Of summer school and getting hopelessly lost, what I learnt in the UK – A student’s experience
Antony Kuria Wanjiku, a second year student in the MA in Digital Journalism Program at GSMC attended the annual Summer School program at the University of Cambridge. He reflected on his experience in the UK
When the confirmation finally came, I was on the proverbial cloud nine. For the first time in my life and career as a practicing journalist, I was going to travel to the UK for the annual Summer School Program organized by the University of Cambridge to study Creative Writing at Selwyn College.
The opportunity to study at the renowned institution’s constituent college was availed by the Aga Khan University Graduate School of Media and Communications (AKU GSMC).
When the departure day arrived, I boarded a Qatar Airways flight. After six hours, I boarded a connecting flight to London Heathrow from Doha, Qatar. Both the flights were uneventful although it was a little bit uncomfortable for me, having been used to local flights.
Once we landed in London, serious confusion set in for me. Although I had conducted prior research on how to get to Cambridge from London, I guess I had overlooked the logistics of getting out of the airport first.
For starters, I did not know how to claim my luggage after disembarking from the flight. I just had to make do with following the other passengers. We walked until we reached the Immigration Desk.
Here, the locals queued in a different line from other nationals. When my turn came, I was more interested in knowing what happened to my luggage than telling the Immigration official why I was in the UK and for how long my stay would last. The official was however very polite.
After everything checked out, I collected my luggage from the baggage carousel and just followed the exit signs. At least I wasn’t expecting anyone to hold up a white piece of paper with my name on it.
Anyway, I inquired from the information desk and was told to board an elevator to the ground floor where the Underground Train systems were located. Unfortunately for me, the information I had gleaned online had failed to mention that I needed an Oyster Card to board the train.
Someone instructed me to get the Card by feeding an ATM-like machine with at least 10 pounds. It spurted out the card which I scanned through a turnstile and, after five minutes, boarded the train to Kings Cross Station.
After about 12 stops, the train’s PA system announced that we had reached Kings Cross. I disembarked and, again, followed the people to God knows where. Thankfully, we reached the Station where I bought a ticket to Cambridge.
The journey lasted about one hour and fifteen minutes. At the Cambridge train station, I asked someone how to get to Selwyn College. He advised me to take a taxi but I insisted on walking. Bad move! After wondering aimlessly for about 30 minutes, I realized I had severely underestimated the distance to my destination after walking into a hotel to ask for directions.
From research, I knew Cambridge is a city that hosts 31 colleges, but, I did not know how big it was. With student hostels, teachers’ quarters, private residencies, malls, hotels, eateries, bars, worship centers, movie and play theaters, tourists sites and ample sports facilities among others, I was hopelessly lost!
The hotel concierge called a taxi on my behalf. Once I reached the College, I was directed to the Cripps Court hostel, my home for the next two weeks.
Later the next day (Sunday 4th August), and with other students, we went through orientation. There were students from the UK, the US, Germany, Australia, Luxembourg, Malta, Peru, Switzerland, China, Singapore, Poland, India, Taiwan, Sweden and Ireland, among others. But I was the only one from Africa.
There were other courses in the Program but I had chosen Creative Writing.
At first it was awkward being the only black person but I later got used to it. In the first week, the course was taught by a Dr. Sarah Burton while in the second week, Dr. Elizabeth Speller took over.
Both the courses entailed lessons on plot, proper methods of research before writing, how to overcome writer’s block, fiction and non-fiction writing, where to draw inspiration from, writer’s imagination, what exactly a short story is, how to write flash fiction, characterization, dialogue, the elements of poetry, history and profiles of prolific writers, among other interesting topics.
Of note, is that classes started at 9:15 am every morning and ended at 10:45 am. From there, we attended a one hour plenary lecture taught by a fellow at the University of Cambridge until 12:30pm. Most of the fellows were either professors or doctorate holders with published books. Afternoon classes started from 1:45pm to 3:15pm. Each day, we were given assignments that had to be uploaded to the school’s VLE portal by 6:15pm.
I’d say the days were packed but I enjoyed every minute of it. This is especially when we got to read and criticize each other’s writing during class time. Some students wrote about life experiences, others about the fantasy genre, comedy, sex, and medieval times. Personally, my short stories revolved around adventure, science fiction and crime.
I can authoritatively say that the knowledge I gathered there has made me become a better writer, journalist and communicator. Moreover, after being thrust into a culture that appreciates the Arts, I saw the opportunities available for short story writers even here in Africa.
For instance, the tutors encouraged me to submit my work for competitions and awards like the Caine Prize for Africa Writing and others like the Morland Writing Scholarships where winners get 10, 000 and 18, 000 Sterling Pounds respectively. She advised the other students and i that opportunities are in plenty, we just have to know where to look.
Of note, is that on Fridays and Saturdays, we went out socializing at The Anchor, a popular pub on the banks of River Cam.
The time I spent interacting with my fellow learners there gave me an international outlook on a myriad of issues and afforded me the chance to network and make life-long friends. Right now, if I were to go backpacking to the UK, Singapore, Australia, Germany, Austria, Switzerland or even the US, I’d have no problem finding accommodation since the people I made friends with said they’d welcome me into their homes. I guess I made an impression.
Further, I came back home with a business idea that I pitched for the AKU Innovation Center. I hope it gets picked up for funding.
Also, I now know where to start if I wanted to write not just short stories but even a book (both fiction and non-fiction).
Notably, I visited London. By riding on the open top tour buses, I went to the London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, River Thames, Trafalgar Square, and Tower of London. The last Saturday saw me attend a match at the Emirates Stadium pitting Arsenal against Burnley, the former won by two goals to one.
Cumulatively, the learning was priceless and the exposure was much needed. The culture shock was of course expected: this is because I interacted with a society that has more independent women (something I’d like to see more off here in Kenya), an efficient transport system, well preserved historical sites, a proud people and the cosmopolitan nature of London.