Actively compassionate - Kenneth Umeh, IBS’s Student Support Manager has been working as part of the Centre for Student Services since August 2016.
Where do you come from and what did you study?
I’m from London in the United Kingdom, and I studied and worked there until a few months ago. I have an undergraduate degree in African Studies and History from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature, also from SOAS. A few years ago I did a second Master’s degree in Social Justice and Education at the Institute of Education, University College London. Education like that is an adventure, I’m interested in a lot of different things and all the topics I studied I am really passionate about.
I also heard you speaking in Hungarian…
Yes, I speak a little Hungarian, as my wife is from Hungary. We met in London at UCL where we were both studying. It is very important to me that I learn and improve my Hungarian. I am attending classes here at IBS and I’m really enjoying them!
Could you speak a bit about your social justice studies? Do you use your knowledge of this field in your work?
The study itself is a form of social science exploring the existing structural challenges that people face in contemporary societies, through a range of sociological and philosophical perspectives. These challenges include race, class, gender, sexuality, and socio-economic inequalities. It’s within these structures and challenges that the promise of education offers something explicit for everyone, like a qualification, a job, ultimately, a better future.
The title of my thesis paper was ‘Is there a space for Radical Compassion in Higher Education?’ I understand the term ‘compassion’ to be more than just an emotion. It is a feeling and an action in the same instant. This is what I try to do daily in my job. This is why I am here at IBS, to support people in an active way and my answer to the question of the title of my paper is always, always, always, yes.
You are rather experienced in this field.
Yes, I have quite a lot of experience in this field. I have been working in education at different institutions for the last 10 years. First, in a further education college which was primarily for 16-18 year olds. Then I moved on to higher education, and I worked in two different universities in London helping students with personal or academic problems. These problems which reflect the daily contemporary struggles of live in modern society, struggles that we all face. I tried to help students achieve their goals of getting a degree, and also in their personal development and challenges beyond university life.
What kind of problems did you meet in your job?
Students turned to me with a whole range of issues. It could be their own motivation, their individual struggles, self-confidence. There are also more personal issues, like homelessness, domestic violence, abuse, pregnancy, all sorts of social problems, issues with parents, boyfriends, girlfriends, issues around their sexual identity, disability-related problems, financial problems, wanting to leave university, wanting to study something else, parental pressure to study a certain degree – a whole range of issues.
In what ways can you help them?
I think the most important thing with students is listening to them and building trust. A lot of the time people are looking for someone to listen to them, to hear their story in order to recognise that they are not alone. Once they feel they can trust you, the situation evolves into a space where we can work together to manage or solve the problem. Some problems can be resolved simply, some problems can be resolved with external counselling or other forms of professional help which I was able to draw on in my work in the past.
The key concept is listening to students and helping them to have better relationship with their studies, to increase their academic potential, to help them to grow. We all grow, and students are young adults in an exciting time of their life. Attending university is an experience where you are learning about your own responsibility, but you should be able to learn that there are people in the world who care about you, who treat you as an individual, valuable adult person. So it is all about listening, caring and compassion. It is important that IBS becomes a community where people are there for each other, where we care about each other.
I am reading a book now, it’s called Hope in the Dark. Untold Stories by Rebecca Solnit. It is about how people come together in difficult times, build connections and bring love to each other’s life. This book reaffirms my belief that there is always hope and what we do matters, especially in times of uncertainty. It is perfectly in line with my job where I try to explore, connect, and reach out to people. I believe in togetherness.
You are also very close to students age-wise, which means they can relate to you on different levels. You probably have similar interests and go out to places where they go out to. Have you had the chance to explore Budapest; do you have any favourite places?
My relationship with Budapest is evolving and I am enjoying the new adventures each day brings. We’ve been living here since August but I’ve been here many times in the past four years with my wife. My favourite places are Kisüzem, Kőleves and Masolit, and I really like anywhere which has jazz music. The parks are also lovely. I am vegetarian and I’ve found nice places to eat such as Napos Oldal and Napfényes Étterem. Of course, I’m looking to explore and discover more places and if students are there, that’s cool with me!
Can you tell the biggest success or challenge in your experience as a student advisor?
There have been so many. One that comes to mind is the case of a young student. She had just started at university and she felt she was being bullied. She wanted to leave the university. We had a couple of conversations via email but it was hard to get her to open up and start talking. Finally, I managed to convince her that we should meet and talk in person but she did not want to come to the campus. So I suggested to meet off-campus and she finally agreed to that. When we met she told me she really wanted to do well in her degree as she wanted to become a lawyer, but it was hard for her to attend classes because her classmates were bullying her. I said the most important thing was to focus on her own goals, on what she wanted to achieve. We could of course find her another group. But I felt it was important for her to find a way to work this out, to either ignore her classmates or work with them. It’s a shame that you are thinking about giving up your dream because of other people! So somehow, I was able to convince her that she should continue. She did and of course, she finished her degree with a fantastic result.
This is a simple but typical story of a young adult dealing with the challenges of people in a new social environment, then meeting a challenge and overcoming it. In that process she realized that she has her own power, her own resilience and confidence. To see her as a first year student and then watch her grow, ultimately finishing her degree was a great feeling. I was very proud of her.
Is it only students who can approach you? If a teacher is worried about a student can they contact you as well?
Yes, I would like to hear from everybody about anything. If a tutor is concerned about a student I absolutely encourage them to get in touch. Some have already done so. A collective sense of caring and sharing is important to have. It is so essential for student wellbeing.
It must be a very difficult to deal with a lot of emotions in your job.
Well, dealing with people’s lives and emotions is difficult at times. I really want to be there for people and I believe that you can only give your attention and support to others if you look after yourself first. I look after myself by doing things I enjoy, like playing sports, eating healthy, reading great books and spending a lot of time with people I love.
But getting back to my work and students, the nature of my work is emotional and emotions manifest themselves in very different ways. For me, being exposed to these emotions is not a burden. It’s an opportunity to connect with someone, and to act with compassion. It’s a privilege. I want everyone to know that if you are struggling and think no-one would be interested in hearing about your problem, I am the person who will listen.
You can get in touch with Kenneth by the following means:
Office hours: Room O114/B Administration Building
- Monday to Thursday: 11-12 and 1-3pm
- Friday: 11 to 12pm