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Brenda Cullen, Executive Director, The Undergraduate Awards

The idea is to identify those outstanding students from all over the world, welcome them to Ireland and try to connect them with each other to spark new ideas and conversations.
December 20 2017
5 Min Read

In 2008, The Undergraduate Awards was founded to highlight the value of undergraduate coursework in Irish universities. Today, UA receives submissions from students in 48 countries, and each November, a selection of global winners are brought to Dublin to celebrate their research.

UA Executive Director Brenda Cullen spoke with The PIE News about the importance of connecting students across geographical boundaries and disciplines.


The PIE: The Undergraduate Awards’ Global Summit recently took place in Dublin. Can you tell me more about it?

Brenda Cullen: It’s a three-day event which recognises exceptional undergraduate work on a global scale.

Essentially, The Undergraduate Awards assembles panels of academic judges from all over the world to assess the work and through a rigorous process, these judges identify top undergraduate students across 25 different categories.

We gather approximately 150 of awarded students to Dublin for a Global Summit, partly to recognise their achievements but more importantly to ensure they not only know their worth but also know their responsibility. We engage them in issues of global society at a day-long Colloquium, which follows a day called UPresent, where they present their winning papers in three minutes or less.

The purpose of the Summit is to connect people across various disciplines, make them aware of different issues in our global society and address them.

“At a time when ‘fake news’ is such a buzz word, these awards are hugely important for encouraging the next generation to engage in dialogue and narrative collectively”

The PIE: How did The Undergraduate Awards begin?

BC: It began in 2008 in Dublin, Ireland, where we are still based this day. The founders, two young Irish graduates, went to the Irish Department of Education and explained that when an undergraduate student gets to their final year of study, that’s when they suddenly realise they absolutely love what they are doing – a light goes on so to speak.

It is when students get really passionate about their subject and begin to produce some really good material. But the problem is that many exceptional students, particularly those with first-class degrees, study for years then disappear into the ether, never to be heard from again.

Of course, some students go on to postgraduate studies, but many others just move on to something else and that ‘spark’ and connection with their subject is lost.

So the idea of The Undergraduate Awards was conceived; to identify those outstanding students from all over the world, welcome them to Ireland and try to connect them with each other to spark new ideas and conversations.

The PIE: What are the benefits of having students from various disciplines coming together in Dublin for the Summit?

BC: Well if you have a student studying law, and they are listening to the presentation of a renaissance literature student or someone from the sciences, it allows them to listen and learn across various subjects and address issues that are important.

Also, the Winners and Highly Commended Entrants of UA are very passionate people. Most are first class honor students in their universities and as a result of these awards, their work is being benchmarked globally, which is massively important to Millennials.

The PIE: How are the winners chosen?

BC: We identify all of the excellent work through a panel of judges from all over the world, across 25 different disciplines which mimic the university disciplines. Whether it’s medicine, law, English literature or environmental science, we have judging panels for each.

But because of the huge number of submissions we receive – this year we had 6,500 – we need 345 judges worldwide across various disciplines, which is a very complex task in itself. Nobody knows who is winning as the papers are all anonymous; the names of the universities aren’t even on the paper.

All ‘Highly Commended Entrants’ and ‘Winners’ receive a certificate of recognition, either at the UA Global Summit or in the post, no matter where in the world they are based. ‘Global Winners’ then also receive a gold medal.

The PIE: Tell me more about the program of events over the three days of the Summit.

BC: It’s a unique three-day event where we bring together students from around the world to celebrate their achievements, present their work and take part in discussions geared towards inter-disciplinary collaboration. It takes place every November in some of the most beautiful venues in the city of Dublin.

The first night is the welcome evening, and this year it took place in the historical Smock Alley Theatre. It is the first opportunity for the students to get to know each other. We use the catchphrase ‘know your worth, now know your responsibility’ to encourage students to think and talk about global issues. We also host a panel discussion with the judges who took part in the process this year who talk about the work they evaluated and meet the students whose work they selected.

The second day is for the students to understand the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue across disciplines, across cultures and geographical boundaries. We get a network going, with the aim of keeping them connected with the UA Alumni Network.

The final day then is a totally different dynamic: The Colloquium, which takes place in Farmleigh House, Phoenix Park – the official guest residence of the Irish President.

We invite some excellent keynote speakers, which this year included an opening from Irish Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor. After listening to the speakers, the students break out into discussion groups and debate and deliberate topics across certain themes.

Some themes are a bit controversial, but the idea is to challenge the students. It’s about getting students to engage with campaigners, activists, the intersection of art and science, robotics, social skills and gender issues.

“I want to make it truly global, we want submissions from the best students in as many universities as possible”

Finally, the students are presented with their awards and medals in a venue in the city later that night at a black-tie event.

The PIE: What’s your vision for the future of the Awards?

BC: My job is to get those 6,500 submissions from 300 universities in 48 countries, but I want to make the awards truly global. We don’t want to get to a stage of receiving 20,000 submissions, but we want submissions from the best students in as many universities as possible.

Currently, the submissions are spread far and wide – we get students entering from as far away as Australia, Singapore and Vietnam.

We want to make the Awards even more diverse going forward so that students from all over the world have a chance to connect and share their award-winning work.

The PIE: Why do you think the Awards have such a global appeal?

BC: It is a fair process in which the undergraduate research is evaluated. It’s free to submit a paper, which has been written and graded already, and the students are in with a chance to visit Dublin to see as a potential place to study, for holidays or business. Students feel really welcome here.

Also at a time when ‘fake news’ is such a buzz word, we think these awards are hugely important for encouraging the next generation to engage in dialogue and narrative collectively.

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