Joanna Stillwell Dissertation Prize Winner

Each year we offer the Joanna Stillwell Prize recognising an outstanding undergraduate dissertation project in the field of population geographies. This year we received 11 fantastic dissertations which demonstrated how undergraduates are pushing new boundaries in the field and showcased excellent work using a variety of research methods. Recognising this we shared the Prize between two winners, our first blog highlighting their work will look at Samantha Siu’s work on the importance of symbolic capital in international student mobilities between Hong Kong and the UK.

My name is Samantha and I am a recent BA Geography graduate from University College London (UCL). Throughout my degree, I have developed a keen interest in international student mobilities (ISM). During my first year at UCL, I was intrigued and inspired by the module ‘Global Events’. The module not only unpacked the geographical specificities of events-inspired migration, but it also highlighted ISM’s intra- and interdisciplinary nature by delving into the interrelationships between education, migration, (geo)politics, and more. As a Hongkonger studying at a British university, I then became more eager to consider how globally significant events and British colonial legacies have shaped and will continue to shape ISM flows between Hong Kong and the UK. Therefore, I was motivated to centre my dissertation around ISM from Hong Kong to the UK as the topic interests me on both academic and personal levels.

In particular, I chose to focus on the role of symbolic capital—the distinction gained through cultural recognition—in ISM and its links with geographies, histories, and (geo)politics as they are under-investigated in extant geographical scholarship. Drawing on original data collected via in-depth interviews, my dissertation aims to ground symbolic capital through uncovering its histories and politics to examine how such capital informs the trajectories of Hong Kong students at British universities—from their decision-making and lived experiences to post-study (im)mobilities. My research reveals that distinction-making within ISM is a context-specific, spatio-temporal process involving multiscalar actors and carrying socio-political connotations. On the one hand, the impacts of the historical relationship between the UK and Hong Kong/China (continue to) shape contemporary ISM flows from Hong Kong to the UK. On the other hand, Hong Kong students’ mobility decision-making is conditioned by the extrinsic influences of agents facilitating and enabling ISM as well as students’ intrinsic concerns and parental desires. Finally, my dissertation points to three timely, (geo)political challenges to students’ (re)production and deployment of symbolic capital: the recent politicisation of Hong Kong’s higher education; racial discrimination in the UK; and online learning during COVID-19.

Working on this dissertation has definitely honed my critical thinking, analytical, and research skills. These skills, I believe, would be really useful as I embark on my Management Trainee journey in Hong Kong’s charity sector.


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