Doing what you love
While still a student of History at the University of Leicester, Barbara Wickham, British Council's new Country Director, was approached by social services to teach Ugandan refugee communities English. What started as a fortuitous experience grew into a lifelong passion in education.
"The women in these communities needed to know where to shop, how to make orders," recalls Barbara about her days working with South Asian women who were restricted to their houses by the language barrier. When asked how she communicated with the women, she explains that the children who attended the local schools and could speak the language fluently took care of the interpreting at first.
From there, Barbara decided to obtain a teaching degree and went on to become an English Language instructor, teaching in schools all over the globe, from Egypt to China, for over a decade. She's been traveling since then and became involved with The British Council in 1989.
On the subject of living and working away from home, Barbara muses, "I'm a poor traveller, but a great liver." She explains that when traveling one can only appreciate the beauty of the place, but living in new countries for an extended period of time allows her to get to know the people and the culture, her favourite part of her job.
When asked about the downsides of such a dynamic work life and whether it gets easier with time, she shares, "Relocating doesn't get easier, it actually gets harder with time. At some point, which thankfully I haven't reached yet, you need to put down some roots." Her love for her work becomes vividly apparent in the spirited way she talks about it.
Something that really interested me was probably her graduate degree in Applied Linguistics, something at least I wasn't well acquainted with. Barbara recounts how she decided to get her Masters to give herself a professional backing to the already vast wealth of experience she had in the field of education. She also shares how she owes a lot to the advice her father-in-law gave her at that time. "You're the only person who's going to invest in yourself," he'd told her. After 10 years of working, going back to university was a challenge, but it was what something Barbara had to do, for her work, for herself.
As the Country Director, a lot of the work Barbara handles is with the Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, and primary and tertiary education institutions, in policymaking and the dissemination of education. This is perhaps a side of The British Council we often overlook - its inner agenda of improving educational policies in countries like Bangladesh.
The most pleasant surprise for me during the interview with Barbara Wickham was finding out that The British Council Dhaka has won the staff award two years in a row for excellence in Cultural Relations out of the 110 branches all over the world. The British Council is known for its dedication to customer satisfaction and regularly employs the help of a mystery shopping company to test and better its services.
Throughout the interview, something Barbara continuously stressed is that you have to be passionate about whatever it is you do. In her words, "There should be a thread connecting the things you do," but she adds that having worked in this region for a number of years, she understands the cultural and familial pressures are different for young people here. She strongly believes that self-reflection and introspection are the keys to a fulfilling career, and this leaves me with the profound impression that perhaps it's more important to do what you love, instead of forcing yourself to love what you do.