Questions for current students: Ashleigh Irvine-Smith

Ashleigh is a student

Name: Ashleigh Irvine-Smith
Studies + academic year: PPE, 2nd year


When you were younger, what did you want to become?
I grew up in a very medical household – both my father and grandfather are specialist veterinary surgeons, and my mom is a paediatric nurse. Of course, when you are so young you always want to follow in the footsteps of your parents. My fascination with my dad’s profession and my love of animals meant that for a very long time, my entire childhood to be precise, I wanted to become a vet and then specialise in surgery, as my father did. I cannot remember the exact moment that this changed – because of course, PPE is very different from veterinary science!

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When I was in high school, I became more involved with working with underprivileged children through my sport. This was something that came to be very close to my heart and really exposed me to social injustices and how policies at the national level often have little to no effect in their implementation at a local level. Of course, this was simply my observation in certain areas within South Africa, but it really sparked my interest in social phenomena and injustices, and I began to search for study areas that could leap me to working in understanding social movements of groups, how groups are affected by and react to national policies, and how inequality develops despite perseverance of policies against this, specifically in Africa.

Regarding what you just told me, why did you choose this bachelor’s programme?
As I began to explore my interests, I came across the PPE programme at Utrecht University. Everything I read – from the set up of the programme, the values of the PPE community, as well as student testimonials all felt that it fit so perfectly with what I saw myself studying and the environment I wished to surround myself with to make the most out of my years as a student and carry this forward.

What was your impression of the bachelor’s programme before you started? What did you expect from the people you would meet there? Was your impression correct?
To be honest, I was unsure of what to expect from the programme on a practical level. Coming from South Africa I really had no way of knowing the set up of the study programme in the Netherlands, but I remember thinking that there would be many opportunities for discussion, debate, and a high expectation for academic theory application. I expected that I would be interacting with interesting and motivated people that had different perspectives and insights to offer.

I think that my impression has, for the most part, been correct. The students of PPE all have something so interesting and worthwhile to offer and this has been so beneficial for my academic career thus far. In addition, I have been pleasantly surprised with student-teacher interactions where we are treated with respect and our opinions valued and given weight too.

Additionally, the teaching staff are all incredible in terms of what they have to offer and their own careers. This has provided a lot of insight and inspiration for my post-bachelors plans.

What were you least excited about regarding the bachelor’s programme? Did it turn out to be better than expected, or not?
At first, what did not seem very exciting to me was the amount of group work, because in high school I was very accustomed to working independently and I prided myself on my own work ethic and determination, and the standard that I held my work too. I was worried that I would not be able to work well in a group. I was therefore apprehensive about this and wanted to make sure I could work on it. However, group work has become such an integral part of my PPE experience and I have really been so amazed at the increased value that group work has given to my work.

Imagine sitting on the couch on a Sunday evening, thinking about the week ahead of you, what are you looking forward to most?

My favourite part of my week are the seminars. This is where we get to engage in the literature, interact with one another and the teachers and really gain as much as possible from the topics that we cover. These classes are always so interesting and insightful and the conversations that we have really open my mind to so many new ways of thinking. I really enjoy this aspect.

What is also great about this year is the fact that we are able to have events again with our student association, Metis. This has made us all closer as PPE students and really helped to get through harder study weeks because there is more to look forward to, at least compared to last year!

At what point did you realize you chose the right programme? What was the Eureka moment for you? Could you try to describe this moment?
Wow, this is a difficult question because I feel like there have been multiple moments like this for me! Sometimes it is in the discussions we have about literature and how excited this makes me about the topics I am passionate about, and other times it is listening to teachers’ lecture and absorbing their knowledge. This is often awe-inspiring, and I often catch myself thinking “wow, how lucky am I that I get to study this and learn from such people?”

Overall, I think that I am continually reminded of the feeling that I have chosen the right programme and this is, of course, very exciting and reassuring.

Did you ever regret your decision for this programme? Why?
No, I have never regretted my decision!

What do you want to become after you graduate? Where/ at what company?
That still feels so far away – so I have not given too much thought to the specifics of it! But I would love to continue studying after this before starting to work. It would be amazing to combine my love of science with my passion for social inequities and working with people. Therefore, I think that I will hopefully end up working in some kind of public health institution at a grass roots level.

Selin Dilli is one of the PPE-Board members

Selin is a teacher

“Why do some societies prosper, achieve high welfare, while others do not? What makes some societies more resilient than others? The unique feature of PPE at Utrecht is to approach these questions from a historical lens."

"History provides a crucial perspective on contemporary challenges both to understand their origins and to explain why and when change (better or worse) takes place. For instance, industrialization brought not only prosperity but also environmental challenges. A historical lens also highlights that we should not take progress as given and the past is full of reversals as a result of our decisions."

