hiking society. I don’t drink a lot, so an active outdoor society was perfect for me. I am going to be starting a PhD in October, so I hope I’ll be able to re-join – I'm looking forward to getting involved as soon as it’s possible for activities to take place again. It’s a great way to keep fit and explore the countryside around Leeds. Throughout my degree I also took part in several fieldtrips, including a two week trip to Lanzarote at the start of the final year. This was probably one of the highlights of my whole degree. There were only 16 students on my course, so by the time we got to the final year we knew each other quite well. It was hard work and we did about 100 hours of work in the two weeks, but we also had time to sit by the pool and go to the local bars and the beach.

You have completed your course alongside being a parent of a young child – what advice would you give to others in a similar situation?

Try to be strict with when you are working and your free time. This inevitably goes out the window when you are doing group work or have deadline bunching (or are in the middle of a global pandemic!), but if you can keep on top of your work earlier in the semester it makes life a bit easier when this happens. I found that I was way more productive after becoming a parent because I had set hours to get my work done, and it would mean missing out on something fun with my family if I didn’t finish on time. Also be kind to yourself. Parenting is hard, regardless of whatever else you have to juggle alongside. Having some time for yourself will make you a better student and a better parent.

Your final year at Leeds wasn’t quite as you would have imagined it, not being on campus for the final term and being unable able to return to campus for your graduation. How was the experience of studying virtually?

To be honest it was mixed. Some lecturers were amazing at continuing live online lectures and I felt more confident being able to type a question in the chat than raising my hand in a packed lecture theatre. Other lecturers struggled with the online technology, or their personal circumstances meant that live lectures weren’t possible. Where this happened though, the lecturers provided pre-recorded lectures and supported students via email and MS Teams.

Additionally, working from home with a toddler was very difficult. All my lecturers and especially my dissertation supervisor were very understanding though, and flexible with online meetings. My son would sometimes join in the video calls and show some drawing or painting he had done. Towards the end of my dissertation, I ended up working from 5pm until about 3am! My husband would get up with our son in the morning and then I’d take over childcare after lunch until 5pm. It was a relief when I had finished everything, but it was sad not to be able to celebrate with everyone else.

What have you learnt about yourself after being in lockdown?

I’m quite a resilient person and have had to cope with other challenges throughout my degree, so I didn’t think it would affect me as much as it has. My family all stayed safe and well, but I was surprised at how vulnerable it made me feel, and how important social interaction with people other than my immediate family is for my mental health. One positive is that I am actually friends with some of my neighbours now, whom I hadn’t spoken to before lockdown. When this is all over, I want to spend more quality time with my friends and extended family and not take them for granted.

Although we haven’t yet been able to welcome you to campus for a graduation ceremony – did you do anything with friends or family to celebrate your achievements?

Some of my course mates met up (socially distanced) in Hyde Park before they all went home, but at the time I didn’t feel comfortable doing so. When I got my results, my husband bought me some champagne and we went round to my parents’ for a takeaway in the garden. It doesn’t sound that exciting really, but after weeks of lockdown I was just happy to be somewhere that wasn’t my own house!

As part of your course, you undertook an internship – what skills and knowledge did you gain from that experience?

Between my second and final year, I undertook an 8-week internship with Willis Towers Watson, based in Ipswich. My son was one and a half years old at the time, but it was such a perfect opportunity that I was determined to make it work. My husband was amazing, supporting me 100% and becoming a stay-at-home dad during this time. The internship was working as a Catastrophe Risk Analyst, which involved projecting client’s losses if certain natural disasters or events took place. It was incredibly interesting and I loved the company. During the internship I also completed an independent research project which looked at updating an internal model, and I had to give a presentation with my findings at the end. I learnt a lot from this project, including critical analysis of research material, oral presenting skills and how to present data graphically. These are skills which helped me with my dissertation in my final year.

Although you considered entering industry, you have now chosen to continue your studies at Leeds, beginning a PhD in fault geomorphology and seismic hazard in September. Talk to us about why you decided to continue to study at Leeds?

During my time at Willis Towers Watson, I enjoyed the modelling and research part the most. They have a dedicated team for this, but to join it you need to have either a PhD or a masters and several years of experience in a similar role. I had intended to go back to Willis Towers Watson as a Catastrophe Risk Analyst and return to academia later in life, but the PhD I’m starting in October was so well aligned to my future career ambitions that I had to apply. I will be studying fault geomorphology and seismic hazard. The seismic hazard part will be very relevant for catastrophe modelling, and I will be working with some of the same software that I used during my internship. Staying at Leeds was also an easy decision. It’s been my home for 9 years now and I have my family and friends nearby to support me.

What advice would you give to other members of the Class of 2020 who haven’t yet found employment or made plans for further study?

I feel very lucky to have something in place for this October. I know that this is not the case for all of my peers, and who knows, if I had been going into industry my offer might have been retracted or delayed due to Covid-19. My advice would be to stay positive and stay connected with your friends, peers and lecturers. Someone from my course recently posted a job advert on our course group chat that was related to our degree. It took him a minute to do, but might make a massive difference to someone else’s career prospects.

Victoria's best of Leeds

Favourite place to eat in Leeds:

Almost Famous

Best lunch spot on/near campus:

Common Ground, or a Co-op meal-deal sat outside the Earth and Environment building when the weather is sunny

Best place to study on campus:

The Edward Boyle Library

Your favourite building on campus:

The Parkinson building

Favourite walking spot in Yorkshire:

Roundhay Park or Otley Chevin