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      Work/life experiences of Brookes’ academics

  • Emma's story

    Academia is the perfect job. It’s the only job where you’ve got an excuse to be constantly researching and looking up new things and trying to understand what’s changing in your field.

    Dr Emma Wragg is a Senior Lecturer and Researcher with the School of the Built Environment. She has been at Oxford Brookes University since her master’s degree in 2002.

  • Emma started her career as a solicitor. Her longstanding desire to go into law was inspired by her upbringing in Zambia and Swaziland. Growing up, she attended a school in Swaziland that was set up to challenge apartheid and so from a young age she had been surrounded by a focus on social justice. Thus, she moved to the UK in the 1980s to embark on a law degree, with the intention of becoming a Human Rights lawyer.

    When she graduated, she practised as a lawyer for ten years. First in London, where she met her husband, and then in Cyprus, where they had their first child. Emma thoroughly enjoyed the experience of getting to grips with the different practice environment in Cyprus and this learning through exposing oneself to difference is something that has driven her in her professional life:

    I think it’s fantastic if you do get an opportunity to go and experience a different work environment, different culture, and different ways to deal with some of the challenges.

    As her career progressed however, Emma ended up doing largely commercial work, which she says she really didn’t enjoy. So, in 2002, when she moved back to the UK with her husband and two young children, she took the opportunity to have a career break and joined Oxford Brookes University for her master’s degree in Development Planning. This career break turned into a whole new direction and Emma has been at Brookes ever since.
    Emma describes the master’s degree as a big turning point. Not only was it a significant career change, but the substance of what she learnt was also transformational. She says that until then she thought that she had a good sense of what was going on in Zambia in terms of development. However, the master’s degree actually opened her eyes to how little she knew:

    And then I got here and did the master’s and it really opened up a completely different way of seeing things.

    The master’s degree helped her to make sense of what she had observed growing up:

    Of course, it’s difficult not to notice the stark disparities between different neighbourhoods in the city, but I hadn’t connected the dots on what was behind this.

    She now seeks to use her position to continue to comprehend her early experiences, researching unplanned settlements in Zambia. Emma is committed to forging links between Zambia and the UK and she is currently in the process of developing a new programme at Brookes which aims to build networks with other universities in Southern Africa, including Zambia, where she feels there is a big opportunity for collaboration both in teaching and research.
    During the master’s degree, Emma’s attention was captured by the “very inspiring” Professor Roger Zetter, and she became fascinated with the areas that he taught around the political economy and development. He encouraged Emma to go on to study for a PhD and had astutely recommended to her that she would enjoy teaching. He was right:

    I find teaching really rewarding especially when you feel you have introduced someone to a new way of thinking and understanding what’s around them.

    Whilst neither of Emma’s parents went to university, they were “absolutely determined” one way or another that their three girls would go on to higher education. Therefore, she says that both her parents were extremely invested in her education and provided a very supportive environment for her growing up.

    Now that Emma is a parent herself, she has experienced the juggling act of managing a family alongside her career. This first presented itself when she was working on her PhD, which was a learning curve in terms of time management:

    I think you learn every hour is very precious.

    However, this was a beneficial experience for her children who were lucky enough to spend a whole year in Zambia while Emma did her fieldwork: “they had a fantastic time!”. Emma also had a strong family network in Zambia who helped out with looking after the children during this year and equally, this meant that the children got to spend time with family members that they otherwise do not see regularly.
    For Emma, academia is

    The perfect job. It’s the only job where you’ve got an excuse to be constantly researching and looking up new things and trying to understand what’s changing in your field.

    Try to make sure that what you teach and your research interests dovetail as far as possible.