Student Perspective: Nina
Nina is Austrian and Nigerian and applied from Vienna, where she took the International Baccalaureate with Geography, Biology and English Literature at Higher Level. Nina has just finished her first year studying Geography here at King's College, Cambridge.
What do you find interesting about Geography?
The decision to study Geography is one of the best I’ve ever made, although it was not initially an easy one to make. As a Geography student, it is difficult to avoid questions about what Geography is, and also what Geography is for, but it is actually the only subject that fuses together knowledge from many other disciplines in such a relevant and groundbreaking way.
As an international student with a mixed background, diversity has always been of great interest to me, and in my first year I found myself better equipped to confront many of the questions I had about difference in the world. In this regard, Cambridge is unique in its approach. It completely overturned every assumption I had about my subject; drawing together physical and human components and infusing them with philosophy, history, economics and environmental principles. By the end of the year, I was convinced that the Geography course should be compulsory, if for no other reason than to dispel some myths about the subject.
Why did you choose Cambridge?
My decision to come to Cambridge was made with the encouragement of family, friends and teachers. It was first suggested by my mother, and admittedly I was hesitant to begin with. I think that it’s common to wonder whether or not Cambridge is the right fit: it’s a big name and for many (myself included) that can be quite intimidating. What made the difference in my case was that I realised I had nothing to lose by trying. I knew that if I didn’t apply because I was afraid of not getting in, I would be wasting an opportunity to study the subject that I loved at the place that offered the best course for it. The hardest part was convincing myself to go for it, from there on the application process went by so quickly that I barely had time to second-guess my decision.
What do you like about the Geography course?
I like that I have a large degree of freedom to pursue my own interests within the course. Initially, I chose Geography because I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to commit to a single topic for three years, and this seemed like the best way to keep a certain degree of freedom in my learning. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was for Geography to give me a cross-disciplinary analysis that revealed a new perspective on material I thought I was already familiar with. For example, theories on development have always been of great interest to me, but it wasn’t until the end of my first year that I started questioning what development was and why. Despite its broad appeal, development might take on very different meanings based on the varying circumstances of a country’s past and present. It is the deconstruction of knowledge that we often take for granted, and the closer inspection of how notions of power and land feed into such knowledge, that I think allows Geography students to ask new and somewhat unorthodox questions about the world.
My interests also shifted throughout the year, from an interest in both human and physical geography to a greater focus on human, while still being able to appreciate and understand the physical perspective of many issues. That human/physical balance is something retained throughout the course and I really enjoyed piecing together those two elements, especially since there is a tendency to categorise based on the assumption that one has nothing to do with the other. I also like how, because Geography is undergoing something of an academic makeover, you feel like your work can be incorporated in an ever-growing body of literature on almost any topic imaginable: work that is helping build and transform the discipline in a relevant way.
How is studying at Cambridge different to your experience of studying at school?
I think that the main difference lies in time-management. At school, you know what your schedule looks like, and it is fairly easy to go along with it and make sure that you are up-to-date. The learning at Cambridge is very different in that regard. What I've found with Geography is that, although important, there are fewer deadlines and more time between them, which means that I have to be disciplined in how I use my time, and when I start working on my next assignment. At first this was a bit difficult because I was under the impression that I worked best under pressure, but that myth was quickly dispelled. The truth is that the time between deadlines is not only time for you to be working on your next supervision essay, but also time to explore areas of a topic that you don’t understand and delve deeper into parts that you find particularly interesting. That is another difference between studying at school and studying at Cambridge: you get to invest as much time as you like into the different components of your academic schedule, and the material in each topic is a lot more substantial than what was available at school, where you had a syllabus that you could learn inside out.
At school I did the International Baccalaureate, which means that I had a range of six subjects, three of which were at Higher Level and three of which were at Standard Level. The inclusion of mathematics, sciences, humanities and arts means that I was already used to having a workload that reached across many areas in a short time frame, but what is different about Geography at Cambridge is that each of those different fields now relate to each other in one way or another. I’ve learned to look for connections in lectures and then try to extend those and consolidate them with the information that I get elsewhere, such as my personal reading, the news and even the perspectives of students in other subjects. Cambridge is fantastic in that regard, as you learn as much from other students as you do in class and on your own. Also, because you are all learning slightly different material, there are new angles to every discussion.
How does the teaching work in Geography?
In the first year of Geography you have six physical and six human topics, of which no two are directly alike. Generally speaking, an entire topic will be taught in one of the three terms (with potential run-over into the next terms, depending on how many lectures one topic has). In addition, weekly supervisions are organised by your Director of Studies, who oversees all of your academic work.
Depending on how your supervisions are scheduled, they may or may not overlap with the lectures and, although it helps when they do, you are not really disadvantaged by them not coinciding. Most of the work is done independently and, generally speaking, the more you prepare for a supervision, the more you get out of the discussion. Supervisions are a great way to discuss some of your own ideas and opinions, ask questions and obtain useful feedback - but if you don’t try to get the most out of them, they become in large part ‘catch-up’ sessions and you lose that chance to truly expand your learning.
What do you do in supervisions?
