Applying to Cambridge was not something I had ever thought of doing. Ever. That is until when, in my last year of high school, my Law teacher suggested I do it for the Barclay-Smith scholarship, which pays full tuition and maintenance and gives preference to Malawian applicants. At this point I thought “OK I’ve definitely got the Malawian bit but what about the rest?”. I found myself facing two sets of hurdles- the extrinsic practicability hurdles and the intrinsic intellectual hurdles. It was the former set with which my parents were most concerned because on top of paying for my application, they had to send me off to Cambridge for interview and they, like myself, had no guarantee that I would even be offered a place. To be honest, while I did feel like a bit of a burden on my parents, these practical difficulties didn’t worry me much. Whatever happened, I was getting a trip to Europe and for someone who had never left Malawi, that was something to be excited about. When I got past the interview stage and received my conditional offer the second set of hurdles arose. Now I thought “Ok so I’ve got an offer but now I need the grades. I know I’m smart but am I smart enough for this?”. The thought of not meeting my offer terrified me because I knew that if I didn’t I would live the rest of my life thinking “I was almost there”. However, I told myself I would not let that fear keep me from doing my very best. It was like I had told my parents, no one ever got anywhere by not trying. So that’s what I did, I tried. I worked and prayed hard until I made it. At that point I felt like the world was my oyster.
Before coming to Cambridge I talked to most of the first year lawyers from my College and was pleasantly surprised upon discovering that one of them was a Nigerian girl from London. While I welcomed the idea of making friends with any and every one regardless of their skin colour, I had no white friends back at home and so I thought having another black girl on my course and in my college pretty much guaranteed that there would be a group of black first years in my college, making the whole university thing seem less like a journey into the great unknown. Now these expectations made things a tad awkward when I arrived and discovered that there were only two black first years at my college- I’m sure you can guess who by now. Needless to say some people could not believe I live in Malawi and I received all sorts of questions, such as “where did you learn how to speak English so well?”, reflecting a clear lack of knowledge about Africa. It is worth mentioning that not everyone held such misconceptions but I wasn’t angered with those that did because the ideas they had of Africa came from stereotypes perpetuated by the media. Trying to fight those misconceptions by educating people on Africa’s better and more important side as a land full of bright minds and great potential was an uphill battle that I was not going to bother fighting expressly.
Don’t get me wrong though, when someone says something truly offensive I will set them straight but luckily it has not yet come to that. What the people around me lack in knowledge they make up for in compassion and support. For while going to university is difficult for everyone, it is especially difficult when culture shock is added to the mix. I didn’t think I’d miss home much but once I finally left and began adjusting to the change I realised how different life feels in the UK- a difference that isn’t always positive. I felt like an outsider when I didn’t know what was going on around me and I found myself longing for the world I knew back in Malawi. Not to mention I found the cold weather downright depressing. At first I kept my negative feelings to myself because I thought it would be too embarrassing and/or awkward to share these with people who were so accustomed to this life. Big mistake. Keeping everything to myself tore me apart and made everything harder, especially my work. I spent a few minutes of each day crying alone in my room and I felt my confidence plummeting. Then I decided I was going to share my struggle with the people around me and while things did not immediately improve, I found that the more I opened up about it, the better I felt. In hindsight, this solution should have been obvious to me from the beginning but emotional turmoil has a way of closing one’s mind to the obvious. By the end of Michaelmas, I was finally starting to get my act together.
I have only completed one term at Cambridge so I doubt the misconceptions are over but the way I currently see it, I’ve come too far to spend my time worrying about and trying to change what people think. The best I can do is try to be an example of what the motherland has to offer and let people infer from that how great it is, or at least make them realise that it is more than they thought it is. Plus how could I be angry at anyone when people have shown me nothing but kindness in my time of difficulty? Adjusting to the cultural and climatic differences is hard enough without taking on the extra burden of instigating societal change. My focus is on personal growth and making the most of my time at university and, in my opinion, none of that has to involve anger.