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TL;DR: Sandra El Sabbagh grew up in Alexandria Egypt. She pursued her undergraduate studies at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Alexandria University, before pursuing a masters in Art Therapy in the UK. She currently works as an Art Psychotherapist.
Hometown: Alexandria, Egypt
Undergraduate: Faculty of Fine Arts, Alexandria University Postgraduate Diploma: Faculty of Arts: Psychology Department, Alexandria University
Masters: MA Art Therapy, University of Hertfordshire - UK
Profession: Art Psychotherapist
Field: Art & Psychotherapy
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
After completing a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts (Expressive-arts-division) in 2012, realising my passion for the mind and human behaviour, I decided to self-study psychology for a whole year. A year later I decided to keep making art as a hobby and to begin a Postgraduate Diploma in Clinical Psychology at Alexandria University. My interest in psychology and mental health grew bigger which motivated me towards my goal of helping to spread awareness on mental health and therapies in Egypt; especially with the associated social and self-stigma around this topic.
When I am not working, reading or making art, I am usually playing sports. I played rugby for 6 years before starting to play Ultimate Frisbee and most recently joined Egypt’s national team of Ultimate. I believe that sports are the main thing that keeps balance in my life.
Reflecting back on your experience, what do you think are the main advantages of studying in the UK?
For starters the diverse specialisation in various fields of psychology in the UK allowed me to pursue my dream of studying Art Psychotherapy, which is currently not available in Egypt. There was also a dual academic advantage of developing my artistic identity while simultaneously training in psychotherapy. One side of it was gaining direct access to current art exhibitions, seminars and other relevant continuing professional development (CPD) events to enhance my learning and career. Another side was putting my learning into practice by attending necessary clinical placements throughout the two years of training to maximise the development of professional skills. In addition, post qualification I got to register as an Art Therapist with the UK Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC); the body which regulates and monitors standards of practice.
On a non academic level, I had the opportunity to resume playing Ultimate Frisbee which I had already started playing in Alexandria before studying abroad. Participating in various tournaments with the university team as well as a club team was a great outlet alongside studying and also helped me develop my ultimate skills and gain more experience in the sport; especially that it’s currently one of the most growing sports in the UK.
Another major non academic benefit, was being able to easily travel across the UK as well as across Europe. Not only did I get to meet people from different backgrounds but I also got to explore all the exciting places and got to know the cultural diversity that exists in the world. From festivals to food, art (of course!), traditions, beliefs and taking photographs of the landmarks.
What did you enjoy the most in your programme? Tell us about your favorite courses or experiences.
To be honest it is a bit difficult to pick just one because the whole two-year journey was enjoyable altogether with its ups and downs. But I guess the idea of learning experientially rather than only academically is on top of the list. It was over direct experience of exploring thoughts and feelings, through experimentation and reflection in various workshops at the university. It helped me see and experiment things from a client’s perspective, which in my opinion, is crucial in this profession.
My other favourite thing (I tried to stick to just one!) is putting the academic and theoretical learning into practice by going to clinical placement. Especially in my second year where my placement was in the NHS in a forensic setting. It wasn’t only my field of interest but also a hands-on clinical experience where I gained more confidence and it helped build a solid foundation to bring back to Egypt.
Let’s go back in time a little. When did you first consider applying to universities abroad?
During my Clinical Psychology degree one of my professors was interested in seeing my sketches and had suggested looking up Art Therapy. At first, I was amazed to find out that such a profession even existed. I slowly started realising that this is an opportunity to merge the two things I am passionate about, art and psychology, into one profession I can do for the rest of my life.
Soon after in May 2016 I started looking for Art Therapy programmes in the UK, since it has always been a dream of mine to study in the field of psychology there.
When did you first start preparing for the application process? How did you prepare for the application process?
By August 2016 I had already decided on studying at University of Hertfordshire (UH), one of the first established art therapy courses in the UK, with a backup university in mind. I then spent a whole year in the application process till I started my course in September 2017.
Determined to match up with UH’s requirements as much as possibleI I started with the easier and faster ones to finish; My translated degrees and transcripts, taking an IELTS (required minimum score of 6.5), as well as two personal statements (a general one, and another specifically for international students).
Typically due to the dual nature of the programme, they required proof of at least two years of work experience relevant to mental health in addition to a digital art portfolio. Luckily I had already been working as a clinical psychologist for two years so that gave me more time to focus on preparing the portfolio which I had to look for relevant advice videos on how to present a good portfolio.
A few months after submitting all the documents and portfolio, the university sent me an offer to study which I had to secure by paying my tuition fees.
The final step was applying for the UK visa with a Confirmation of Acceptance for Studies (CAS) issued by the university as a requirement for the UK Tier 4 visa process. In addition to being virtually interviewed by their Home Office, which is not as scary as it may sound but more like an essential process for them to make sure how genuine you are.
How did funding fit in the picture? Tell us more about this process and any advice you may have for others?
I am grateful enough to have had my parents’ financial support to fund for my whole experience to study abroad.
I would have actually appreciated some guidance to proper and relevant scholarship, especially that the Art Therapy programme usually has external expenses which are separate from tuition fees (essential personal therapy, travel expenses to clinical placement, art materials etc).
Did you receive any mentorship/support as you were applying?
My family and very close friends supported and constantly encouraged me to be persistent during the process.
I also had huge support from a UK consultancy office that I came across, Global Study UK, who have local offices across Cairo and Alexandria. They always have an expert counsellor to assist in applying for any course, at any UK university, and with every step of the application process free of charge. This included help with sorting out clinical placements, accommodation, and even the visa preparation and follow up.
How can a candidate assess whether they are a “strong” candidate?
I personally believe the most important thing is to read the course requirements very carefully throughout the process. Matching up with the requirements as much as possible, especially the international students requirements, will be a good enough sign.
What advice do you have for writing a strong personal statement?
Other than the content being clear and concise in showing your commitment and capabilities, it is very important to personalise it. Not thinking of it as an obligatory requirement but rather a way of expressing and convincing the person reading your great passion for the field and how it enhances your future career opportunities beyond the standard details of application materials.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in applying?
To plan ahead to try and match up with their requirements as much as possible
To be patient throughout the process, even if it may seem overwhelming at times. It does take quite some time to get things in order with the university.
If applying in the UK, definitely consulting Global Study UK is of so much help in following up with the university and securing accommodation, clinical placement (if required) etc.
Try not to be discouraged with how overwhelming the whole process may seem because of all the requirements and preparations. It is always worth it in the end.
Definitely look for things of interest (such as sports, art, etc) to destress and help as an outlet outside of the academic perspective.