SOAS Summer School 2016: International Relations in the 21st Century

SOAS Summer School 2016

This summer holiday, I had the chance to study in SOAS, University of London. SOAS Summer School 2016 had been an amazing experience for me right after the US – Indonesia Partnership Program (USIPP) that I joined ended just a couple weeks beforehand. Everything happened so fast and I just got the chance to process it when I got back to Indonesia two weeks ago. I was indeed very lucky to have landed both programs, and would not trade it for the world—though everything does come with a price (let me stress that I am not only talking about physical money here)¬†ūüôā

Truthfully, I had not thought about joining any summer program by the beginning of 2016. The thoughts came very suddenly when my family decided to visit my older sister in London for her doctorate graduation ceremony—she studied in King’s College London, on a scholarship, of course. We planned out a family vacation for two weeks long in the center of England. I simply could not settle with the decision—being in one of the most-sought city in education and all I, as an undergraduate student, do are¬†sight-seeing and shopping? For some people it might seem a little weird, though. So I began searching for some summer program that I can join in London this year.

I began looking for summer programs that offer scholarships. And as expected, it was hard. Most of the summer program I was eligible to participate in does not offer any—by this time I remembered my sister saying that a summer program is only made available by universities to gather lots of money from international students, which is reasonably true. That was about the time when I came accross SOAS Summer School’s website. The academic program offered a reasonable price for a three-weeks long summer school sessions (came accross a third of the fund for some summer school program in other uni that I really, really, really wanted to join in the beginning), and best of all, they offered scholarships! Some time after I applied, I got informed of my acceptance as a partial scholarship awardee for the tuition, so I would only have to pay one third of it. It was still quite expensive for my scale, but then again, London is expensive. Accommodation was not in my list to worry about for I can stay in my sister’s place, and everything else just fell into places. The paperworks are much easier done than my previous summer program in US, my visa came out before the expected time, and my school term was quite accommodating as well. It did not take too much work to begin with.

Just a few weeks before my departure, the summer school committee informed that my chosen class got cancelled for the insufficient number of students applying. They asked me whether I still want to continue with other course or a refund, which I answered the first one. Previously, I applied for a course focusing in politics, media, and culture, which fits perfectly with my background in public relations and journalism. I had always thought SOAS as a university specified in local politics and culture, so I thought that the course may be able to give me new perspective on the topic. However, as the class got cancelled, I found myself attracted to every single course offered, which mostly is not available in any other summer school—they have middle eastern class, food and nutrition, gender studies, and many more. I decided to take on the International Relations class, which I knew literally nothing about. I was influenced by my friends in USIPP that I consulted on this matter, most of them being IR students. All I can say now is that I am grateful to whoever gave me that piece of advice to take on IR class—it was amazing!

One of the things USIPP taught me was that education cannot be based upon Ivy Leagues titles. We visited Institute of International Education (IIE) that manages¬†Fullbright Scholarship when we were in New York and the point that got me interested was how they were saying that there are lots of uni with outstanding quality of specialities outside of the Ivy Leagues, and how it is such a shame that people nowadays only based their decisions on titles so they tend to make those uni more well-known by recommending them towards scholarship receipents. I had been one of them, with my father and sisters working and studying acaemically in the so called one of Indonesian Ivy Leagues. But overall titles does not always fits perfectly with the teaching quality. Even in Indonesia, there are many private universities (which are the opposite of how westerners think, deemed as having less level in education) with exceptional professors.¬†I also had the chance to experience some of them abroad, and it was great—passionate professors, intensive discussions, exactly similar to the conditions I then felt in SOAS, especially on politics. Somehow, I love that kind of¬†atmosphere, where professors actually pay attention to their students proggress. I can emphatize with Teal, my friend from from USIPP program, who changed her major and university choice to a smaller and enclosed community in Towson University.

 

On the University

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SOAS is not a big university, with only two main buildings overall (very different from the excessive development plan¬†in Universitas Gadjah mada back home—not even a tenth of it). It is a part of University of London, so it is situated in the same block with many universities as well. Best of all, students of SOAS can use the facilities of other universities that are part of University of London, such as the libraries. Unfortunately, I did not get any chance to check that out because of the short length of my stay there. There are just too many things to be checked out inside the university alone!

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The uni focuses on African, Middle Eastern, and East Asian studies, which are clearly stated in its name—School of Oriental and African Studies. For that reason alone, the uni feels like a miniature of the world! I saw lots of Moslem students from Middle East, East Asian students, a number of African students, British and American ones, very diversed indeed (outside of summer school students, though in general the summer school is also very diversed). On the graduation day, I even saw a Ph.D. graduate that looks like he might be from Southeast Asia! My guess is him being an Indonesian or Malaysian.

