Matthew Harrison: 12 to Watch, five years on

BSc Physics with International Study, 2015

To celebrate the occasion of the University’s 300,000th graduate in 2015, we invited students to nominate for their symbolic 300,000th alumnus. Due to the volume and quality of nominations, we chose an additional 11 students to form our 12 alumni to watch. Matt was one of those 12, and five years on we caught up with him to see what he’s been up too.

After graduating in 2015 from my Physics with International Study degree, I had only one goal: to return to Toulouse, France, where I had spent my year abroad, and live there full time. I had fallen in love with the Pink City and was determined to make a life there. As it happens, that took me from teaching English as a foreign language (the foot-in-the-door of many an Anglophone expat), to working full-time in a popular British pub (again perhaps, a stereotypical expat’s lot), to balancing my working hours with the requirements of a new degree that I started in September 2017. I also spent time every September welcoming and helping new Erasmus students from Birmingham with some of the more confounding aspects of French bureaucracy. 

My second degree in Applied Foreign Languages with Chinese eventually, last autumn, took me on another year abroad, this time to Chongqing in southwest China. I can’t emphasise enough how scary, fascinating, educational and exciting this move was, although it was certainly made less scary and more exciting by a mutual friend from UoB putting me in touch with another alumnus working over there. He and his girlfriend, who also did her Erasmus in Toulouse, both welcomed me into their expat friendship group with open arms! 

matthew harrison

Living in a city with an urban population of 18 million, standing out very visibly in every situation and getting used to a very different way of life, I very quickly began to feel the same as I had in France: that I desperately wanted to find any way possible to extend my time there and deepen my understanding of Chinese culture. Unfortunately, the opposite happened. In mid-February, I boarded one of the last available flights out of Chongqing to return to the UK to my parents’ home. While I feel very lucky to have had such a safety net which allowed me to continue working on my degree via online classes, I do somewhat regret leaving, especially after my friends in China were able to return to their lives, travels and fun nights out fairly quickly. However, I'm thrilled to have been offered a position teaching English at the same university I studied at in China, so if all goes to plan I will be returning next spring to pick my life back up over there! 

My proudest achievement since graduating is more of a collection of small achievements, which together have brought me to a place I am very proud to be. Moving abroad under my own steam, integrating into the local way of life, finding a job I loved and getting new responsibilities all in French (which I now speak as well as a native!), AND making the decision to start a new degree about which I'm thoroughly enthusiastic and gave me the opportunity to move to the other side of the world where I thrived in an environment that forced me to push the boundaries of my comfort zone in every direction. Through all of this I've grown enormously as a person, building on the foundation of independence and responsibility which I developed at UoB, to the point that now I can't imagine a challenge too great for me. 

We Are (Third Width)

At the risk of sounding unoriginal, my biggest challenge has been the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Not only suddenly uprooting my life in China, but also the difficulties in continuing my degree with a seven-hour time difference (imagine oral exams in Chinese at 1, 3, and 6 o'clock in the morning). All this while having to reconsider my path forward, which I had originally based on a summer internship in China with a path to a job. Nevertheless, I like to think I've risen to the challenge so far, achieving grades that I'm very pleased with and successfully completing my second degree.  

matt harrison travelling in chinamatt harrison chinese lanterns


You can read Matt’s original ‘12 to Watch’ story here, and find out where some of his fellow symbolic graduates are now in Old Joe magazine.

Key words from Matt

“Frankly, I've always more been one to give rather than take advice. I often struggle to take even my own advice. What I will say is that almost every time I've avoided following the advice I've given to other people, I've regretted it. Sometimes it takes looking at a situation from the outside to get a more objective perspective. I've learned that when I'm struggling to make a decision, I think instead about how I might counsel my friend, brother or colleague in a similar position has really helped. And of course, by all means, do better than me and actually ask those around you for their perspective! Other people are an inexhaustible source of wisdom.”