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From a challenging start in education to creative PhD work during Covid-19 – An’s journey with WELS

Picture of An Nyugen with the OU logo and the heading An's journey

When An Nguyen began her PhD with the School of Languages and Applied Linguistics in the Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS), she envisioned global field work to complete her research on English Medium Instruction (EMI). But then the Covid-19 pandemic happened and she found herself grounded. She tells us about the creative ways she’s navigated the issue, and the very personal experience behind her subject choice.  

A testing start to learning

My main motivation for doing a PhD is the strong personal interest I have in exploring how students learn languages. I’m from Vietnam, and about 10 years ago I had the privilege of coming to the UK to study. Back then, not many students in my home town had the chance to learn English properly because they didn’t have access to materials and resources written in English. After the war, Vietnam was politically isolated and economically sanctioned, so access to English as a global language was severely limited. I had to work hard to find the materials I needed to learn English. Now it’s different – with all the globalisation and economic cooperation between Vietnam and other countries, there is a huge demand for English education, not only as a second language but also as a medium for teaching and learning other subjects. 

Uncovering the barriers others may face

The use of English as a medium for learning – English Medium Instruction – in regions where it is not the first language particularly interests me. My research asks: does EMI really work, and does it offer the same opportunities for everyone? For example, in some non-English speaking societies is the accessing of English resources exclusive to wealthier people from a higher social class? Does this mean that students who don’t have access to English resources have fewer educational options and get left behind? And if students can’t learn English properly, can they still gain the knowledge they need to study their chosen subject?

Finding the right funding

I approached the OU because I knew it had a strong reputation for research and innovation in my areas of interest, such as education-policy evaluation and language-education studies. The main reason I decided to go ahead here was because I received such a positive response to the first email I sent to my potential supervisor Dr Prithvi Shrestha, explaining what I wanted to do. Then, when I was invited to an interview and met the whole panel, plus other members of the Faculty, I felt the OU would be a vibrant and positive environment for me to be a part of – and I was right! I was lucky to be offered a full studentship – a grant that covers tuition fees and pays money towards living costs. For social science and humanities subjects, especially on my topic, it’s not easy to get funding to do such projects so I really appreciate the opportunity. 

Becoming part of a wider discussion

Career-wise, I wanted to get further in academia, and doing my PhD at the OU has helped me do that. It’s taught me how to conduct research, introduced me to wider academic communities and helped me engage with important current debates around my topic, such as language planning and policy. The most satisfying part of my PhD work so far is being able to share my research with a wider community of researchers – not just internally within the OU, but also externally at large conferences. I’ve been taken aback by how interested other academics have been in what I’m doing, and I’ve learnt so much from what they’ve had to say. These opportunities have helped to drive forward my research and enabled me to improve both as an early career researcher and as a person.

Undertaking (online) field work

There have been challenges. The early months were hard because I had to conduct all of my research online as a result of the pandemic. I had wanted to do my field work and collect data in person, but the OU helped me to think creatively and flexibly – the backbone of my whole PhD. Instead, I’ve been collecting data remotely, from a Vietnamese EMI university that offers both EMI and non-EMI programmes for the same subject – International Business – to compare results from students who study in English and students who study in Vietnamese. I wasn’t the only student who had to change my plans, and I was able to share my experiences with lots of others who were facing similar problems. My Faculty was quick to organise lots of conferences and seminars to help us get together and learn from each other on how to cope with the implications of the pandemic. I really appreciate how well they responded to what happened. 

Discovering a like-minded community

My supervisors have become my mentors and advisors, not only for my research but also my professional career planning, so I really value everything they do. I also relish the opportunities I’ve had to present my work at student-led seminars, and there are lots of international events for PhD students to take part in. I enjoy the ‘walk and talk’ sessions, where my tutor and fellow students walk through campus and talk about our work and lives. There’s always something going on. To anyone who is thinking of doing their PhD at the OU I would say don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Whenever I was unsure, I asked for help from the wider community and there was always someone there to support me. Share your thoughts and talk about your work – there will be people here who are interested in what you’re doing.

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