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Why these Commonwealth students think Northern Ireland is a great place to live and study

A special lunch welcoming students and staff to Ulster University could become an annual event and be widened to include Commonwealth people from all walks of life who have settled in the province. Stephanie Bell reports

A leading Northern Ireland academic wants an annual event to celebrate the contribution made by people from Commonwealth countries to the province. Professor Alistair Adair, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Ulster University, floated the idea after students and staff from 53 countries were treated to a 'big lunch' at the university.

Some 130 students and 30 members of staff were entertained with music and poetry from around the Commonwealth and guests included the Lord Mayor of Belfast and the Lord Lieutenant.

A relaxed affair, it has proved such a success that the university is now planning to make it a regular feature on its annual calendar.

Professor Adair said: "The event was a wonderful celebration of the absolutely amazing diversity and culture the Commonwealth students and staff bring and share with us in Northern Ireland.

"The focus was on bringing students and staff together and that was fascinating as institutions tend to work on their own like little groups and it was the first time they were all brought together and at the end it was lovely when we were asked if we would do it again."

A Commonwealth student exchange programme at the university also allows students from here to experience life in other countries.

Professor Adair said he would like to see the event repeated on a larger scale and perhaps hosted at City Hall.

"It would be nice to try and increase the exposure of it and invite Commonwealth people from across Northern Ireland to come and join in this celebration," he added.

"These people are real assets and bring great warmth and richness to our society and we are building relationships here which cross generations."

Director of NIBEC Jim McLaughlin said the university had links with two world-renowned universities in India and Pakistan going back 20 years.

He said: "We have world class students coming in which helps us with our publishing outputs and raises our profile.

"Many of the students go on to be lecturers throughout the world and that's how we end up collaborating with other universities."

We talked to some of the students about why they chose to study in Belfast and what they think of Northern Ireland.

Srinivasu Puttaswamy (35) is a Post-doctoral Researcher at the Connected Health Innovation Centre. He is from Bangalore in India and has been in Northern Ireland nine months.

He said: "I did my PHD in Taiwan in biomedical engineering and worked as a Research Fellow in Singapore for a couple of years. I applied to come to the University of Ulster to the Connected Health Innovation Centre because a project they were working on really interested me.

We are currently developing new micro-needles for pain free blood extraction.

Currently needles used to take blood are thick and it is not the most pleasant experience, and with our technology we hope to develop a way that blood can be extracted more quickly and pain free.

The research facilities here are very good and I have been made to feel part of the team.

People are very friendly and my social life is good. I have many friends now and feel really settled.

The weather is the biggest change for me as India is a very hot region and I find the weather here more comfortable.

There is also a small Indian community here and we get together sometimes and have a good social life.

I have a wife and eight-year-old daughter in India and I try to go back home regularly to see them and they have come here for holidays.

I hope to stay here for a couple of years and then get into academic research. If I stay here I would certainly bring my family to live in Northern Ireland.

It is definitely a great place to visit."

Ronald Muhumuza (37) is a PhD Researcher at the Centre for Sustainable Technologies. Ronald, who is from Uganda, has been in Northern Ireland for two years and is researching new ways to bring sustainable energy to rural parts of his home country.

He said: "My parents are from a rural background and we have a family of six and they had to work hard to put us through school. In Uganda if you do well at school the government funds your further education.

I studied for a Master's Degree through the Commonwealth in Scotland and then came here two years ago because Ulster University had the facilities that I needed to continue my research.

The project I am working on is targeting people in rural areas of Uganda who lack energy. We are looking at sustainable ways to provide them with electricity which is low cost and requires low skills, and can help them to get out of energy poverty.

These people have no means of transmitting electricity and the government doesn't have the resources to transmit electricity to these areas so we are looking at a solar energy system which can support their livelihoods, give them hot water and access to sanitation and light and make their lives more comfortable.

I have travelled to many places in Northern Ireland, to Armagh City, the Giant's Causeway, Rathlin Island and Carrick-a-Rede, and it is a beautiful country. I have made friends and it has been a great experience.

I have had the chance to contribute to the community by organising social functions in the Halls of Residence at the University. I even have found the weather not too bad and not as bad as Scotland!"

Anukriti Singh (25) is in her second year of a PhD, studying clean water technology in the Nanotechnology and Integrated Bioengineering Centre.

She said: "I come from New Delhi in India, and back in India I graduated with a Masters degree in nanotechnology specialising in materials and semiconductor devices.

I was interested in the work being carried out at the university which is why I applied to complete my PhD over here.

I was warned that the climate would be very different and I was prepared for the rain and it's good. It has rained all winter and also the summers are not so hot and it rains then too.

When it is sunny here it is truly beautiful. I've explored the north coast and been to Coleraine and Londonderry, and all of the coastal route and also hiking in the Mournes.

It is very different from home which is more of a plateau and there is no sea or coast. It is really quite peaceful and great to escape from work and enjoy the beauty of the coast here.

My PhD involves developing new materials to be used as photo-catalysts for solar disinfection of water.

I hope to stay for another two years and complete my PhD and then look for a research post somewhere in Europe."

Gowrav Battacharya (28) is a PhD Researcher studying energy storage. She is from Bengal in India.

She said: "I was studying for a PhD in India and had a fairly active collaboration with Ulster University so I applied for a scholarship to do my final year here and I've been here six months.

I am working in the area of electro- chemical energy storage and in particular finding renewable sources for energy storage and waste management. I have a younger sister and my parents back home and I talk to them when I can, as the time difference can make it quite difficult sometimes.

I really like Northern Ireland. At home in the summer it is usually around 45 degrees and there is a scarcity of rain. I used to love the rain and until recently I was getting it nearly every day but that is still good.

People are very kind and it is less crowded here than it would be back home.

I've been round the north coast and hiking in the mountains and visiting museums and castles, just about every day if possible.

Back home the sea is far from where I live and the mountains are far away and you have to travel long distances to see them. It is beautiful here because you can explore everything.

I hope to spend another two years in Northern Ireland and then apply to Europe or North America for a post-doctoral fellowship."

Idongesit Ekerete (41) arrived in the province just four weeks ago to start his PhD in Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment focusing on finding new ways to assist post-stroke patients in the home. Idongesit is from Nigeria where he got married in January.

He said: "I had to work hard in Nigeria to be able to study. It was a struggle and I did some manual jobs but it was not in vain.

I was the best graduate student when I was 18. I have also been a teacher at university in Nigeria. I came to the UK to Scotland two years ago to study for a Master of Science in Biomedical Engineering and my thesis was on using low cost electro-diagnostic medicine in post-stroke rehabilitation.

I wanted to continue to study this for my PhD in post-stroke rehabilitation and was online checking courses when Ulster University came up.

It really interested me and I asked if I could apply. I saw that it was located outside Belfast and I like trying new things and so I decided to give it a go.

I travelled over from Scotland while my application was being processed to see it. First I saw the seaside and then the freshness of it, how modern it was and initially thought this is fantastic.

I went inside and told the girl in the office I had applied to study and she dropped everything she was doing to try and find out the state of my admission.

I was blown away that someone would drop everything for a person they had not met before to help them.

I've been here three weeks and it is as fantastic as I thought. Student inter-personal relationships are great and they really interact here.

I have discovered people are willing to help and direct you and I think I am very happy to be here.

I have a large extended family in Nigeria and I got married in January to the love of my life who I hope to bring to Northern Ireland.

I will be here for three years and then I hope to teach and I might look for opportunities here. If I am ever privileged enough to speak to anyone in my government I will encourage them to send students here."

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