Shannen sitting atop a ledge, with the River Thames and the London Bridge as the backdrop

Tell us about yourself — what’s your story and what are you studying?  

I have been working in the peacebuilding sector since 2016. I started with the Australian Embassy in the Philippines where I worked as the Program Officer for Peace and Stability. Our team manages the Australian Government support for peacebuilding in conflict-affected areas in Mindanao, implemented by various non-government and multilateral organisations.  

Because of work, I had the opportunity to travel and visit places in Mindanao and meet inspirational peacebuilders in Bangsamoro. These experiences deepen my love and passion for peacebuilding beyond my job description. I knew that this is the career path that I want to take, but I also knew that to achieve this dream, I would need to enhance my skills and further my knowledge in the field.

A week before the November 2020 deadline, I decided to apply for the Chevening Awards. As I was choosing universities, my former boss suggested that I check the MA Peace and Conflict Studies programme at the University of Manchester. While I may have a lot of field experience, I recognised that I lacked the theoretical background to support my work.

I was able to get in and the programme was perfect. It allowed me to learn various concepts and theories of peacebuilding, not only inside a classroom but also through guided research visits to actors involved in the work in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I also had the opportunity to take other modules from different Master's programmes such as humanitarian response and reconstruction and development. This supported my immediate career goal of working in an international or a local non-government organisation, enabling me to learn innovative methods of peacebuilding in a global setting, for future application in my own country.

Why did you choose the UK as a study destination?  

My previous supervisor and those I have previously worked with have always told me that if I ever decide to take up a Master's degree, I should definitely consider the UK because of the diversity of peace and conflict programmes offered by various universities. It also helped that there are more specialised programs available for peacebuilding compared to others and that those in my network that I respect most have also undertaken postgraduate studies in the UK. I also wanted world-class teaching, extensive access to resources, and the diverse communities that the UK has to offer.

What does it mean and how does it feel being given the opportunity to study in the UK under the prestigious Chevening Awards?  

It still feels surreal that I was chosen for Chevening! The opportunity to study in the UK through the Chevening Scholarship enabled me to tap into the latest global peace, conflict, and development best practice, research, and experience. It also provided an opportunity to engage with people from different cultural contexts and expose me to unfamiliar environments, invaluable for personal growth as well as professional development. 

Through Chevening, I was able to meet the most amazing people coming from different parts of the Philippines who are all passionate about making a change in their respective fields. There were at least 64,000 applicants from over 140 countries worldwide, and only 1,638 (2.54%) were selected to be part of the 2021/22 cohort, 34 of which are from the Philippines. I think we are the biggest Filipino cohort so far! 

Coming from a very humble background, I would never have been able to study in the UK without Chevening. This scholarship has opened a new chapter not just in my chosen career but in my life in general.  

Various conflicts have been happening around the world today. What lessons or concepts in your studies do you think people should know so these conflicts end in peace?  

I came to the UK intending to go beyond my experience, share what I know about the peace and conflict situation in the Philippines and learn from different countries about theirs. The road to peace is not as smooth and easy as it seems. The signing of peace agreements is only one path and does not guarantee an end to the conflict. To find a long-lasting solution to the decades-long conflict in any country, there is a need to first address the root causes of the conflict. It is crucial that peacebuilding interventions are context-specific, inclusive and sensitive, and not just be based on international peacebuilding blueprints. Peacebuilding requires strong commitment, not just from the government and the conflicting group, but as well as the citizens of the country. 

What has been the most exciting part of your experience studying in the UK?  

There are a lot but I can name the top three experiences that came to mind. First is meeting people from various countries with diverse backgrounds. I was lucky to have met some of the most amazing people! My flatmates Sebastian, Rupam, Akshay, and Anna were my home away from home, my support system, which has been invaluable especially since it was my first time living away from my family and in a foreign country. We had theme dinners every month where we learn about each other's cultures, as well as some of our other friends whom we invited to our flat. I also had the chance to go around pubs and travel with my friends around the UK. We visited Scotland, London, Liverpool, Chester, Leeds, York, Wales, and Oxford.

Aside from travelling, I was also able to conduct a field visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of our Master's programme. It was just a week but it felt really nice to be back in the field and learn about what was happening on the ground. My classmates and I were given a chance to meet various interlocutors from the government, non-government and multilateral organisations working in building peace and stability in the country. Aside from that, the experience of immersing ourselves in the culture and the locals in the cities of Sarajevo and Mostar was truly unforgettable. 

Lastly, studying in the UK taught me to believe in myself. This was my first time living away from my family and outside the Philippines. Although I was pretty independent, living in a new country is a different experience. Most of the things were new to me so I had to adjust to how life is in the UK-- not just academically but socially as well. I feel like I am growing in all directions, making the experience enriching and enjoyable. 

What are your career plans when you return to the country and how would you engender UK and Philippine relations in your line of work?  

My immediate plan after graduation is to put to use the new skills and knowledge I have acquired to support peacebuilding work in conflict-affected areas in the Philippines. Thus far in my career, I have worked with donors which fund implementing organisations to deliver peacebuilding programs. In the immediate future, I would like to transition to program implementation, through work in an I/NGO, delivering post-conflict programs in Mindanao. In the medium term, I would like to explore working in a multilateral organisation, to do more socio-economic development work in conflict-affected areas, not just in the Philippines but in other countries as well. 

My long-term goal is to become an international consultant specialising in peace, conflict, and development. I would like to provide quality advice on the design of peacebuilding programs, review and evaluate ongoing programs, and provide strategic policy advice to government, donors and various development actors. I would also like to mentor future Filipino peacebuilders, sharing what I have learned and encouraging them to take the next step to advance their careers. Encouraging more Filipinos to work on peace and conflict would greatly increase our capacity in developing and implementing programs and generate greater impact for communities affected by conflict. 

What advice would you give to Filipinos who aspire to pursue a postgraduate degree in the UK?  

First, never underestimate yourself. I remember how my former boss pushed me to apply for Chevening in 2018, but I was always unsure because I thought I was not ready and that I would compete with other highly qualified applicants. Nonetheless, I pursued, got shortlisted, and have been living in the UK for almost a year now.

Second, do not fear living abroad. I know that it is very daunting to live alone in a foreign country. I felt the same way at first but realised that there is nothing to fear. I came to Manchester not knowing anyone. After some time, I eventually met friends and what was once unfamiliar is now my second home. If I was able to do it, for sure you can do it too! 

Lastly, be ready to take risks. I had my hesitations to pursue my studies because of the pandemic and because I feared leaving my stable job. But I am also a person who likes to take risks and challenge probabilities. I considered my journey to the UK as a leap into the unknown, and it was the best decision that I have ever made. I think I would have regretted it if I did not pursue this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It changed my life for the best and I know it will change other Filipinos’ lives too!

A group of people gathered around a dining table, all-smiles
Shannen's flatmates Sebastian from Ecuador, Rupam and Akshay from India, and Anna from China were her "home-away-from-home, a support system." This is the author's first time living in a foreign country away from her family. ©

Shannen Enriquez

A group of people wearing winter clothes posing against the backdrop of an overly-exposed stadium

Shannen Enriquez

A wintry group photo