Virginia Stuart-Taylor is British and was part of the Euroculture 2016-2018 cohort, but graduated in 2019 due to undertaking a full-time job. She spent her first semester at the University of Groningen, her second one at Uppsala University and chose the professional track in the third semester. Before starting Euroculture, she completed a BA in Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Exeter. Currently, she is living in London (UK) where she is working in the UK Government on UK-EU trade relations and negotiations. Virginia always wanted to pursue a Master’s degree and explore Europe further, therefore the Euroculture M.A. was a perfect fit. Apart from moving to Europe, she wanted to shift her career towards the public sector. Ultimately, pursuing the Euroculture M.A. was a fundamental step in her career, as it enabled her to re-orient towards politics, public affairs and foreign policy.
Euroculturer Magazine (EM): What were your expectations when you applied/started the Euroculture M.A. and do they match the reality at the moment?
Virgina Stuart Taylor (VST): I started the Euroculture M.A. shortly after the UK’s Brexit referendum and, as I’m British, the vote added a certain element of drama to the course. I was excited to study among so many different nationalities, after 4 years predominantly working full-time in London. I was so thrilled about the freedom of the student experience that I over-subscribed to practically everything Groningen had to offer: Dutch and Russian classes, the Honours College, a Photography course and even some ad-hoc paid work for Study in Holland. I quickly discovered that the MA course at Groningen is really demanding too, so I did struggle to find time for everything. I learned my lesson and was subsequently more realistic with my extracurricular activities in Uppsala for the second semester. Despite that, I was thrilled that the course was so rigorous, as it meant I learned quickly and absorbed a lot of knowledge, which I’ve used in my jobs after graduation. Following the Brexit referendum, there has been a lot of demand in the UK job market for expertise in European Affairs. While studying though, I tentatively hoped I might settle in the EU with a residency and work permit. Fast forward 4 years and I’ve used my Euroculture experience to start a career in the UK Government, specialising in UK-EU relations and negotiations, and I unfortunately no longer have the right to work in the EU. My network of friends and contacts in the EU is huge however, both in Brussels and spread across the continent, and I catch up with many of my Euroculture friends when visiting Brussels for work. I would ideally like to have a more accessible route and the right to work in the EU again, but I’m also happy that my career has remained EU-focused, even when I’m physically based in London.
EM: One of the most important aspects of Euroculture is mobility. How important do you think this aspect was in developing your intercultural skills? To what extent do you think the pandemic is hindering this process for current cohorts which are completing the Euroculture programme online?
VST: I had gained intercultural skills before Euroculture through Erasmus experiences in my Bachelor’s degree and other stints working in Spain, Italy, Chile and Nepal, and from these I already had a good understanding of southern and western Europe. So I deliberately chose to study in Northern European countries for Euroculture (the Netherlands and Sweden), to widen my cultural experience of Europe. I do believe that physically moving to another country is crucial for such skills, but it’s equally important to consider the context of your destination. To elaborate, you’re a lot less likely to learn intercultural skills if living in a bubble of your compatriots or in a large touristy city, compared to a more authentic experience in a lesser-known smaller city. I had two quite different experiences in my two Euroculture countries: in Groningen I had more grounding in the local, authentic culture, as I found it easy to make local Dutch friends alongside my fellow Erasmus students; while Uppsala and nearby Stockholm seemed to have more distinct boundaries between the Swedes and foreigners. Sweden felt more like an international Erasmus bubble and it was harder to befriend the Swedes. In terms of adventures, Sweden was more dramatic, with spectacular road trips around Norwegian fjords and visits to Baltic islands. I really sympathise with the current Euroculture cohorts who are temporarily unable to have that same experience, as intercultural barriers are even higher when you’re not able to build interpersonal relationships face-to-face in-person, so it must be challenging to complete the group tasks remotely. I imagine that the content of Euroculture lectures and papers hasn’t changed too much in the pandemic, but I did value learning from my fellow students’ different perspectives (from both inside and outside the EU) and they widened my own understanding. The real value of mobility however lies in the soft skills you gain when moving abroad: dealing with culture shocks, learning to cope when far from family, meeting new networks of friends, building confidence, things that are harder or even impossible to simulate online. I also found the 1-week Intensive Programme valuable, so it’s a real shame if that can’t take place in-person either.
EM: What were the greatest challenges you encountered after starting the programme?
VST: My four greatest challenges were:
- Finding accommodation. I suggest you disregard your nice-to-have criteria and accept practically the first thing you find. Use your network, Facebook groups and ask the University staff if they’re aware of any available flats left by other Euroculture students.
- Choosing topics for papers and the thesis. The challenge of an interdisciplinary course is that you have almost too much choice for subjects to research, especially if you tend to be indecisive like me.
- Choosing what to do for my third semester. I flip-flopped between the professional track, then I got a research track place in Mexico City, then I switched back to professional track in the end.
