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Sophia Smith Galer

Sophia specialised in Spanish and Arabic and graduated in 2016.

Please tell us a bit about what you do now 

I am a Senior News Reporter at VICE World News, author of a book called Losing It: Sex Education for the 21st Century, which is all about debunking sex myths with social media & investigative journalism, and a TikTok content creator with over 130 million views. 

What was your favourite module and why? 

It is very difficult to Arabic I really enjoyed the modules I took in Arab cinema and modern literature with Abir Hamdar and in Spanish I was a big medieval nerd. So I did modules in second year and fourth year in iconography, hagiography and poetry in the medieval period in the Iberian peninsula with Andy Beresford. 

What did you do on your year abroad? 

In total I spent thirteen months abroad across the whole year. It began with Granada, where I had pre-arranged to do work experience with a tourism company and I had to give tours around the city for different groups. While I was out there, I found out about a local school that was running a summer programme for underprivileged children, so I would spend half a day volunteering there and then half a day at the tourism company. I quickly learned it's a lot harder trying to understand 7-year-olds speaking Spanish than 27-year-olds! Then I did three weeks learning about flamenco history and singing with a local music school.

I was back in London for a few weeks, where I got to do two weeks work experience with BBC Arabic, and then I went to study a year-long Arabic programme in Beirut starting around September or October at IFPO. I had a brilliant time there, it was the best bit of my year abroad. I got to study everything from ancient and modern literature to Lebanese dialect, history and media. We had quite a lot of homework and tests which meant I had to study hard, and we had lots of one-on-one time with tutors too. Again, I tried to squeeze work experience into my year abroad so I could kill two birds with one stone. I became a presenter at Radio Beirut, which used to be a bar and live online radio station in Mar Mikhail, and I also did work experience at a local art gallery. Both experiences helped me throw myself into Beiruti life and make friends beyond my Arabic school.

When I left, I was home just one week and then set off to Madrid to do work experience as a receptionist at Sotheby's, the auction house, and then at a local online newspaper called The Local. So in total I did two months in Granada, eight in Lebanon and three in Madrid. 

What did you do after leaving Durham? 

I did a Master's in Broadcast Journalism at City University, where I did a lot more work experience but for the first time it was paid! And then I got my first job as a Social Media Producer for I was then a BBC World Service reporter covering religion for three years before getting the job I have now at VICE. 

How did your studies prepare you for what you do now? 

Studying languages carries a lot of transferable skills beyond just speaking other languages. Striking up conversations with strangers, learning to be confident despite making the odd linguistic mistake here and there, and being respectful to other cultures. These have all helped me in journalism. At the BBC I got the odd opportunity to use my languages here and there; at VICE I tend to use them a lot more as it is a proper reporter role with travel and use cases pop up in interesting ways. Right now, I am on deployment and one of the other journalists happens to be Spanish, meaning that we can communicate and support each other. On the Moldovan border with Ukraine earlier this year I was able to build a rapport with a refugee quickly because he was speaking Spanish to someone and it is his favourite language, and we shared our love of learning it together before I asked him about his experience of war. This year I used my Arabic to uncover videos spreading misinformation about women's health on TikTok and YouTube. So while I don't necessarily use them every day, they definitely help me access and tell lots of stories every year. 

What is the most important piece of advice you'd like to give to students of Modern Languages? 

Fluency is a nice goal but don't let it be 'make-or-break' or feel deflated if you don't meet fluency. Your languages are your tools, they are not 'you' - for me the point has never been to be fluent although I was very good when I graduated. The point is that they help me build relationships and access information, and give me lifelong enjoyment. 

What was the most important thing you learned at Durham? 

Fill your life with doing things you love, and interesting opportunities will come to you.

What was your most surprising discovery during your time at Durham? 

That I seem to be happier and perform better academically when I am filling my life with hobbies and interesting things. At school I felt like going out or doing a lot of extra curricular stuff would hurt my grades. At Durham, doing loads of societies and going out a lot (within reason I suppose...) meant I was always very happy and I think this helped my general wellbeing a great deal. It was the first time I got to dictate my life-work balance for myself really – I think that looks different for every person but for me, I learned that I work best when I work doing something I love, and do plenty of other things I love around that too! 

What is your favourite memory of Durham? 

Every year I was in Durham I sang as part of the Durham Opera Ensemble, and in fourth year I got to play Carmen in Bizet's opera of the same name at the Gala Theatre. It was an incredible opportunity and wholly unforgettable. It changed my life.


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