News & Events

24 June 2024

From Hot Air Ballooning to Public Policy: Follow Zia Saylor's journey in Bristol

Written by Zia Saylor, a 2023-24 US postgraduate, this article explores her enriching experiences in Bristol, spanning from public policy studies to the unexpected joy of hot air ballooning, highlighting the surprising connections between her academic pursuits and newfound hobby.

On the surface, hot air ballooning has little in common with public policy, but through my time at the University of Bristol, the birthplace of European hot air ballooning, U.K. ballooning capital and innovative powerhouse of policies has taught me the similarities of these seemingly-unrelated topics. 

Landing in Bristol as a Fulbrighter, I had very little idea of what to expect other than the iconic Bristol Suspension Bridge and the excitement of learning from the renowned Bristol Policy Institute. It wasn’t until the University Fresher’s Fair when I found the Bristol University Hot Air Balloon Society (BUHABS), joined on an adventurous whim, and learned about the many (surprising) intersections with my coursework on public policy. 

I first went out with the BUHABS team as a member of the crew, helping to set up, inflate, and recover the balloon from where it landed. My imagination was that ballooning would be a rather solitary experience, but with five of us yawning at 5am as we braved the cold to launch, I discovered a new form of camaraderie. Likewise, inside the classroom at the University of Bristol, my classmates and I participated in our form of launching--policy briefs to address challenges created by globalization on everything from climate change to the gendered care burden (my own topic). In policy session seminars, we would critique and support one another, pointing out relative weaknesses while also contributing new thoughts to fuel intellectual innovation.

Attending the UK Household Finance and Poverty Conference midway through the semester, I realized the extent of connection between my random new hobby and my lifelong passion for anti-poverty policy. Within the ballooning community, there was a shared connection between different crews, a willingness to offer a motor for inflating when another group’s motor had died. Similarly, within the Bristol anti-poverty policy community, there was a similar sense of kinship, of striving towards a common goal that saw mutual benefits from supporting one another in research and intersecting our work across disciplines. Collaborations between the Bristol Poverty Institute and engineering and environmental departments are quite common, in contrast with other academic spaces I’ve been in where departments felt the need to delineate clear boundaries of where one subject ended and another began.  

Collaboration, both in ballooning and anti-poverty policy, forms an integral part of the work required to achieve a successful lift off. The creation of inequalities and perpetuation of poverty stem from rampant individualism, the idea that some people inherently have a lesser deservingness than others when it comes to surviving and thriving. 

My classroom experience pursuing my Master’s of Science in Public Policy has in many ways been augmented by being able to apply the principles I learn within the classroom to a setting outside. In my work as a Research and Communications Associate at an anti-poverty institute in Indiana, the Indiana Community Action Poverty Institute, I have been able to apply the spirit of teamwork and collective action that propels forward ballooning towards creating a positive change in the U.S.

Just as ballooning provides additional perspective on the world below as we wave to others, so too has my exchange with the University of Bristol provided clarity and a new perspective on public policy. Across borders, families are struggling like never before with the cost of living, with intergenerational mobility, and fear of climate hardships to come. While I may not have all the answers, I do see a strength and beauty in collaboration across borders and disciplines to support opportunities and socioeconomic structures that allow all individuals to thrive.


If you're interested in learning more about Fulbright US Postgraduate Awards to the UK, visit this page to explore the opportunities available. Applications for 2025-26 will close in October 2024.