Portrait of Natascha allen smith

Natascha Allen-Smith

Please tell us a bit about yourself, your background etc?

This year I’ll be studying crime in colonial southern Asia, Georgian reactions to war, and nationalism and loyalism in pre-revolutionary America. I am also interning with the School of History, helping to research and promote opportunities for students looking for a history-related career and organising relevant events. It’s a great way to give back to the School and to my course mates. 

What made you want to apply to your course and to Leeds?

The History course at Leeds was immediately attractive because of the sheer range of modules, with many focusing on regions I had never studied before, like India, Afghanistan and the Caribbean. The department is huge, which means you get taught by a great variety of teachers and in slightly differing styles. There are also a staggering number of clubs and societies to try out or join, some of which have become the highlights of my university experience.

What is it that makes you passionate about History?

I think it’s truly fascinating to discover how people lived, loved, thought, looked and acted in different places at different times, because they are at once so like and so unlike us. I love how much there is to discover – you can dive into any place in any era and find compelling stories. Studying history also gives you the ability to look more broadly across the sweep of human history and identify the recurring trends, the moments of greatest change, and the parallels across time. I also enjoy  the fact that we can learn about these events from words written down centuries or millennia ago by people who witnessed them themselves. 

Which History modules have you particularly enjoyed studying, and why?

I particularly loved studying India from around 1600 to 1857 last year. The module was taught in such a way that we saw both the wider changes experienced by the subcontinent as it moved from Mughal Empire to fragmented states to growing East India Company rule,  and also the knock-on effects of these changes on particular groups and communities. I additionally relished the opportunity to study a geographical region that hadn’t been covered back in school.

Please tell us a bit about the FOAR2000 module and what you gained from taking the module.

FOAR2000 is a research placement module in which you choose a project to undertake, in a small group, across the whole academic year. It allows you to form links with individuals, groups and institutions in the city, whether these be a branch of university research, a gypsy community, or individual suffragettes. My teammate and I worked with the Leeds Central Library to uncover a barely-touched collection about chimney sweeps that was sitting in boxes in their storage rooms. With the help of a tutor and some dedicated library staff, we made links with other Leeds institutions to piece together more of the collection, and used our best finds to create a public exhibition that ran for a month.
More than any normal module, it allowed us to shape what we created – for instance, we made recordings of local school children reading the words of child chimney sweeps to add an audio element to our exhibition. I never thought I would spend nine hours of my time at university painting a cardboard chimney while listening to ABBA, but that’s how it turned out. These off-campus activities and links with local institutions also add diversity to student CVs, and I hope to use them in future job applications. A surprising highlight was an interview with BBC Radio Leeds to promote the exhibition.

Which Discovery Modules have you studied, and how do you feel they have enhanced your time in Leeds? 

I would highly recommend taking Discovery Modules – they provide a refreshing contrast and let your brain apply itself in new ways, and there are an enormous variety. I took one in Creative Writing in my first year, and have used the School of Languages to keep my French ticking over during both years. These modules offer not just language practice but the chance to improve specific skills, like writing job applications and CVs in French. This year, I’m taking beginners’ Spanish, and am looking forward to branching out in a new direction as my History studies become more specialised. Taking Discovery Modules every year has allowed me to meet people from outside my degree.

What would you say about the library and study facilities at the University?

I fell slightly in love with the Brotherton Library on my first Open Day, thanks to its stunning circular reading room. Architecture aside, the number of books and documents available to History students is outstanding – you can find books in dozens of languages, from personal diaries to parliamentary records to multi-volume encyclopaedias. I’ll definitely miss having easy access after graduation. This year, I’m excited to explore the primary documents held by Special Collections, which has a huge assortment of hand-written letters, diaries and more.
If you like to work on campus, there are three main libraries and dozens of computer suites, as well as more informal workplaces and cafes. The Department of History itself also has two large and comfy foyers - and you receive a lot of free cake if you hang around often enough.

