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BLOG: Staff Excellence Awards: “I was quite shocked when my name was announced.”

“I would encourage anyone who has a colleague whose work may not be getting much recognition locally within the university to consider nominating them.”

Neil Galway - Making an Impact Award winner (centre), with compere Alexandra Ford and Mairead Regan, Chair of the Staff Excellence Awards Judging Panel
A blog by Dr Neil Galway, Lecturer (Education), School of Natural and Built Environment, Queen’s University Belfast.

In February 2023, I won a Staff Excellence award for ‘Community Impact’ and this is my short reflection on the process.

When I was first nominated for a ‘Community Impact’ Staff Excellence award in December 2021, I recall being grateful that someone unbeknownst to me had taken the time to nominate me.

As a lecturer in education in Planning at Queen’s, and Director of the MSc programmes in Planning and Development and City Planning and Design, most of my energies are taken up with trying to increase awareness of planning as an option for potential students; working to enhance the learning and general experience for current students; and promoting progressive practices in an accessible manner to colleagues in practice. While these tasks keep me honest, they lack the profile of research-active colleagues. So I remember being unsure as to what information this nomination was based upon but heartened that I had been nominated, albeit I was not shortlisted on this occasion.

A year later, I was nominated again and was similarly happy to have received some recognition for my efforts. This time, the nomination was linked to my work with Department for Communities – more specifically, the creation of the rather pretentiously titled: ‘DfC-QUB Placemaking Academy’.

Before moving into my current role in Queen’s, I worked as an urban planner in the Department of Environment and Belfast City Council, so much of my pedagogy relates to the more applied aspects of planning – essentially, how we plan to make better places.

Given my previous role in the public sector, I have always recognised the potential for close working between the academic and public sectors and this partnership-working characterises most of my time with Queen’s completing live projects across the island, including those assessed and taught projects and also externally-funded, extra-curricular volunteering opportunities from Clare to Carndonagh, with many other studies in between that do not begin with a ‘c’.

I digress; back to the Placemaking Academy. This project stemmed from a conversation with a Director in Department for Communities that followed on from a webinar series that I ran during lockdown called ‘Planning the Post-Pandemic City’. The series was explicitly sought to shine a light on progressive urban practice and research for a student and practitioner audience, to present an ‘art of the spatial possible’, so to speak.

The relaxed nature of the webinars was key to the initiative that followed in October 2021, as the Placemaking Academy sought to create a safe space for Government and Council staff working within regeneration and related fields to reflect on their practices with MSc and BSc students learning with the group. The regular monthly trip to Queen’s allowed a space for networking and co-learning with thematic sessions, practitioner-led conferences and study trips to learn about comparative practice in Dublin, Waterford, Kilkenny, Sligo and Limerick in the first two years of this initiative. The students were able to benefit from the Academy through close access to staff working within the area of their studies and the practitioners enjoyed the fresh ideas that came with working with the students.

A large part of my motivation for designing and delivering this training and for facilitating extra-curricular studies with practice is a conviction that as an educator, that I have a platform to influence practice in a small way and to give more back to our students.

On the latter, the experience of trying to teach online during COVID (as a complete Luddite) made me appreciate the previously taken-for-granted opportunities to do the types of events that I ran in 2022-23 from design competitions in Carrickmacross or Derry/Londonderry to Cross-Border School Pupil exchanges between Galway and ABC Councils to learn about rural regeneration to informal discussions in venues across Belfast City Centre to discuss Biodiversity or Vacancy over a pint or two. I think that these type of informal events offer a great opportunity to enhance our students' experiences and to strengthen and build new relationships with friends in practice.

I was very pleasantly surprised to get shortlisted for a Staff Excellence Award for this activity, and I presumed that I was making up the numbers at the events ceremony as the other entrants were much more high-profile than me. So I was quite shocked when my name was announced and very appreciative that my work had been valued by the nominator and judging panel.

I would encourage anyone who has a colleague whose work may not be getting much recognition locally within the University to consider nominating them as these small actions do mean a lot.

Photo: Dr Neil Galway
Dr Neil Galway
Lecturer (Education), School of Natural and Built Environment