Student spotlight details
Encouraged by her manager, and fellow MSc in Sustainable Urban Development alumnus, Neha decided to enrol on the MSc to further both her career and budding personal interests.
'My previous education focussed on strategic communications, and I had the opportunity to work in India for over five years in sectors with considerable focus on sustainability. First in wind energy, working to create a favourable policy environment for renewables; and later in the largest private sector bank in India focused on financial inclusion, a considerable challenge in a country as large as India with limited banking infrastructure.
'I later moved to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia and worked with a boutique urban planning and real estate firm called MAD Urban. I led their research department and had a steep learning curve into the world of urban development. As the only RICS accredited company in the country, we worked with both private and public sector on providing property valuations, market analysis and feasibility studies.
'My work in Mongolia was the biggest inspiration for me to pursue the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development. Not only is the capital city of Ulaanbaatar grappling with rapid influx and an exploding population, it is doing so within the frame of extreme weather conditions (it is the coldest capital city in the world), as well as significant and continuing social and economic challenges.
'I had the opportunity to work on ADB-led efforts to tackle infrastructure and affordable housing problems in the city. Over 60% of the city’s population lives in traditional felt tents, called ‘Gers’, in informal districts that surround the city. These districts, beset by unemployment and low-income levels, are not connected to even basic infrastructure, including heating, which means in long winters where temperatures drop past -40C, survival depends on coal-stoves, leading to extraordinary levels of pollution, and compounding an already complex challenge. In trying to support efficient and sustainable solutions, I realised the enormity of urban development issues, not only in Mongolia but across the world. I witnessed some of these very issues first-hand in my home city of Mumbai, in its ever-increasing slums and stressed infrastructure, all in a finite physical space.
'While I benefitted enormously from direct and practical experience, I was very aware of my lack of a robust academic foundation in the field. My then boss, Christopher de Gruben, recognised and channelled my enthusiasm and encouraged me to apply for this MSc. He was himself enrolled on the course and knew that it would provide me with the desired understanding and global context to further both my career and budding personal interests. Exactly like it did for him!
'The most challenging part of the MSc was the jet lag! Jokes apart, the course week, with 9 to 5 lectures followed by conferences and dinners, was of course hectic, and dedicating time to essay work and the dissertation while dealing with work commitments is certainly challenging. At the same time, I believe that the structure was very effective – it allowed me to continue work and live with my family, and at the same time study, learn new skills and get a taste of Oxford University life.
'The system of teaching here was very different to what I had previously experienced – interactive rather than prescriptive; it encourages you to debate and the professors are excellent facilitators. This led to stimulating inter-disciplinary conversations in class, opinions and experiences from professionals living and working in so many different sectors and parts of the world. I would think about our discussions for long after class. Against the global context, it made me think about the cities I grew up and worked in
differently, question things that were all around me, but never noticed. I love the way the course guides your focus to all of these different challenges in an urban environment, then leaves you to mull and ponder them, so that you can come to a – your own – informed opinion.
'I especially enjoyed the dissertation process, where I questioned what the meaning of urbanity is through the narratives of rural migrant labourers. The guidance from my tutor and supervisor gave me the confidence to approach the subject using an underused methodology of photo-voice. To me, it was a fitting end to the course, insights from a marginalized community adding to the teaching from academia and corporate professionals during the course.
'The end of the course coincided with me moving to Johannesburg, South Africa – yet another city to explore and understand! The African continent is rapidly urbanizing and there are so many different exciting developments and opportunities in the urban development field. I am currently working as a development consultant, exploring as many different avenues as possible to gain a better understanding and context of the country. I also plan on applying for a DPhil in Sustainable Urban Development this year, to continue research that I started with the MSc – on the lived experiences of marginalized communities living on the fringes of the city.
'If you are interested in how a city works, as a whole – through its people, infrastructure and finance – then this is the right course for you. The course approaches sustainability as a sum of its parts and not from a purely environmental or economic perspective. I feel enriched by the multi-dimensional and inter-disciplinary outlook of the course; the cities we live in are too big and complex to analyse in any other way.'