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Jesse Smith

Jesse Smith, USA Fulbright Scholar

Jesse, a Fulbright scholar from Mississippi, came to Cardiff to study a master’s in Public Health and he’s doing some research with DECIPHer – a social science intervention evaluation centre – while he’s here.

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

Name: Jesse Smith
Home state: Mississippi, USA
Course: MPH Public Health

Tell us about how you obtained a Fulbright scholarship.

I actually applied just barely in time! I went to a Fulbright advisor at my University and asked if there was still time for me to do it and if he thought I’d be a good applicant, and he say yes. So I rounded up all of the materials including a couple of essays about my project and myself. Then I made contact with somebody in Cardiff who could vouch for me and I sent the package of recommendations and my letters on their way.

I heard back a few months later and was invited to interview and when I heard back after that, I honestly didn’t expect to get it at all! I got an email from two people at my university to congratulate me and I didn’t even realise why they were congratulating me at first, until I scrolled down to the bottom of the email and saw that I’d been offered the Fulbright scholarship.

Why did you choose Cardiff University?

I previously studied at Mississippi State University and did Biological Engineering, so this is a little bit of a shift. Part of the reason I did engineering was because I’m interested in a systems perspective and public health gives you a large scale systems perspective of health systems and the context of health outside of that system too.

The lab that I primarily worked in at undergraduate had previously collaborated with the School of Engineering in Cardiff, looking at concussion and head injury in football players. This got Cardiff on my radar and from there, I started looking at the Public Health programme and looking into what Cardiff’s strengths were. I emailed Dr Simon Moore, who ended up being my sponsor - he had previously had a colleague who had gone to the US from Italy through Fulbright and he had heard that it is an incredibly good programme and he decided he would be happy to host me.

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

The biggest difference is that my classes back home were in engineering and this is not!

When I first came to Cardiff, I was told to be prepared for a little more self-direction than I was used to back in the States and that’s the main difference between the US and UK institutions. I didn’t think it would be that much of a jump but it was definitely noticeable, with a lot more reading around the subject area rather than just in the subject area. It has taken a bit of getting used to but I’ve enjoyed it.

My classes are smaller than back in the US too. The MPH programme is not huge, with around about 40 people on the course compared with more like 300 when I started my undergraduate bioengineering programme. So previously, I was in an auditorium full of people as opposed to just a classroom for my lectures. A lot of the time, our lectures will be from people that have been brought in from industry or academia, often Public Health Wales, so it has been really nice to hear from people who are actually doing this as their job.

What are you enjoying most about studying at Cardiff University?

I’ve enjoyed the flexibility that I’ve been able to have, which says something about both the MPH course and DECIPHer, because in both of those places I’ve been able to make intellectual connections and there’s a lot of bouncing ideas back and forth which often ends up being something fruitful. It’s been very nice to have such an open academic environment where everyone shares ideas. I’ve really enjoyed being in DECIPHer - It’s a great place to meet like-minded students and it’s also a really good professional environment too.

"I’ve found Cardiff to be a very hospitable place."

Jesse Smith, USA, Fulbright Scholar in MPH Public Health

How easy did you find it to make friends here?

Coming to the UK, one of the first things I heard about Wales as a nation, was that people have a reputation for being friendlier than everywhere else which is interesting, because the South has the same reputation in the US and so it was a parallel for me. And I’ve definitely found this to be the case.

The first semester was a little bit difficult to get involved socially and a lot of that was to do with navigating other changes – academic changes and changes in living situation – but I’ve definitely found people to be very friendly both in my course (which is largely international), where I work and also just the people I meet. I love coffee and end up in coffee shops a lot and I’ve made several friends just through striking up conversation there. I’ve found Cardiff to be a very hospitable place.

I’ve got a little flat on my own near Bute Park. It was a little stressful coming here because I didn’t work everything out beforehand because I had been advised to lay eyes on where you’re going to live before signing up for it. So I waited until I got to Cardiff, but having that week or so of not really having a place was a little stressful, but also Cardiff is relatively easy to find somewhere to live. Compared to a lot of other cities, it is also relatively cheap and overall the experience of finding somewhere to live was good.

How has the University supported you during your time here?

It was a little bit difficult adjusting when I first came over here so I emailed the International Student Support team. They forwarded me to the counselling office to set up an appointment to check in, make sure things were going smoothly and to get advice on adjusting to a situation I hadn’t been in before. It was very easy to set something up and get support from Cardiff University which was nice to know. We also had a good induction day for our MPH programme, which explained what the programme was going to be like and they showed us around the hospital a bit - I still get lost in there!

I’ve also actually found the extenuating circumstances process to be very helpful when I was unwell and had issues with submitting an assignment late. Everybody encouraged me to submit an extenuating circumstances form and everyone was extremely helpful, making it a surprisingly good experience.

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

Before coming here, I had only passed through the UK on flights but now I’m hoping to explore the UK while I’m here, especially in the summer when I have some more time off.

So far, I’ve been to London a few times and we actually just had a Fulbright forum in Southampton which I really enjoyed. We got to see some of the sights there and go down to Portsmouth Harbour and see a lot of the naval history there. We even saw the Marie Rose which was awesome – it’s a 500-year-old war ship and I’d recommend seeing it!

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

I guess I would say that honestly, there are not that many major differences, but you can expect lots of little differences in culture that add up. It’s more the little things, for example being from the South, I love spicy food, and finding that here has been a struggle until I found Louisiana hot sauce in the international section of the supermarket. Now I keep that in my apartment and add it to almost everything! I’ve also found several good restaurants with great food now too.

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

For me, the most rewarding thing has been the balance between differences and similarities from my home state. I mentioned the comparison between the South and Wales earlier and it’s actually something that I’ve been thinking about a fair bit, because where stereotypically people are nicer, this is something that I’ve found to be true in both places.

Cardiff and Wales are also really pretty. Maybe not always the weather (which is another similarity to back home). It’s interesting because I can look at the weather that my parents are having back home and know that a few days later it will usually happen in Wales, but just a few degrees colder! But overall, there are a lot of rural places with a few urban pockets and it’s just naturally really beautiful and I’m really into all the green spaces being from somewhere that also has a lot of green space too.

What are you plans for the future?

My plans have changed quite a bit since I arrived here and since I applied to Fulbright too. My original plan was to go back home and do a medical degree and research degree programme, but now I’m leaning away from the medical side of things.

I’m probably going to go back and work for a couple of years to build up funds to do a PhD programme – I’m still navigating around data science and something involving complex systems engineering. I’d love something where I can combine a quantitative background from my bioengineering degree and all of the statistics that I’m doing here, with social change, which is a lot of what I’m getting out of the Public Health course.