A year in the life of a SOAS Masters Student

Monika 2

It’s a confusing summer, weather wise, in Britain. Of course, lately the climate is in a state of constant uncertainty, for which we only have ourselves to blame. In some ways, the constant flux in the months of June and July have mirrored my own confusion and uncertainty that summer always brings with it; the wondering of what comes next.

Summer is a signal of change if you have grown up in Britain. Schools are on hold, a new year is looming in September, people are drifting in and out of holidays and the sunshine draws everyone into the green spaces dotted around the UK in moments of collective joy you can’t get during the other seasons. 

I am approaching the end of my time here. Technically, I will cease to be a member of the student body next summer, when I graduate with my peers from the Development Studies course. But this summer is a period of flux for me, of confusion and uncertainty that nicely mirrors the sky outside: a neat moment of pathetic fallacy. 

Things have changed, and I find myself looking back with a rush of relief that I chose SOAS, of all places, to spend one more year living the student life.

Studying at SOAS has changed me, undoubtedly. Whilst I loved my previous university, there was a significant lack of spaces that I felt truly comfortable in, a lack I only realised when I fought my way up the crowded staircases to get to a tutorial on the fourth floor, or sat on one of the faded sofas in the JCR.

SOAS is vibrant with the languages and sounds of the entire world, packed into a handful of buildings in the corner of Russell Square. No country or ethnic make-up is foreign here, no cuisine, culture or religion is ‘othered’.

Nowhere else have I seen fliers inviting students to a Korean film night, a West African drumming circle, a roundtable hosted by Palestinian students on the liberation of their homeland, and an anti-fascist protest against authoritarian leaders in Latin America in one place.

And nowhere else have I felt more at home.

This feeling is echoed amongst many of my peers, who have found a space where existing is less complicated and conversations aren’t peppered with necessary caveats about the how, the where or the what of what’s being spoken about. Diversity here means that more often than not, you get to skip the background information because SOASians already know. No wonder it feels wonderfully familiar. 

This comfort wasn’t immediate; it took a few months to settle in to a rhythm of classes, essays and hours and hours of reading, and I spent those first weeks questioning if I was  good enough to be here.

Make no mistake, SOAS places high expectations on its students, bombarding you with knowledge at a breakneck speed and forcing you to question all the assumptions you had about the world before you walked into the door.

Academics are opinionated, sharp to criticise the status quo and eager to hear your thoughts on the matter. Everyone has come from all corners of the world and every perspective is tinged with their own experiences, making classes perpetually fascinating.

Once you get used to unlearning what you thought was simply fact but now all of a sudden is the very clear result of the neo-capitalist, hyper-competitive domination of the free market, for example, you begin to understand why SOAS is so renowned for its rigour; nothing here goes unquestioned. Which means that by the time you leave, you see the world with a mind trained to hone into the very assumptions that prevent genuine change from taking place. It is not easy, but it is brilliant. 

One aspect of why SOAS encourages you to be that way – curious, questioning, critical – is because the institution itself is constantly looking inward; the Student Union and SOASSpirit newspaper draw attention to internal policy and encourage students to speak up. There are solidarity protests every single week about international crises, student meetings for change or posters incentivising SOASians to use their voice. It instils a habit of practicing what you preach and galvanises you to pay more attention to injustices. It will hopefully reside within you for a lifetime – it certainly looks that way to me. 

In May of this year I did something unusual; I typed up a poem that had been drifting around as scraps of paper on my bedside table, and sent it in as a competition entry for a book deal. The poem was one I composed a few months prior, on a well-visited subject; ethnicity, heritage, identity. I wrote it shortly after arriving at SOAS, when I found that there existed a space where people not only understood my perspective, but related to it as well. So, I sat down and wrote what I wanted to say instead of what I thought people wanted to hear. And I won. As it turns out, immersing yourself in a world where difference is an asset rather than an isolating feature really lets you flourish! Who knew?!

A full year is coming to a close and I am ready to leave, but nostalgia has come to visit already. However, there is a resounding comfort in the feeling that the heart of SOAS has already been inlaid into the school’s foundation, that it will continue to be contrary, remarkable and evocative long after I go.

It is almost as if the voice of every past student has been plastered onto the walls, the floors and the desks so that generations of ideas about humanity are diffused into those who walk among its halls.

You never truly leave SOAS, it sticks around in your footsteps as you go on to navigate the world. Yet it will really, really be missed. 

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