“Fresher’s Week”

I’ve lived here in Cambridge for exactly 8 days (edit: 16 now) and I still ride the “I’m abroad!” honeymoon high. I say this to others often, but I’m a big nerd and I love school environments. I feed off of shared enthusiasms for learning and intellectual thought, which is very, very, abundant here, so I am almost always enthralled.

Something that I ask people when I get to know them is what they wish to get out of their time here at Cambridge. I ask this because I genuinely wish to understand their goals, so when it was first asked back to me, it took me a moment to think about my answer. This isn’t a main goal, more of a “parallel personal goal,” but I hope to gain more confidence defending my ideas. Even when challenged. I have plenty of practice vocalizing my opinions, but I’m realizing that I mostly tended to be in rooms of like-minded people. There was a moment on campus, last Monday, where I explained my motivations for choosing gender studies. The person I was talking to made a counter point. Instead of continuing the conversation naturally, I felt stunted and struggled to not only gather my own thoughts, but to actually hear what they were saying as well. I assumed that this happened because of my self confidence, so one of my goals this year is to gain the vocabulary and the self-assurance to express my thoughts even when opposed.

Also, I hope to develop meaningful relationships with others. I meet so, so, so many people, and instead of starting with small talk and staying there, I intentionally lead up to personal questions. I think it works well, because I focus less on the social aspects of fitting in or being included, but instead on the people themselves.

I am thankful for being here, and I get emotional when I think about how much work it has taken to reach this point. I am very lucky that the stars aligned and that I had a wonderful university to send me here. If I am already baffled when thinking about my current journey up to this point, I have no concept of how I will feel when I graduate this year.

Edits: I am reviewing this post a week later, and the “I’m abroad!” honeymoon has faded. Classes are hard, the reading never ends, and my classmates challenge me in a good way. However, I created a plan, I still take fun breaks, I just need to put on my “Megan serious pants” now. This is still an great experience. 🙂

14,471 words later

After a summer of note-taking, rearranging, deleting, and breaking down in frustrated tears, I’ve finally submitted my Creative and Critical Writing MA thesis, an exploration of my family history that blends personal memoir with critical theory.

And with that, my time at Birkbeck is over.

Putting together this thesis was a learning experience, to put it mildly. After realizing that my initial choice of topic (the farm my grandmother grew up on in Maryland) didn’t feel as compelling as I’d hoped, I had to pivot. I ended up using the farm as just one guiding element of a broader piece on honesty and communication in relationships and with the self. Once again, I was reminded that good writing emerges from trusting one’s gut rather than trying to force a conclusion or topic.

While I don’t feel 100% satisfied with my thesis – there’s room for further development – writing it taught me about writing, which I suppose is the point.

At the end of August, I was able to take a short trip to Europe, during which I touched the outside of Birkbeck (the school I would have attended in person, had it not been for Covid). Seeing the actual building, the weight of what I missed out on really hit me – but in addition to acknowledging this sadness, I had to remind myself what a wonderful, strange experience this MA has been, despite the circumstances.

Over the past year, I’ve had the chance to explore magical realism and autofiction, two bizarre territories into which I thought I’d never venture. I’m looking ahead at magical realism short story contests and other opportunities to keep my work in these genres going.

And I’ve read so, so much. Thanks to this MA, I have a much broader library of theory and reflection to draw upon in shaping my thoughts and processing my experiences. The more material I consume, the more meaningfully I feel I can engage with others and with myself.

As I’ve come to appreciate over the past year, interacting with the world as a writer isn’t just about putting words on paper. It’s about reading, talking, and listening, and then contributing to the dialogue in turn. This feeling of interconnectedness is what I love about the humanities.

With all this in mind, I have no choice but to keep writing. I’ve relocated to D.C., where I’m working as a reporter at The Cancer Letter. Even though I’m a lot more focused on fact-checking, honorifics, and short, punchy ledes than I was during my MA, I hope to carry the curiosity I fostered during at Birkbeck into my work as a journalist.

Thank you to the RMJ community for supporting this year of incredible growth and learning. The Fellowship is an experience I’d encourage any soon-to-be engineering grad to pursue, no matter where you stand career-wise.

And to all those engineering kids who think English class is ‘easy’ – you’re doing it wrong.

