Near the start of semester two, many students begin to panic about what they are going to do after exams in May. The pressure of acquiring an internship has become excruciating as the competition for graduate jobs soar. For those just starting to think about their future career, the prospect of having to talk about oneself can be immensely challenging. You want to be able to demonstrate that you are a skilled, enthusiastic young professional, but you don’t want to sound pretentious in saying so. In that sense then, sitting down with Eilidh Robb, who graduated from the University of St Andrews in 2017, proved hugely insightful in how to pursue your passion and interests while also making ends meet.
I first came across Ms Robb in a BBC News interview from Poland. She had been campaigning at the COP24 United Nations climate summit in Katowice. Volunteering with the UK Youth Climate Coalition (UKYCC), she not only went out to Poland for two weeks, but also went to the preliminary intersessional negotiations in Bonn, Germany earlier in the year. Now speaking over Skype from Brussels in the first week of her new internship with the non-governmental organisation Food and Water Europe, she told me just how she ended up on TV.
The main target of her campaigning that fortnight was over alleged conflicts of interest at the UN conference. She said, “[conflict of interests] is the idea that at these talks, big fossil fuel lobby groups and promoters of investment in fossil fuel have a huge presence at these events. Not only in sponsoring and [helping to] fund them but also [holding] influence in swaying negotiations and most importantly slowing everything down. “Poland was a massive opportunity to highlight this, especially because the event itself was sponsored by one of the big Polish oil and gas companies. “Currently there are no guidelines on who can or cannot enter that negotiation space… At the actual COP they don’t discuss it so the biggest thing we can do there is raise awareness because that is where the sponsorship is most obvious.”
Her activism not only brought attention to the issue of conflict of interests but also attracted attention from the Polish authorities. “Ms. Robb said, “calling out this overt sponsorship is quite uncomfortable, and it is also quite a dangerous position to put yourself in. It all kind of linked together with this crackdown on protests and civil disobedience [by] being boxed as much as possible.
“What happened in the tobacco industry, at the WHO negotiations, they outright banned tobacco lobbyists from the discussion because they argued they had no right to contribute in health discussions when their interests were all in making money off tobacco. That is the same basis that we are pushing for the same with fossil fuels.”
While most of us would have been baffled at the idea of going from Wednesday night extravaganzas to making global headlines in six months, for Ms Robb it seems a natural part of the path she had taken in her years at St Andrews. After completing her degree in Geography, she said she wanted to “get involved in doing something with this knowledge that [she] had, [and she] felt it was really important to do something with that.” After all, she posed, “why do we spend four years for a degree and then not use that knowledge that we have?”
Speaking about what motivates her, Ms. Robb said she was privileged to be campaigning about climate change. “I don’t feel the pressing need to campaign against racism because it doesn’t happen to [me] personally. I’ve moved into the feminist work because that does happen to me. “But there are people campaigning on difficult and real social issues that haven’t personally affected me. So I’m quite lucky to campaign on something that arguably won’t be affecting me in the Global North first. This is a fight that should be led by those who are most impacted. But I think that’s why I do it because I recognise that it’s my government and my shared responsibility to fight for those in the Global South.
“It can be difficult and deflating to feel like you can actually make a tangible difference, but I think the seas are turning and people are starting to recognise that this actually affects everything. It affects feminism: climate change is inherently sexist, it impacts females the worst. It’s a race issue: if we can’t get up to speed on racism then we are going to really struggle when thousands of people are forced to leave their homes because of climate change. “I think the enormity of the issue is what makes exciting and worth doing, even though it’s hard.”
Yet despite her growing prominence in the activist world, this campaigner was made in North-East Fife. Outside of her modules and dissertation on how climate change movements could utilise the power of social media, the green film festival proved to be “empowering.” She said her proudest contribution was “organising [a] panel discussion on Brexit and the environmental impact that that would create,” finding it “a useful and interesting discussion and [intriguing] in researching all these influential people.” She notes, “We had an environmental lawyer, which is why I then went on to study environmental law, we had someone from the green party, someone who worked in the NGO world. “I found that balance of knowledge and opinions and contributions they could make to the discussion super interesting. It sums me up, I came from science and geography, then did the law for a bit, now fully in the campaign/activism world.”
Ms Robb had an uncanny ability to turn any activity she had taken part in and spin it into being a cornerstone of her work as an activist. In her four years with the hockey club, she said “that whole world taught me about being in a team, being a leader, making decisions, being confident enough to put yourself out there and get slapped in the face and lose really badly and just have to deal with that. “I think all those extracurriculars gave me the leadership I need, and the degree gave me the knowledge I needed to do this for the rest of your life.”
While many students end up having a productive list of extracurricular activities to demonstrate to employers, Ms Robb was quick to point out how her interest in climate change and activism was fostered in St Andrews, not just something that has come about after graduation. She said: “The nature of St Andrews of being surrounded by people who tend to be quite politically engaged and feel quite confident about certain issues, created a world of debate which made me feel comfortable pursuing something I was interested in and leading on that. “I was one of the only people in my friend group who cared about climate change and the environment. But because other people had other things that they were passionate and wanted to speak out about, I felt safe doing that in that space.
“[We have] tutorials where we debate and discuss openly, lecturers who are genuinely interesting and understand how to explain something crazily complicated and make it seem like an exciting and important thing that’s happening in the world. “It puts you in a world where open discussion and interesting conversation is happening all the time, and that carries over to your friends. “Also, because people come from all different places in the world, the international aspect brings different issues to light that previously you hadn’t spoken about.”
With this encouragement from friends and lecturers, Ms Robb’s activism initially was quite personal. A simple message on Facebook about going vegetarian for environmental reasons was part of a process of her becoming more engaged and involved in speaking out, whether that be through her dissertation or the green film festival.
Needless to say, Ms Robb stands testament to what can happen if you pursue your passions and interests, she paid homage to her lecturers “who didn’t make me feel crazy for wanting to do this as a passion and seriously pursue a career in fighting climate change. It was nice to know that they felt I could do it too.”
When asking her what advice she would give to people interested in activism, Ms Robb talked of the importance of caring, as it meant you had to do something about it: “We live in a world where it’s really easy to just put something in a box and put a lid on it because it’s difficult.” She also noted the importance of not being afraid to ask questions. “I spent my whole time in St Andrews asking the stupid questions that feel embarrassing, but help you learn and make sense of things that can be difficult or so unconnected to what’s actually happening. That’s what sparks debate and sparks conversation. “Normally questions mean you’re interested. If you spent the whole four years without asking any, then it’s going to be really hard to motivate yourself 9-5.”
With these pearls of wisdom, I asked her if I had missed anything, Ms Robb told me about a job offer she has lined up in Singapore. “I want people to know that the rumours of ‘oh you’ll never get a job, you’ll never make any money’ are a lie…It’s possible, people!”