Please tell us more about your summer placement in France.

Leeds has a very strong network of study abroad options, which was one of the things that initially attracted me to the University. However, after intense reflection, I realised I would rather have a shorter experience instead of a whole year at another institution.. For the whole of July, I took part in a summer course at the University of Lorraine, attending classes and workshops on weekdays and rehearsing a short French play. The weekends provided a brilliant way to explore the country and interact with the culture we were studying: there were group trips to Normandy, Brittany, Paris and Strasbourg, whose Franco-German charm left me smitten. I made firm friends from Hong Kong, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Brazil, Spain and Japan, so a lot of cross-cultural learning and laughing went on. I left with head teeming with memories, improved French, a hatred of the Metro system and a hunger for Brazilian desserts which, sadly, has been difficult to satisfy in northern England. It’s an experience I would wholeheartedly recommend for anyone wrestling with the idea of a whole year abroad. 

What activities have you been involved in outside of your course and what have you got out of being involved? 

Back in my second ever week in Leeds, I went to a ‘Give It A Go’ session with Opera Society and found one of the most welcoming, international and fun-loving groups I’ve ever met. Through this society, I have met many wonderful friends, performed on stage in four operas, and been to countless socials. For workaholics, being forced to put your readings away and do a few hours of silly warm-up games and singing is a useful stress-reliever, too.
The School of History also has its own triannual magazine, the History Student Times, for which I’ve written several articles. As there is only one issue published per semester, it’s easy to get involved without compromising your studies, and it lets you dip briefly into subjects that interest you but are unrelated to your modules. I even got some sub-editing experience in Second Year. 

Finally, this year I am taking on a weekly volunteering role at the Discovery Centre, a museum storage facility, where I take small groups around and tell them the stories behind Zulu spears, meteorite fragments, 1920s vacuum cleaners, mammoth teeth and other items from its million-strong collection. It’s fascinating for me, and I’m hoping it will prove useful work experience for the future. 

Do you have any comments about the support you receive from the School of History? 

It can seem like you become just a number in a colossal database when you start university, but the School of History has a many-layered support network to counter any personal or academic problems. There are regular Peer Mentoring sessions for First Years, members of staff specifically appointed to handle problems, and personal tutors with whom you meet at least once a term. My personal tutor, Alex, provided absolutely outstanding support – and tissues – when I was trying to make my decision whether to study abroad or not, and another tutor personally invited me to come and talk about it with her, which was extremely touching. The School also hosts multiple events, including academic talks and employability networking events, which are open to all. 

What do you plan to do once you’ve finished your course, and how do you think the skills and knowledge you’ve developed at Leeds will help with these plans?

I hope to go into museum work after university It was actually the aforementioned module that made me realise that this career path would suit me – working with members of staff at the Central Library and Discovery Centre showed me first-hand how varied the work is, and how many diverse projects you can be involved in. Obviously, the broad base of historical knowledge built up in First Year, combined with the specialisation of Third Year, should provide a useful background to most museum work. More specifically, writing for the History Student Times and designing and marketing an exhibition have equipped me with experience in sharing knowledge and presenting historical documents and artefacts in a way that attracts and interests the general public, which would come in useful in the field. 

What would you say to anyone thinking of applying to your course?

When deciding on a course of study, there is often a niggling worry that a non-industry-specific course won’t get you a job or provide you with truly useful skills. I still get anxious about this sometimes, but when I stop and think about it, it’s a pretty amazing privilege to be allowed to spend three years of my life discovering more about the things that fascinate me most. Choosing a university course is a momentous and very expensive decision, but if you love investigating the past and want to study under academics who will nurture that curiosity, meet and debate with hundreds of people who share your interests, and select from an enormous range of regions, focuses and eras, then History at Leeds is a brilliant choice. It’s a course which will develop a wide variety of skills, and which you can really shape to your own interests.