Megan’s first post

I would like to start off by congratulating myself for my first journal entry! Secondly, I think this is a good opportunity to introduce myself. My name is Megan, I recently completed my undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering from University of Michigan, and this fall I will pursue a MPhil in gender studies from University of Cambridge. The year after Cambridge I will return to University of Michigan to pursue a one-year MEng in aerospace engineering.

I still cannot believe that I’m leaving in four weeks, it hasn’t sunk in yet, but at the same time I daydream about the future. For example, (and this exposes how much of a nerd I am by saying this) I imagine how I will do my assignments. I daydream about walking through the city center on my way to a fancy library, hearing city bells ring around the corner, passing by groups of students hanging out and chatting, but on the way to the library finding a shady patch of grass to read there instead. I have already been working through my summer reading list like a happy camper. At first I felt overwhelmed because, honestly, who wouldn’t be when looking at a list of about twenty books, but after it washed over me I remembered that this is what it is like to be in graduate school. I am proud to say that I already read Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, and whenever the overwhelming feeling creeps in again I remember to frame the reading as a fun, explorative process.

In my research proposal for the Cambridge application I described trying to make STEM more inclusive, that goal is still very strong in my heart, and since it is still early in the school year I purposefully keep my options open. I’ve also noticed a recurring question that I’ve struggled to answer: why did I choose gender studies? This was asked by the Roger M Jones interviewers, my peers, and by Sara Ahmed. I have my prepared response about inclusion within STEM, but now I’m reflecting on why I chose inclusion within STEM. Oddly, this was not asked by my family nor my closest friends. I assume this means that I talk about social justice often enough to the people closest to me. The next question to myself is: what makes me talk about justice in the first place? Was it how my family raised me to stand up for myself and others? Was it how I may have experienced an injustice? Did something external inspire me?

I started speaking out at a very young age– I have memories of approaching bullies on the playground in elementary school and telling them that it’s not ok to treat people disrespectfully. Of course, just like how we’re all human, I also had moments where I wasn’t brave, but it is part of life to forgive oneself and learn how to stand up for others better in the future.

I hope that this year I may reflect on my past and present to figure out why I pursue gender studies. I understand the logical steps like how I first applied for this fellowship to make STEM inclusive, then I completed my undergraduate degree, but instead I now look for more of a self-awareness and “internal reflection” answer. We shall see if I strike gold through one of my summer reading assignments, or maybe later as I choose a research topic, or maybe even later as I research and write my heart out.

Even if I never figure out what motivates me at my core, I am genuinely excited about this year. I want to learn more about myself, meet amazing people, and be better equipped to make space for those historically marginalized.

Hello From Dublin!

Greetings from across the pond! My name is Hannah Kempel, newly arrived in Dublin, Ireland. I am one of this year’s Roger M. Jones Fellows and I look forward to sharing my journey with you over the course of the year. I graduated last year with a major in Electrical Engineering and a minor in History. That minor is what pushed me to apply for a program studying history here in Europe. Well, here I am, enrolled in the History of Welfare and Medicine Masters program at University College Dublin.

I’ve always had an interest in history, especially medical history. I was lucky to have access to a variety of amazing classes on the subject and related ones at Umich, and these classes only increased my interest. I applied to several different history programs, from modern to ancient history, but this program at UCD stood out to me from the beginning. It’s an area of interest of mine but also unfortunately very topical in 2021, with the pandemic continuing to rage around us.

The pandemic has and will continue to affect the parameters of my stay here. From having to wear a mask all through a 6.5-hour flight (an experience I wouldn’t recommend to anyone) to the extra documentation I had to show at Passport Control, I’m already having different experiences than those of previous RMJ Fellows. I’m lucky to have in-person instruction this term, but who knows what will happen next?

All I know is that I’m very excited to see what this year has in store for me, to meet new people and learn new things. I move in to my apartment on Monday, a side unit on a larger property that I am renting from a local family. It’s bright, cozy, and 10 minutes from campus! Until then, there’s plenty to do, from setting up an Irish phone plan to getting acquainted with the city that I will call home this year. I can’t wait to share my experiences here with you!

Until then,

Hannah

Looking ahead

Hi all,

It’s been a few months since I last checked in. I’ve finished my Spring term and am now onto Summer – which means attending a couple very interesting lecture series and working on my dissertation (AH!). As I procrastinate, I’d love to share a few updates about the upcoming months.