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"In my research, I study these themes with a focus on global gender inequalities and their implications for long-term economic development of societies in the twentieth century.

Being trained as a sociologist and historian, I combine social science theories and quantitative methods with a historical analysis. This is what students can expect to learn in our interdisciplinary PPE programme at Utrecht too: they gain the knowledge and skills to work on global challenges such as climate change, poverty, disasters, and gender inequality combining four disciplines of PPE.

As the lecturer, I enjoy the most having debates with students on different interpretations and explanations of contemporary challenges and as a result, why one-size-fit-all solutions would fail in addressing these problems. PPE is a great environment for lively debates as it brings very smart and passionate students from all around the world with different perspectives and inspiring teachers from different backgrounds and expertise on societal challenges. This is what makes me very passionate and enthusiastic about the PPE programme.”

Ekaterina R. Rashkova is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and a PPE Programme Board Member

Ekaterina R. Rashkova, universitair docent Politicologie en bestuurslid van het PPE-programma

"In my view, to study political and economic institutions from a PPE perspective is fascinating, as it makes you deal with real world problems, from gender inequality and democratization to security, terrorist attacks, and the environment from many different, yet interconnected ways."

"In trying to understand pressing issues, political scientists aim to come up with an understanding of the real world, which would provide a fitting, short and long-term policy. Take for example the French elections. Both the presidential and the parliamentary races were won by the newly established political party En Marche. This and the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s decision to exit Europe illustrate that voters around the globe are demanding change."

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"What this change entails and how it will develop are questions that political science tries to find answers to. It does that by investigating issues at a detailed level (for example, in a specific country) and by comparing them to similar or contrasting cases (for example, other countries). In this way, political scientists strive to predict which solutions will (and will not) be most suitable and effective under a certain set of circumstances in order to help governments to come up with solid policies.

As assistant professor in the PPE programme, I look forward to passing on my knowledge and inspiring students. You could say that my teaching is quite interactive: I like to ask my students many questions, start discussions about current world issues and create a setting for debate. One of the most important questions I always tell my students to focus on is why? I want to teach my students that it is not enough to have a strong opinion about how something works; you also have to be able to explain, or try to find out, why it is so. In my classes, I often organise role plays or simulation games (‘imagine you are the prime minister…’) and create scenarios based on real world cases to get my students to think about creative ways to respond to developments in today’s world. 

By bringing together four fields of studies that contribute towards understanding the role of political and economic institutions, our PPE programme offers a true toolset for future policymakers – for people who want to make a difference in this world. That’s why we look for inspiring young people who are passionate about change. And they all have their own unique story, helping us to build a diverse community in which you not only expand your own horizons, but also broaden others’ horizons as well."

Julia Swart is an Assistant Professor of Economics and a PPE Programme Board Member

Julia Swart, universitair docent Economie en bestuurslid van het PPE-programma

"How can we make optimum choices, given the constraints that we face? I’m studying this question especially from an environmental perspective. For example, consider the excessive emission of greenhouse gases, which are known for their harmful effect on this planet."

"How can we continue to produce and consume while limiting this harmful effect? As an economist, I try to find an answer to this question by investigating several aspects of the problem. What, for example, are the economic variables (industrial output, agricultural output, international trade…) which affect the level of greenhouse gases emitted? After analysing the theories behind the economic variables linked to emissions, I use data analysis to measure the magnitude of their effects."

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"Knowing all determinants of greenhouse gas emissions and their relative importance helps us to make a well-founded decision on the best way to reduce these emissions.

As a lecturer, I’m surrounded by talented students that have a very broad economic interest. They really want to broaden their horizon and connect their knowledge of economics with insights from other fields of studies. For this type of student, our PPE programme is perfect. You will not only learn about the four study tracks that we offer, but we will also teach you how to connect these strands.

I’m really looking forward to meeting students with wide interests; students that are conscious of today’s world and eager to engage with its most pressing problems. Together with these students, I aim to come up with workable solutions to global issues in order to improve the quality of life around the world. 

Although I will definitely be there to help my students immerse themselves in complex cases, I will also encourage them to figure things out on their own. So, I will provide input and raise questions, but I will also be quiet sometimes and give them space to develop their own arguments. I have no doubt that they will surprise me. In fact, I think that teaching the minds of the future will always inspire me."

Sayema is a third year student

Sayema is a student

“During my school years, I developed a passion for global and social issues leading me to pursue global politics and economics in high school. My academic knowledge deepened my desire to contribute to societal issues."

