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Emma Watkins

Emma, a Fulbright Scholar from New Jersey, graduated from Princeton University in 2018 before deciding to pursue her masters here in Cardiff University.

We interviewed Emma recently to find out about her experience at Cardiff University so far. Here is her story:

Name: Emma Watkins
Home state: New Jersey, USA
Course: MA Welsh and Celtic Studies

Why did you choose Cardiff University?

I had visited Wales before because my Dad’s side of the family is Welsh and my grandmother lives in Fishguard. I also came to Wales for my senior thesis at undergraduate level, when I wrote a play that was focused on the Welsh Medieval text known as the Mabinogi.

So I came over to do two months of research, to visit all of the sights that are mentioned in the Mabinogi, to hear as many story-telling and music performances as I could and to learn all about it. It was really exciting, because these stories are part of my family story and our bed-time stories growing up, so I’ve heard them my whole life. But to be here and be studying them is so exciting and completely changes the context of the way I’ve looked at them before.

What’s so exciting about the programme is how incredible the faculty who are working here are and the way they’ve been able to tailor it to fit the things that I’m hoping to study. It has been exceptional and they’ve been so generous! I was also really interested in seeing Cardiff and learning more about the Welsh theatre scene and Welsh story-telling scene.

Tell us about how you obtained a Fulbright/Marshall scholarship.

With a lot of essays! But seriously, I began planning my project in the summer before my senior year and I knew that I was really interested in the oral traditions and the story-telling that happens here in the UK. I was looking at different programmes that facilitate different perspectives on these.

I learned about Cardiff’s programme in Welsh and Celtic Studies because the primary text that I’d been using for my play about the Mabinogion was Sioned Davies’ translation and I thought okay, so I can work with Sioned Davies at Cardiff University as she teaches there.

I was already interested in her work and in her translation of the text, so I wrote to her and a couple of other people I knew based in Cardiff and asked if this was a project I could pursue here and they were all eager and thought it would work out.

So I then applied to Fulbright and wrote an application where you talk about what you’re hoping to achieve and why you want to do it. For me, it was based on the family connection and learning about a place that I’d only spent a week in, despite introducing myself as a Welsh-American. So learning about this piece that has always been a part of my identity.

Then there was an interview over Skype – they were wonderful and lovely, but you know, interviews are always terrifying and high-pressured. Then I found out the result in spring time and began making plans for coming over to Wales.

It wasn’t really until I landed in London for the Fulbright orientation that I understood more about what the Fulbright organisation actually is. It sort of felt like a very big institution at first, but what I soon realised was that it is actually just this incredible network of friends and academics who are interested in a lot of different areas and very eager to take as much advantage of their time in the UK as they can.

Tell us about your course. How is it different to classes back home?

Gosh, it’s so different! I did an English Literature undergrad at Princeton, so my focus was much more theatre-based and much more English-literature focused. It was an undergrad in a liberal arts school, so it was much broader than the things that I’m studying here.

The incredible thing about this course is that I’ve really been able to zero-in on a topic that excites me – the name of my specialist module is 'reinventing the Mabinogi' and Sioned and I have developed such a fun relationship talking back and forth about different things that interest us.

It’s all about adaptations of the Mabinogi and translations in performances, issues of gender and landscape, and the romanticisation of myth and folklore. Right now, we are turning the focus more towards contemporary story-telling.

So for the next semester, I’ll be interviewing and working with story-tellers to find out how they are re-imagining the Mabinogi in the contemporary world. I’m asking questions around why we turn back to medieval text and why do we have texts from the medieval ages that are somehow still relevant to contemporary audiences? So it’s looking at the act of translating the medieval to the modern stage. That’s what my course has been so far!

My individual programme has meetings with the rest of the people studying the MA course, which are all held in Welsh. So I listen to those over simultaneous translation, because although I’m enrolled in a Welsh class, I’m very much a beginner and can’t keep up with academic Welsh.

So that’s been very different as I’ve never really experienced a Welsh language classroom before and it’s been really exciting. Most of my research has been in one-to-one meetings with Sioned Davies, which is a very different structure than anything I’ve done in the States.

We meet one-to-one for two hours every week and we talk about all the things that we are interested in and all the texts that we’ve been covering, and then she sends me home every week with a stack of books. Overall, it’s structurally very different here and the relationship that I’ve been creating with Sioned is very close and dynamic and I’ve got to know her in a way that I never got to know my tutors back home in the States and that you can’t do in a larger classroom.

What are you enjoying most about studying at Cardiff University?

I’m enjoying all of the things that I’ve mentioned, particularly the way that my course has been very tailored-made to what I’m interested in. They’ve been really welcoming and eager to incorporate me. We even had a dinner at Christmas which was really fun!