First of all – England! While Birkbeck never opened up for in-person classes, I’m planning a trip to the U.K. so I can go work on my dissertation in a new setting and hopefully meet a few of my vaccinated classmates. I’ve mainly been focused on school throughout this MA, but I know the international aspect of the RMJ fellowship is really special, and I want to be able to benefit from that as a writer and a person. I can’t wait to share updates as my plans solidify.

In other exciting news, I’ve just accepted a science journalism fellowship at an oncology publication in DC – the job will start in September, right after my MA ends. I’m absolutely thrilled. I’ve been trying to figure out how to blend my writing and science backgrounds, and this job feels like a step in the right direction. (And without RMJ, I wouldn’t be here.)

Most importantly, I’ll be a ‘fellow’ for a second time!

Until the next post,

Alice

Writer’s craft and talking cats

I once had a writing professor tell me that writer’s block is a myth. Feeling stuck, and needing to constantly re-draft, are natural parts of the writing process, not some kind of anomaly. The more I think about writer’s craft, the more I agree.

This semester has, so far, been all about the writing process. In the fall, I was absorbing; reading multiple books a week, digesting critical material, writing source-heavy pieces. And now, I’m producing. My classes are less structured, more about workshopping and experimenting than about responding to critical material. While I do miss having lengthy, challenging reading lists for my classes, I’m learning a lot from this more freeform approach. My ‘homework’ is just to write. And that’s hard.

Over the last few months, I’ve been challenging myself to write as much as I can every day. At first, my fingers felt stuck – I was so concerned with the quality of my writing, how it might be perceived by others, that I couldn’t relax. But I’ve been learning how important it is to just write, no matter how bad the writing is. Some days, my writing stagnates; other days, it flows freely. Some of my ideas stick, some of them don’t. That’s just how it works.

In this spirit of free writing, I’ve been allowing myself to experiment with genre. I’ve always considered myself a nonfiction writer because I love memoir and journalism and creative-critical writing, but I’ve realized there’s a lot to be gained from the intersection of nonfiction and fiction. For my assignments this term, I’m playing with fictional elements. Sometimes, autofictional writing actually feels ‘truthier’ than the strictly nonfiction stuff. Working in a looser genre allows me to draw out emotional significance without feeling tethered to a specific timeline or sequence of events. A year ago, I never would have guessed that I’d be seriously invested in a story about a talking cat, but here I am.

My writing is evolving, and this makes me feel so grateful for the RMJ fellowship – I have the time and money to experiment. I’m not just learning how to write, but how to think like a writer, deeply and fluidly. Hopefully I can carry this mindset with me, no matter what I do next.

Virtual start, round 2!

Happy New Year, RMJ community! I apologize (should I say apologise, now that I’m a UK student?) for not posting much last Fall. I’m excited to share now what a fantastic online experience I’ve been having. The semester was a wonderful whirlwind interrupted by a positive Covid-19 test, and I’m looking forward to doing it all over again this semester, minus the frustrating post-viral fatigue.

About halfway through last semester, I realized, wow, this is what I want to be doing. For years, I’ve been mentally bargaining with myself, trying to figure out ways to combine my engineering and writing backgrounds; but having this chance to just lean into the writing, no strings attached, has been liberating. I came into the semester with a heavy dose of impostor syndrome, but now I feel right at home with my classmates. This program just feels – right!

What I love is the combination of creative and critical writing. I’ve never been much of a fantasy or fiction writer (though I did experiment with autofiction this November, and I kind of liked it). I also enjoy pushing the constraints of more traditional critical essay-writing. In college, I found myself drawn to narrative journalism and creative nonfiction, and I’ve been leaning into those genres heavily throughout the MA program (programme, ha). I’ve been practicing the smooth combination of creative and critical; fragmentation; and connecting critical sources that might not seem obviously related. I love this challenge – I think it appeals to my logical side – and I know I want to pursue it more after the MA ends.

And the reading! I probably spent more time during the first semester reading than writing, and I think that was a good thing. My frame of reference is expanding exponentially. I’m just gaining more language, and I’m finding it easier to start articulating things that have always felt problematic, but that I maybe haven’t had the critical background to dig into.