- Finding motivation to finish the thesis. Having never written a paper longer than 4,000 words before the MA, pursuing a 25,000-word thesis to completion required a mammoth effort in self-will. The key was a strong support network, understanding supervisors, and breaking the project down into smaller actions.
EM: Why did you choose the professional track and where did you complete your internship? Did you choose to go there mainly because you wanted to build a career in the field?
VST: I initially chose the professional track because I wanted to boost my chances in my career switch from the private sector to the public sector, by adding a relevant organisation or institution to my CV. After much back-and-forth, I eventually spent the third semester working in the UK Civil Service as an EU Engagement Officer, where I worked with British embassies across the EU on their communications about Brexit to Member State press, stakeholders and citizens. It allowed me to travel to Brussels, Rome and Madrid and was a brilliant introduction to an EU-focused career in the UK Government. Bringing my Euroculture knowledge of EU institutions and politics to the role boosted my profile and opened doors for me within the Government. I now have a permanent job in the UK Government and I’ve moved between various Ministries and roles since then, so it was a very valuable ‘foot in the door’ as we say, and it definitely benefitted my employability.
EM: Was the internship hunt stressful and did you send out many applications before finding the internship? Do you have any tips and tricks to share on how to successfully land the right internship?
VST: I initially struggled to find internships that matched my interests and that would be sufficiently developmental. I had already completed a 6-month unpaid internship during my Bachelor’s and 4 years’ graduate-level work in London and Madrid, so I disliked the idea of doing anything unpaid or administrative. I can’t remember how many internships I applied to, but I recall that I procrastinated a little, while applying for the European Commission Bluebook traineeship and the UK Civil Service Fast Stream (who offer various entry routes). Having failed to organise an internship, I then switched to the research track in Mexico City, as there was luckily one spare space in my year, before I was then finally offered a role in the UK Civil Service. My tips for finding internships are: lean on Euroculture alumni and their organisations (the Facebook group regularly has internship adverts), get a mentor and ask them early on what relevant contacts or recommendations they have, ask a colleague or professional to review your CV and strengthen it, tailor your application to your target organisation and try to find out how to pass their individual application process, be resilient and don’t take rejection personally, and finally, be confident about your skills – don’t undersell yourself in applications or interviews.
EM: What were the main tasks assigned to you as an intern and how did the experience improve your skill set?
VST: As an intern, I was working with colleagues in UK embassies across EU Member States and in Brussels. I travelled to Italy, Spain and Belgium to deliver presentations, build relationships, learn about the local context in embassies, support engagements with stakeholders including the national press and UK citizens living in the EU. It was an ideal role to learn about the various forms that diplomacy can take, to engage with the main issues surrounding Brexit, and to learn about UK-EU relations and about how the EU institutions work with Member States. I shaped the role according to my interests too, spotting the kind of work I wanted to do and proactively requesting it, and I was fortunate to be given a lot of responsibility, and opportunities to represent my Ministry and learn from UK diplomats and Ambassadors.
EM: Do you think your third semester choice was a crucial step for your career?
VST: Definitely. Although I mourned missing the experience of a semester in Mexico City, accepting that role led me to a permanent contract. After 3 years I have been promoted, have led elements of the UK-EU trade negotiations, have worked on foreign and trade policy, have achieved my original goal of moving into the public sector and I have recently secured one of my dream jobs leading on EU Engagement. Before the Master’s, I really struggled to enter the Civil Service, possibly because my CV wasn’t that relevant to public sector. I believe that Euroculture gave me the headspace, confidence and focus to plan and execute the career switch into the public sector, as well as the EU-specific knowledge to excel in my current job.
EM: Is there anything you would like to add, especially connected to your current job? Any advice for current and future cohorts?
VST: A few top tips that helped me:
- Try to make your thesis topic relevant to future job interests, as you never know which doors it may open or which useful connections you’ll make. I had the chance to present my thesis research to several relevant Government departments who were connected to the topic, which helped build my network and also ensured my research was practically used outside of academia.
- Save yourself time by aligning your thesis to your earlier papers, as this will decrease the total amount of reading you have to do, compared to researching an entirely different topic for each paper. My advice is to invest time at the very start of the MA to shortlist fields or themes that interest you, that could become a common thread throughout the MA.
- Build a good relationship with lecturers and thesis supervisors, and form a good support network around you for the thesis, as it’s a really tough long process.
- Look out for extra opportunities and activities, such as the Groningen Honours College, which allowed me to take extra modules, meet students and lecturers outside of Euroculture, and design my own projects.
- Try to integrate with local students, to get the full experience.
- Document the experience in some way, as it will rush by in a whirlwind!
- If you’re interested in reading more about my Euroculture experience, you can read my blog posts about the Master’s here on my website
EM: Virgina, thank you very much for taking your time and giving us such insightful answers! We value your contribution and believe it will be useful for prospective and current Euroculture students!
Image Credits: Virginia Stuart-Taylor