It is quite common for people, geographers included, to assume that Geography is a great way to learn while not knowing specifically what you want to do. However, preparation for supervisions is a great way to direct your newly-acquired knowledge to a more focused application. You are typically asked to prepare a piece of written work for a supervision, and your supervisors will usually provide you with a reading list of introductory material. However, the real fun begins when you go further than the material provided and use the essay question to explore interesting case studies and new perspectives.
Case studies are the evidence that you use to back up your argument, and this is where creativity with the subject really comes into play. Not only are you using real examples to solidify theories, but you are also exploring alternatives and questioning why things work under certain circumstances and not under others. In a supervision, your arguments are either challenged, extended, refined or undergo all of the above. What I've found most helpful is to regard supervisions, not as the final say in how good you are in a given topic, but rather as an opportunity to test the waters and see how your learning and understanding stands outside the lecture room. They are also a great way of delving deeper into a topic and potentially finding something you are really curious about.
What are the most interesting topics you've covered so far?
This is a very difficult question to answer because themes in various topics tend to bleed into one another. With regard to the human part of the course, Geopolitics and Political Geography, Economics of Globalisation and Contemporary Urban Geographies were among my favourites. However, within these, the ideas that caught my attention were those to do with space, power and knowledge. These are three pretty prevalent themes in Geography, so it’s no surprise that they popped up regularly across the board, but it was within the aforementioned topics that I found them most interesting.
In Geopolitics and Political Geography, what appealed to me were theories on knowledge and knowledge production, from their academic context to their everyday-life application, and how they relate to power imbalances in politics, culture and resource distribution. Here, Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’ and Michel Foucualt’s ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’ were pivotal texts. Additionally, the feminist perspective on knowledge construction extended the discussion in new and interesting ways with Dowler & Sharp’s ‘A Feminist Geopolitics’ providing a revised and novel take on a typically male-dominated field.
In the Economics of Globalisation, this feminist perspective became even more intriguing for me, as we looked at the nature of work and the workforce, and how it has changed over the years. Stereotypes in the workplace on what is ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ,and how these translated into occupation choices and notions of professional behavior, have been detailed by scholars such as Linda McDowell, Judith Butler and Alice Evans.
Urban Spaces was another fantastic topic, which explored the emergence and function of cities, amongst theories that depicted what the urban actually consists of. A lot of the work we did looked at urbanization, it’s definition, history and consequences.
Of the physical essays I wrote this year, Volcanoes and the History of the Quaternary were my favourite topics. Writing an essay can be a daunting task, but it is both exciting and terrifying when you realise that you are referencing the work of your lecturers. I remember calling a family member and ranting about how excited I was to be in a lecture by Clive Oppenheimer while simultaneously reading one of his books for an essay that I was to write about volcanic explosions and their effects on the climate. It was surreal, and I joked with them about getting him to sign my copy of ‘Eruptions that shook the World’ (a book I would highly recommend for a clear and comprehensive insight into volcanic operations).
In general, there is something to be appreciated in every topic. In large this is because even when you find that not all the material interests you, it is always possible to find an angle from which you can make it relevant for you. Although that being said, if there is one piece of advice that I feel confident giving, it is to make sure you are always answering the question.
What is your workload like?
The workload is understandably large, but not so overwhelming that you won’t be able to do multiple other things as well without damaging your academic progress. Naturally, your work should be prioritised, but if anything, I would recommend engaging in as many activities as possible, especially in first year. Societies and clubs are not only a great way to relieve stress but they are also an opportunity to meet people from different colleges and disciplines, which is absolutely something you should do. Becoming a recluse within your college/course can creep up on you, especially during Easter term, and you need to exercise other hobbies and interests to maintain some balance in your life. These activities don’t always have to include other people: some of my best recreational time in first year was spent painting in the art room on Saturday mornings. That’s another thing, it’s always worth finding out what’s available in your college as well as looking elsewhere for things to do.
How far do you have to go to your faculty?
Fortunately, King’s is located in the center of the city. It is only a five minute walk from the Geography faculty, so getting around isn’t a huge problem. Supervisions at other colleges are probably where having a bicycle would have been most useful. It all depends on your college’s location and also the location of your other activities. It is possible to survive without a bicycle (I did in my first year), but I think it is a good idea to have one, simply because it is more convenient: I’ve spent a good forty minutes walking to and from an hour-long supervision, and sometimes (for example in winter or during exam term) that time could have been better spent. In terms of studying, I alternate mainly between the coffee shop, my room and the King’s library, however, occasionally I go to other faculties, which are a really nice change of scenery.
What was starting at King's like?
There were two main things I thought about when coming to King’s: the first was about actually being in an institution that was over five hundred years old, and the second was moving to a new country.
I had visited the UK before, but was not prepared for certain cultural facets that I’d never encountered before, such as baked beans on hash browns and a strange preoccupation with the North (which I later had the pleasure of exploring and greatly enjoying for myself). In terms of the institution, I quickly found that the phrase ‘the people make the place’ was most applicable, despite it being a bit of a cliché. King’s is a welcoming place with passionate, tolerant and interesting people who are curious and engaged. The only thing I didn’t expect was that the international community was a little smaller than anticipated, the benefits of which was that we all got to know each other really well within the first week. Having said that, it was not difficult as an international student to get to know and make friends with people from both the UK and abroad. Moreover, there are many societies and clubs outside college where you can meet people from home, for example, I joined both the Austrian and Nigerian societies as well as a bunch of others that had a large international contingent.