"I participated in various activities ranging from volunteering at UNICEF, delegating in Model UN conferences, to pioneering a TEDx event in my school. A combination of both my academic and extracurricular pursuits enabled me to realize that I want to work in the nongovernmental/development sector in the future, working towards resolving various social issues through policymaking, project design, and project implementation."

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"Development issues are often complex, multifaceted issues that cannot be understood or tackled using a monodisciplinary approach. This understanding drove me to pursue an interdisciplinary programme like PPE which enabled me to critically analyze complex global and social problems through various lenses. I was also impressed with the small-intensive structure of the programme as it would allow me to have more meaningful interactions with my professors and fellow students and establish a strong sense of community where I could grow and prosper. Additionally, I was curious to study with a diverse group of students who will allow me to nurture differing perspectives and look beyond my own values and beliefs.

Throughout my entire journey in PPE, I knew I was in the right programme. Regardless of any challenge I have faced, I have never questioned the choice of my study because I have been always passionate about everything that I was learning. If I have to specify one moment at which I knew this programme was the right fit for me, it would definitely be during my capstone project wherein I independently wrote 8000 words interdisciplinary paper on the research question, ‘What are the humanitarian effects of U.S sanctions on civilian populations of target states, and what do these effects mean for the justifiability of economic sanctions?’ This enabled me to witness my growth and learning trajectory in the programme. I was able to independently conduct interdisciplinary research that exhibited the culmination of skills and knowledge I had acquired throughout the programme.”

Stefan is a second year student

Stefan is a student

"In contrast to all other children in my elementary school, I always dreamt of being a waiter in a famous restaurant. However, throughout the years I grew a passion for a multitude of academic disciplines. In high school, I became so fond of the subject history, that I was even seriously considering studying the subject and teaching it."

"That’s when I came across the beautiful study of PPE. The combination of new perspectives on global problems and advanced knowledge on a wider range of disciplines, attracted me towards the programme. I experienced a hard time trying to decide which direction I really wanted to follow. Luckily, just like many of my fellow PPE students, I was glad to be offered a broader interdisciplinary specialization."

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"Moreover, I was always interested in getting to know more about philosophy, as my high school did not provide the subject.

I expected the courses to be rather difficult, as the selection process could be considered intense. Although the programme can definitely not be called easy, the students selected are highly motivated, ambitious, and strive for good academic results. Through hard work and peer review, I believe that once you get through the selection rounds, you can pass all/most courses.

My initial expectations of the community as a whole would entail a large variety of individuals, with different norms and values. These expectations appeared to be true, resulting in a supporting and inclusive community, in which people with completely different backgrounds can open up and engage in interesting conversations.

Even before the start of the course, I met up with some fellow first year students. This spontaneous meet up, already foreshadowed a great year. However, it was not until I took the varied courses of the first block that I realized how much I love the programme. The first two courses discuss a broad range of political, economic, and historical subjects. This wide range of topics resulted in interesting seminar debates. This reassured me that I made the right choice, which was further reinforced by the ethics course in block two. Unlike high school, we discussed different ethical theories in detail, with very creative and extreme examples.

Lastly, I love the campus. The old buildings are beautiful and there is plenty of grass fields to sit on. They even placed hammocks!"

Rutger Claassen is the founding director of the PPE Programme

Rutger Claassen, hoogleraar Ethiek en politieke filosofie

"The way I see it, PPE is a fascinating combination of different scientific approaches. While our lecturers come from a variety of backgrounds, all of us believe that complex societal issues deserve a well-advised solution. Also, we feel that the best solutions can only be achieved by approaching the underlying problem through various lenses.

"In our programme, we focus on political and economic issues. And when trying to tackle these issues, we combine all the knowledge we have about philosophy, politics, economics and history. Take the 2008 financial crisis. If you want to understand this problem and shape a solution, you first need to know how the economy actually works."

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"Second, economic issues often have a strong political background, as political actors aim to make decisions that are economically feasible. Third, you need to research how economic crises develop – what can we learn from previous causes?

History will help you find answers to this. Finally, philosophy, my own field of study, teaches us all about the values and principles we use to judge economic developments and issues, which makes you aware of the way you approach this issue. So you see how these four disciplines all have their own functions, and how they also reinforce each other when trying to solve this specific issue. There are still plenty of societal puzzles waiting to be pieced together by critical, highly analytical thinkers!"

The PPE programme wants to educate students who are vastly engaged with society. We expect our students to delve into the real-life challenges facing the globe, such as climate change and crises in democracy, and to do so independently. Teaching students how to tackle such complex issues requires me to get out of my comfort zone and to design a learning environment in which teachers and students inspire each other. I expect this will create a research community that provides all participants — including me — with an exciting variety of perspectives!"