More generally, I think being in this writing MA is a relief because I no longer feel emotionally or philosophically at odds with what I’m doing. I loved studying BME in that I got to explore a range of disciplines (and it was challenging, so I’m proud of that degree). But because I am someone who likes to think very big-picture, aka what is the meaning of this, I struggle with engineering. In other words, I’d rather be thinking about cultural attitudes towards technology that about the minutae of a blueprint or design plan (not that these things aren’t both valuable – I think it takes all types). I also have some issues with engineering culture. There’s an aggressive apoliticism – through I realize that’s changing – as if being immersed in such difficult work excuses willful blindness, even though engineering is inevitably implicated in every system demanding critique. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know I’ve been gaining so much clarity looking in at engineering from the outside. I think I want to stay here.

I look forward to continuing this next semester. I’ll be all online, again, but hopefully in the summer there will be some in-person events so I’ll get to travel for a short while. I don’t feel super comfortable traveling until there’s something non-virtual to go to; and of course, I’d like to wait until more people are vaccinated. In the meantime, I’m loving my Ann Arbor apartment with my roommate and our two cats. Things could be a lot worse.

I feel so lucky to be having this experience, even if it looks different than RMJ fellowships of years past. I’m brainstorming ways to continue my writing post-graduation. Looking forward to making another post once the semester has gotten off the ground …

Alice

A virtual beginning

Today I participated in the first discussion session for my MA in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of London, Birkbeck — from my apartment in Ann Arbor.

Finding out my program would be starting virtually was disappointing, of course, though I did feel some slight relief at not having to make a massive transition during a global pandemic. Mostly, the switch to a virtual format has made me appreciate the content of my program. Without the promise of exploring London and taking weekend trips around Europe, I’ve had to recognize what this fellowship means to me academically and professionally, not just experientially.

The answer: a lot. I’ve known for a few years that while I enjoy math and science, and value the analytical skills I cultivated during my studies in Biomedical Engineering, I don’t want to be an engineer. I also know that I love to write and read, especially because of the critical, holistic thinking these pursuits demand. I use writing to engage with the world in a way that feels relevant and contemporary. Aside from this, I have almost no clue what I’d like to do professionally. That’s what this year is for — to immerse myself in my writing, and hopefully gain some clarity along the way.

I’m grateful to have this quiet apartment in Ann Arbor, a lovely roommate, and plenty of time and space — both mental and physical — to focus on the content of my program. To be clear, I do hope to make it to London next year, but until then, the best I can do is engage meaningfully with my classmates, professors, and course material. My first class bodes well for the rest of the semester. The discussion seemed to translate well to an online format; my classmates are intimidatingly smart, and our conversation today was rich and exciting. I also started forging some virtual connections-slash-friendships with other students. I’m committed to being as involved in my MA program as possible, even if it is online for now.

The silver lining here is that when I finally make it to London, I’ll have a strong appreciation for the value of being an RMJ fellow. Beyond the glamor of traveling to another country, the fellowship carves out a space for deep personal and professional reflection.

I look forward to posting another update on my first, virtual semester. Until then, cheers.

— Alice

Hitting my stride!

Every time I sit down to write an update, I’m always baffled by how quickly time has passed in the time since the last one. Term 1 finished at Goldsmiths a few weeks ago which was marked by two large analytic papers and a creative portfolio submission. I ended up front-loading much of my work before the term break started (at Goldsmiths, the term doesn’t end when holiday break starts, but a few weeks after we got back) because two of my friends from Umich, John and Angel, came to visit me and do some sight seeing. Although I do love all the friends I have so far here, it was really refreshing to see some familiar faces not over Face-Time. And come to think about it, it was really silly of me to think that I would have a hard time making friends when I moved out here – it came almost faster than getting used to the difference in timezones.

We originally planned for Paris, Prague, then Budapest, but couldn’t get into Paris because of the protests. We opted for Berlin instead which ended up being the unanimous favourite (see, I am now spelling ‘favourite’ like the English now, and using single quotes!) among us. We were not even close to running out of things to do in Berlin even though we were there for four days – Parliament building, Berlin Wall, multiple walking tours, Jewish Cemetery and museum, museum island, etc, etc. It was also a perfect time of year to come (right around Christmas), and so there was much festivity in the air!

