Jordan Ebert Kellman is an Engineering Mathematics undergraduate at the University of Bristol, and a recent recipient of a UoB Outstanding Student award for the creation of ‘The Undergraduate Survival Guide’. UGSG is an online platform that features long-form podcast interviews aimed to provide insight to current and prospective university students. I sat down with him to find out what inspired him to begin the UGSG project.
“There were two main reasons – lockdown was really long, and because I’d taken a non-linear route a lot of my friends had already gradated, so I thought how can I stay in contact with people in a productive way? I started the podcast as a way to talk to some of my friends about matters that were more interesting or professional – what was uni like, what are some regrets, how to manage your finances?
It got to a point after 3 or 4 chats where people were like this is really good, I learnt a lot. And what changed is that I thought it would be just me and my friends talking, but the people listening were actual 1st years or prospective students. They had been to open days or read prospectuses, but they’ve always been written by ‘the man’ I guess, so it’s nice to have this conversation with someone who can be honest and genuine about their experiences. They took a lot away from it, so it was a combination of wanting to talk to more people and wanting to feel like I have value in some sense. Not just going through uni and coming out of it, people actually care about what I say and my friends say and take some lessons and perspectives from it.”
Of course, single-handedly dreaming up and kicking off a project like UGSG while keeping on top of coursework is no easy feat.
“I was able to fit the two together relatively well, but I appreciate that to grow as fast as I’d like it to I’d have to put more time into it, there’s always a compromise there”, Jordan tells me. “Last year I ended up putting way more time into this than I probably should have – yes I appreciate the potential for business revenue there, but it is still just a hobby at this point. So I’m starting to appreciate that I should probably focus, maybe not completely on my degree because I do still want to put some time into it, but to find a balance. I’ve learnt to prioritise and have found a nice balance where I can get the best out of both academics and the podcast.”
He goes on to explain that another challenge was finding his tone as an interviewer.
I feel like I picked engineering as a degree because I’m a problem solver, I like being stressed out! But one problem that I had to actually put thought into was how do you balance being polite and empathetic with being a good host and making a good show? I’ve had a few interviews with people where they’ve shared stories about things that were deep or personal for them. On the one hand I’ve got to put on a show, I’ve got to make jokes, but on the other hand they’ve shared something that’s very meaningful. So how do I show that I actually care about what they’re saying and treat them with respect as a human being not just a podcast guest?
That has been a learning curve – having to appreciate that yes, I want to have a good show, but also I want to be a good person. And trying to figure out the balance between what people value and what people want to say and hear. Because even though it’s personal and I don’t want to pry on their experiences, people can learn from that. I talked about failing my first year, and that was difficult to talk about at first, but other people then said well I also failed and we can learn from these experiences. So it’s trying to balance out extracting the most value here without being too pushy, but also making sure that you accommodate the persons individual needs and making sure they feel comfortable sharing their stories.”
In addition to overcoming these challenges and learning along the way, there have also been some positive surprises, he tells me.
“I literally thought it would be just me and my friends – I shared it on my Instagram page and though people who followed me could find it. But as it gets shared and reshared it’s people that are prospective students, people I’ve never met in my life, and it’s being streamed now in different countries in every continent in the world. And having people message you a month later saying this meant a lot, it’s like wow, I never though me failing would be a good thing! It does feel good knowing that people find it valuable rather than just finding it funny and giving you views, it is actually intrinsically meaningful. That’s the main reason that I keep going with it – I already reached the milestones I set for myself, I wanted to do 10 episodes, I wanted to reach so many streams, and I did that in the first week. I realised that not only have I done what I set out to do but it’s actually doing a positive thing, so let me keep going with it and hopefully continue to inspire people by talking to more and more guests from different backgrounds. Right now it’s only been Bristol people, and majority engineers and econ students, but I’m looking to talk to more people from different backgrounds. LGBT people for instance just to make it more comprehensive so that listeners can find more value in it. It would also be cool to speak to more women that have different experiences, so that even me myself I can take that on board and think what I can do in real life as opposed to just online on this platform.”
Although UGSG is aimed at a broad base of students of different ages, backgrounds, and subjects, Jordan feels that knowledge and experience from his Engineering Mathematics degree has aided indirectly with the creation of the platform.
“I never realised how important data is, obviously you’d think when it comes to analytics you need to know watch time, retention, number of streams, but here’s actually a lot more that goes into these platforms than you realise. Having to break things down in a way that actually made sense, sitting down trying to model it out and be like if I say this at this time then maybe I’ll get more listens. Or maybe if I make it a bit louder when this person is speaking then people may enjoy it more, and just trying to think more analytically about it which is something I learnt from my degree.
I guess as well, feeling more comfortable with the technical aspects. I’m not the best at coding but at least I know what’s going on now. I feel like if I’d starting podcasting earlier, I would have been more scared by words like distributors and RSS feed whereas now I know what they are.”
And in terms of future directions for the UGSG platform, there is no shortage of ideas!
“One thing I’d love to do is add a visual side to it – at the moment it’s all audio, but it would be cool to have a studio where I sit and talk to people face to face. Another thing would be having a written side, I do have a blog platform already but it would be nice to have actual writers to transcribe interviews so that its accessible to more people.”