The other exciting thing about studying here is studying the subject in context and studying in a place where the Welsh language is really celebrated and there’s a lot of emphasis on speaking it in the classroom and in theatre performances, which is what I’m here to study. So I love being able to walk out my front door and go to a bilingual theatre production or a story-telling performance of the Mabinogi in Welsh and in English. There are a lot of really exciting things that I can study and experience here in context.

I’m also really enjoying the accessibility of the Languages For All programme offered at the University, in my case, helping me to learn Welsh. It’s incredible that we can learn these languages free and without paying any extra for tuition. My house mate is even learning Arabic and I think it’s really special to have the option of this language training at Cardiff University.

How easy did you find it to make friends here?

The first couple of weeks you’re just trying to get situated, learn how things work, open a bank account and stuff like that. I’m still trying to meet new people and it’s an ongoing process, but I think that the arts, especially the music programme, has been really welcoming and my house mates are wonderful and my course mates are lovely to spend time with as well!

The best friends that I’ve made have been my house mates. I’m in University housing in a house with other international postgrads and they’re amazing and I love them a lot! It wasn’t something that I expected, because I lived in mostly dormitory housing at university in the States where you’re just in your own room in a hall.

Whereas here, we all cook together and every Saturday night we have a pot-luck dinner – we’ve had a saffron drink from Iran and a pasta dish from Italy. We even celebrated Chinese New Year with amazing home-made dumplings and there’s just been a lot of really exciting ways to enjoy fostering those relationships.

I also joined the Cardiff University Chamber Choir and that’s been a really lovely way to meet people. A friend of mine even brought me to a Jazz Society night with the music club which was really fun.

How has the University supported you during your time here?

Well so far, I’ve primarily had contact with my own department, but in general, people have been really welcoming. At the very beginning of the year, I went to the International Student Support team at the Students’ Union to talk through some logistical things for setting up life here, like opening a bank account.

There was a wonderful girl there called Megan, who came over to me straight away and introduced herself. She said 'I heard your accent – I’m also from the States' and it turns out she had done her undergrad here and it was so nice to have a friendly face at this time.

During a time that’s a bit disorienting and you’re kind of feeling overwhelmed, to have people there in person offering face-to-face advice to sort through all of the logistics was really great and Cardiff was very eager to help out which I really appreciated.

I’ve also really enjoyed the international student dinners which have allowed us to network with other people here who are not necessarily from the UK. There’s even something coming up at the Rotary Club that Cardiff Uni has connected us with and so it’s an opportunity to meet and talk about our course.

Have you explored much of Wales and the rest of the UK while you’re studying here?

Yes! I’ve been to London because there’s lots of really interesting theatre happening there. My experience is primarily Cardiff-based, but I’m also trying to get a sense of the cultural scene elsewhere in the UK as well while I’m here, since it’s accessible in a way that it’s never been before and may never be again.

So I’ve been to see a couple of theatre shows in London just to see what’s out there and I also briefly had the opportunity to go up to Edinburgh and see the Scottish Story-Telling Centre there. So I’m just trying to see how Cardiff fits into the larger geography of the UK especially in terms of its arts scene. I got a railcard and I’ve just been exploring. I did a hiking trip up in the Lake District and I’ve done a lot of exploring in Snowdonia and of course I’ve been to see my grandmother in Pembrokeshire.

What advice would you give to prospective students from the US?

I’d advise you to feel able to reach out to professors and to be willing to accept help, because I think that when coming here as a grad student, you kind of feel like you’ve done this all before, but actually it’s a new system and being able to take advantage of the resources on offer has been really helpful for me.

The other major thing for me, in terms of building community, has been cooking with people and being the person who organises outings and organises cooking events in your house or a communal space. This has been the best way for me to make friends and meet people.

Why would you advise other Fulbright scholars to come to Cardiff?

As a whole, the University has been exceptionally welcoming and very eager to make us feel included in the broader community of the School, which has been really nice for the transition.

Coming to Cardiff is exciting because you’re exposed to the language too. You can be here and speak English every day, but I think that having the Welsh cultural element and being exposed to the language, music, culture and stories of the country is something that you might not have access to elsewhere.

So in Cardiff, you get all of that – the immersion in culture that is so exciting and so different to what we have in the States. It is something that definitely sets Cardiff apart from a lot of the other UK universities and I feel like I’ve been really able to expose myself to something new which has been so exciting!

What are you plans for the future?

As I mentioned before, I wrote a play back in the States based on the Mabinogi and one of my major goals in coming to Wales was to put it into the hands of a Welsh team and see it with Welsh actresses on its feet. So I’ve been talking with a Cardiff producing team and in the short-term future, the plan is to get that on its feet and to see a reading of my play and maybe even go beyond that and into a stage production.

After that, I’m planning to probably go back to the States next year to work in a literary and dramaturgical role in a theatre. I think eventually, I would like to pursue a PhD either in dramaturgy or performance studies, building off this understanding of Welsh and Celtic performance traditions but then being able to apply it across a much broader scope in my PhD.