Also, the college family system is great. As I later came to discover from some of my friends in other colleges, the ties between King’s families are unparalleled. I had so much support from my college parents. As soon as I got to King’s I had two great points of contact, who answered my questions in everything from academics to college life. They really made a difference; I remember in the fifth week of first term, a time known for the settling in of widespread homesickness, I walked to my pigeon hole to find that my college parents had stuffed it full of treats to help me overcome the notorious ‘Week five blues’.
College families are also a great way to break the ice, and they mean that you always have something to talk about when meeting other freshers. The family system also allows you to get to know people in other years, which is nice because, unlike at school, it is not unusual here to have friends of all ages and from all subjects and year groups.
Where in College do you live?
In my first year I decided to live in Keynes because I wanted the proximity to college in order to meet new people with more ease. Truth be told, where you live in first year will not stop you from meeting people, because communal spaces like the coffee shop, dining hall and bar mean that you are always running into people. Keynes is a great place to live though, and I got to enjoy being in college, having a lot of space and my own bathroom, and living amongst other freshers.
The only problem I encountered, was that as an international student living in a place that only had short-term accommodation meant that storage was a bit of an issue. Typically, you are designated a certain number of boxes that you can leave in college during the breaks. I was fortunate enough to find someone willing to store the rest of my things, but I’m glad I chose a longer contract for next year, especially because possessions have a way of accumulating in my room, so by the end of each term I somehow end up with an excess of things that need storing. Another thing about Keynes is that it is not self-catered, meaning that if you love cooking (as I do) then finding ways to do so is a little difficult. Otherwise, living in Keynes was a great experience, the rooms are comfy and you are right in the middle of college life, which is great.
What do you like to do when you’re not working?
There is so much to do at Cambridge that often it is harder not to get involved than it is to find things you're interested in trying.
This year, I've been involved in King’s College Student Union (KCSU) as an Access Officer alongside another King’s first year, Fraser. As Access Officers, we're involved with events both in and outside of college, such as the Access Bus, a yearly trip to the North East where we talk to young students about university, and we also organise a student helpdesk for applicants during interview week, the CUSU Shadowing Scheme and engage in other tasks such as preparing the alternative prospectus for the Cambridge University Student Union. Additionally, as representatives of the student body at King’s, the Student Union organizes a lot of events and campaigns around college, making sure that the concerns and opinions of the students are heard and acted upon. Usually, there are weekly committee meetings in which we try and improve life here at King’s. The Student Union is really active and well-organized, and is a great way to get involved around college.
I've also had commitments outside of college, for example, I joined the Geography Department’s newly founded publication, COMPASS, and contributed as an editor. This involved finding people interested in writing articles and collecting, then editing, their work in order to put together a successful first edition. It was a great way of meeting other Geographers and sourcing out interesting events and campaigns around Cambridge. It was also an opportunity to hear what other Geographers, both professors and students, had to say about the discipline, their work and the world around them. It was a very good experience, and the fact that it is a new magazine meant that I've been involved from the beginning and got to witness the whole thing come together.
In addition, I got to try out a bunch of new activities such as life drawing, sign language, AIESEC International, I helped out at the Cambridge Union debating society for a while and went to a lot of talks and activities around the town, which are free to attend and ended up being really helpful in relation to my course. That’s the great thing about Geography, you needn’t look far to find relevant information, case studies or ideas. Sports-wise, the college has a gym that I go to almost daily, and the surrounding countryside is perfect for early morning runs. I didn’t join a sports team in first year, but fortunately there is always the option of doing so later, so who knows?
What would you like to do after you graduate?
I would like to do a further degree, enter a graduate program and consolidate my Geography degree with another in law, politics or social economics. I still have a lot to consider concerning what I’d like to do next, not for lack of options but rather because I have an idea of what area I’d like to work in and I’m trying to figure out how best to approach my goal. There is a common sentiment amongst first year Geography students that Geography is good at pointing out what is wrong with the world without giving concrete solutions as to how to fix it. I disagree, I think Geography is good at getting students to engage with and search for alternatives. As I mentioned previously, the Geography course focuses on contemporary issues and the solutions to these, and as a Geography student you very much feel that you are learning alongside these developments, and that you are involved in, and maybe somewhat responsible for their progression.
What are your favourite memories from this year?
Some of the best memories I have from this year involve going on various trips with my friends. Unsurprisingly most of these take place towards the end of term and have involved walking to Granchester for a picnic, attempting to punt all the way to Granchester after exams, and going to London for a night to see a play at the Globe Theatre.
There is one memory that really stands out, mainly because it has been repeated so many times throughout the year: namely walking through the grounds of King's, either early in the morning or late at night, and looking up at the Chapel, shaking my head, and wondering how I ended up here. I don’t think that feeling of gratitude ever really goes away.