From Kenya to Scotland: my life as a master's student in Aberdeen

Irene doing the peace sign on each hand in a big grey hoodie in front of Dunnator Castle, Scotland. The Sky is blue and the castle is on a rocky hill in the background. There is yellow gorse on the rocky hill/crag on the right.

Irene at Dunnator Castle, Scotland.

Irene, from Kenya, is a 2021-22 GREAT scholar who recently completed her master’s in data science at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. She shares her love of Scotland's natural beauty, the support she's received, and how she finds peace when she's not studying.

‘I’m from the Luo tribe like Obama and Lupita’

I’m from the Great Lakes region in Kenya from the famous Luo tribe. As well as me, it gave us Obama who says ‘Yes we can’ and Lupita who says ‘Your dreams are valid’. I look up to them and am proud to be part of this community. Education was central to my upbringing and as the firstborn of five children, I promised myself, my siblings and my parents that I would study abroad. And ideally in the UK.

A group of GREAT scholars 2021-22 standing in front of the 'GREAT Scholarships' promotional banner that reads: 'The best possible you, made possible in the UK'

Irene and some other GREAT scholars at the GREAT scholar's event in London, 2022.

‘Getting the GREAT Scholarship showed my community that anything is possible'

The GREAT Scholarship was one of the six scholarships I applied for. I had been giving up hope, having just received a rejection from another scholarship, and when I found out that I’d been offered it, I wondered if it was real. Getting the GREAT Scholarship was not just for me but my whole community. When people heard that I was going to study in the UK, it suddenly seemed possible for other people. If I hadn’t received the GREAT Scholarship, I couldn’t have come to study in Scotland.

Autumn leaves at Robert Govdon University Campus. They are orange and and cover the green grass. The sky is blue and there is a university building on the left.

The Autumn leaves at Robert Gordon University campus.

‘Before I went to Scotland, I couldn’t wait to see the Harry Potter bridge’

My siblings and I are huge Harry Potter fans. We have watched the film so many times, and before I went to Scotland, I couldn’t wait to see the Glenfinnan Viaduct. Watching Harry Potter, among other British films, made me admire the British accent. What I did not know is how varied the accents are and the Glasgow accent was quite a challenge to get used to at the beginning.

‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing’

Since coming to Scotland, I have been taught that ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing’. I recommend just dressing for the weather from the start and not waiting for it to teach you how to dress for it. Having grown up where I did in Kenya and studying in the highlands near Mount Kenya, I was used to the cold. It’s not exactly the same here but it made it easier for me to adjust.

The Deeside Trail - the river is framed by trees as if it was some kind of oval portrait. The sun is strong, the sky is blue and the water is a vibrant kind of dark blue with some ripples on it.

'Before we knew it, we had covered more than 65 kilometres'

‘We started walking the trail and, before we knew it, we had covered more than 65 kilometres’

The Deeside Way, also known as the Royal Deeside Way, is just behind my flat and has been like heaven. The railway, which I later learnt was originally designed to go to Braemar, was only constructed to Ballater as Queen Victoria did not want tourists to disturb her privacy at Balmoral Castle. My friends and I walked half of the trail and back following the River Dee which sits just below the trail. It was an adventurous hike and we could see how beautiful Scotland is. Before we knew it, we had covered more than 65 kilometres. Recently, we had the honour of witnessing history in the making when we watched as Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin was carried through Duthie Park, where the trail begins.

Irene and her Indian friends huddled around for a photograph - they are inside and they all have paint on their faces.

Irene celebrating Holi with some of her Indian friends.

‘I have friends from every continent’

Aberdeen is so diverse. You can always find somewhere you belong. I’ve met people from all over the world including from all over Africa, Europe and South Asia. It’s also been interesting to meet students from different countries. Some of my Indian friends from Kerala have welcomed me to their events so I can learn more about their community. I celebrated Holi, the Indian festival of colours with them, where I met a wider Indian community in Aberdeen and learned more about some other Indian traditions too.

The sea with the white waves crashing over some rocks. Further out is deep blue and the sky is white.

'I go down to the beach once a week to watch the tides'

‘To find peace, I got to my favourite bench next to the River Dee’

One of my favourite spots is this bench at the end of the Old Deeside Trail. Anytime I miss home or feel like I need a break, I cycle down the trail and sit there to find the peace I need. It’s perfect. It’s right next to the River Dee. To one side, there is a picture-perfect road not too close, but close enough that I can hear the cars passing by, wondering who’s in them and where they are going. It’s like a representation of people going about doing their business and moving around. It’s far enough away for me to feel separate from it. And then on the other side, there is this beautiful green scenery. And a horse stable where I can watch the horses feed and graze. I love sitting there and watching the world go by. I also love the beaches here. I think I go down to the beach at least once a week just to watch the tides. The beauty of Scotland has just been so good for my mental health.

Irene's bike lying sideways beside the edge of a bench that she's sitting on. There is Scottish countryside on the right over a wall - it's very lush and green with a slight hill in the background and a grey sky.

'The beauty of Sctoland has been so good for my mental health'

‘There is a lot of mental health and wellbeing support available’

Mental health and wellbeing are taken seriously here and there is a lot of support available. In my second semester, when I felt like I could benefit from some help, I contacted the university counselling team and immediately told them what was going on. It can take a lot of courage and strength to ask for help, especially if you come from a background where mental health issues are not prioritised. The first time I reached out for support by email, I considered deleting the message I had sent. But I’m glad I didn’t. I didn’t feel any shame in asking for what I needed because everyone was so welcoming. It was really good for me to have someone to talk to at that time and my second semester ended up being my best one.

Irene at the GREAT scholar's event in London, 2022.

‘My supervisor was there for me every step of the way’

The academic staff here go the extra mile. When I was doing my thesis, my supervisor made sure that we met every week. He made it clear that he wasn’t doing my project but that he would be with me every step of the way. We planned things out step-by-step and the conversations that we had about it were so helpful. At some point, it felt like he stopped being just my supervisor or my lecturer, but he became my friend. He helped me to make my own academic decisions and made it clear that no matter how I chose to go forward with my project that he’d be there for me. I realised that I was proud of what I was doing but also proud that he was helping me to do it.

GREAT Scholarships event The Kia Oval, London 2022

Find out about the GREAT Scholarship

GREAT Scholarships offer students from 14 countries across the world the opportunity to have £10,000 of their tuition fees paid at a UK university for a one-year taught postgraduate course.

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