Since I’ve been back and started the new term I’ve picked up drawing classes at the Sunny Art Centre in Holborn. I’ve always enjoyed drawing, but I felt I have grown into a ceiling due to my technical skills. At Sunny, they first had me drawing still life’s of geometric shapes, then organic shapes, and I will be working on the human figure soon. I find that my poetry has gotten stronger too due to these drawing courses – if I can hone my observational eye through these drawing classes, then I’m sure it sheds off in some way for my observational eye in writing.

I’m definitely seeing a lot more of London now that I’ve been here for over a quarter of a year. I think that the first few months I was trying to find my routine and was quite honestly a little overwhelmed by it all, that is, the city, the move, and the culture change. Now however, I feel like the routine is to not have one, and I was naive to think I would find one in my short stay here. Last week I saw Crete music, a Kurdish band, went to the Tate Modern at night (‘Tate Late’s) and a poetry reading, and I know that a week like that can’t happen again. Every week should look different, and that is definitely a concept I’m not used to having gone to University and working in engineering co-ops. I’m beginning to think spontaneity is something you can practice and good at, maybe it isn’t so inherent after all.

Ciao for now!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving day, my phone was of course buzzing away with notifications from my family back home…and I had to wait until Friday to look at them. I just couldn’t stand to look at the pictures and videos of the turkey, the gravy, my aunt’s famous mac & cheese – it was all too triggering to look at in real-time. I suddenly realized that this would be the first year I didn’t do Thanksgiving with my family (and maybe the first year I wouldn’t do Thanksgiving at all). It was surreal to go grocery shopping the last week and see nothing’s changed – no pumpkin or pecan pies out, no cold turkeys chilled and ready for the taking. Sometimes you never notice what you’ve been doing your whole life until you’re finally in a situation where you can’t do it anymore.

Luckily, I’m one of 4 Americans in my MA (out of 33 students), and luckily Julia had the incentive to host a Friendsgiving dinner this last Saturday. Some Friendsgivings I’ve been too are this way or that, but no, this Friendsgivings was the real deal: charcuterie was out, turkey, stuffing, (one of the other American’s brought their grandma’s sweet potato and pecan recipe), brie, the whole 9 yards! What’s even better was that more than half the people at the table weren’t Americans, and were experiencing Thanksgiving for the first time themselves. That was something else for me. Me, at a table away from my family for the first time, them, partaking in this weird (and controversial) American holiday. A night of firsts.

At the end of the dinner, Julia had this idea to go around and say what we were thankful for. I personally thought everyone was going to take it as a joke and say sarcastically what they were thankful for (as is typical of a Friendsgiving), but no, everyone exposed a bit of themselves for context, and then explained why they were actual thankful for something.

Phillip is Dutch but grew up in the States, and his parent’s never really knew how to celebrate Thanksgiving, so it was always just time off to see family and relax during the holidays. It’s been years since he celebrated it since moving back to Europe, and he was thankful for the simple act of that dinner.

Francisca just moved to London from the MA by means of Portugal, and having studied American Studies at uni, she was thankful that she was doing Thanksgiving for the first time, and that tonight looked just like the movies.

Oliver grew up in London was thankful for his best friend that is his younger brother, his mom, and the ability that he has the privilege to write poetry without having to worry about his next meal, or the clothes on his back.

And so on , and so on.

My MA director emailed me a few weeks ago to ask how I was getting on with the course, and if I needed any additional resources (being an international student). She explained that moving to a different country is hard, and she was just making sure that I was finding friends and I was getting around London alright.

At first when I read the email, my ego pushed it aside, of course I’m ok! I’m in London! I’ve made friends! I emailed her back saying thank you for checking up, I appreciate it, and if I need anything I’ll let you know. It took a few weeks after her email to realize that my ego was just doing a lot of pretending for me. That no matter what city, or however many friends I’ve made so far, that moving to a different place, a different culture, away from the turkeys and pecan pies of back home doesn’t have to be hard, but it’s ignorant to think that it’s easy.

I said I was thankful for the opportunity I had to be here and grow, and for everyone back home and here in London that has made moving here not so intense.

FRIENDSGIVING. Julia (left), Oliver (middle left), Francisca (middle right), me!