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From that focus of studies also, the library is simply amazing. It has the collection from all around the world on a variety of topics, with many different languages as well. I even found a section filled with popular Indonesian movies in its own language—they have Ada Apa dengan Cinta (AADC)! And of course, a wide range of collections on each regions in the world focusing on politics and culture (including religion). I could spend hours in the library just to browse through the Southeast Asian section, in which I found several research reports on sensitive issues not allowed to be spoken in public back home. The facilities are also way better than back home (which is very expected, I believe most university in London also have similar ones) such as reading rooms, discussion rooms, printing areas, self-service areas. Overall, I am most amazed by the collections, they have six levels, all filled with books, papers, manuscripts, and digital files, if I am not mistaken.

One thing to be highlighted about SOAS is the activism. People simply cannot talk about the university without referring to its strong stance, whether the students or institutions in general, towards many issues. It is even often referred as the campus of activists, which I later found to be true. Through the hallways, cafetaria,¬†student lounge, even in bathroom stalls there are many activism posters plastered all over the place, on campus and national issues. The teaching style and focus, I guess, is the root of all activism happening inside. Similar with my university back home which is deemd to be “Universitas Kerakyatan” that often in opposition with the government and the students also in opposition of the university. But strangely, because SOAS is a small university, the spirit and atmosphere can be felt strongly and many people actually care with the issues. Back home, meh, not so much—I mean whats the impact of twenty to fifty-ish people compared to thirty thousand-ish students there? Number does plays a big part to keep the spirits on fire.

 

On the Course

Academically, I personally think that the activism also shown through the focus of studies. SOAS is more of a left wing in many political issues, which the thinking process is shown through in the lectures related. I took a course in International Relations, so basically I learnt how the international system works and their thinking process to get through that, and further more on how the current system is flawed through a more complicated thinking process, yet systematical and reasonable. In the course, we were forced to think critically on the topics that most of us had no idea on before. It basically challenged us to think beyond neoliberalism—what is flawed and how to overcome that—yet sometimes it put us into situations similar to governments, in which reasons may not traced objectively, but politically.

The courses and issue covered vary every year, as can be seen in https://www.soas.ac.uk/summerschool/. However, the IR class covered some very interesting issues such as global climate crisis, global health, global migration, and the rise of China! The titles and descriptions alone are amazing, but the lectures really put things into perspective. They have very passionate professors that are eager to answer the confusion of the students, with smart and distinctive way of thinking, and elaborate structure of lectures. They really know what they are doing, whether in lectures or supporting academic activities.

In the course, the meetings usually divided into two parts, the lectures and tutorials. We were given a set of readings that must be finished before every meetings (with three to four research papers per meetings, amazing) and the issue will be elaborated in the lectures. The tutorials served as suppost systems for student to understand better by having discussions with a small group of students. It does help, because most of us are pretty new to IR. And for me personally, there are just too many things to understand in such short span of time, and of course I had to make the most of my time there. In the tutorials, the professors usually ask several questions that must be answered by each group on the readings they have done then explain it afterwards. I must say that it was the first time for me to experience such system, and it helped a lot in understanding things. It just drove up the spirit to question and discuss things critically from many perspectives which might be missed by personal studying. I wish it can be implemented back home.

I must say that overall, the course gave me a different approach upon seeing IR. I was very sceptical to the field¬†prior to this program. Most IR lectures and discussions I joined, along with many of the students that I know of, have a pro-liberal perspective. Everything the international system taught us deemed as the truth needed to be put in action. And so, most of the IR studies I have seen involved implementation of international system towards a current “bad” condition of a state or government. International market, for example, is seen as a phenomena that will eventually spread around the world rather than a system implemented by the unipolarity. That put me in the opposing group, with questioning whether it is universally or relatively right, and should it be outweight by what deemed as strategically and politically right for the government.

It was something very rare to be seen nowadays. Most of the IR academics I know of only want to continue the current state and implement it elsewhere. It flaws, greatly, on thinking about¬†the core issues, and in the end will only produce workers of the current international system without making any changes. And from the lectures, I learnt that this system will not last forever—it will collapse if there are not any major changes conducted. The passion to think critically put into the lectures made me come into this understanding. With a small number of students and those passionate lectures, for me, this course gave out an opportunity I never had before in my big classes and not so passionate professors. I guess it is also affected by¬†the culture of research in Indonesia to separate things from yourself to see things objectively. That is why not many academics in Indonesia who are also involved in activism.

 

On the Peers

The summer school students are very diversed, though most of them still came from Europe. Only a small number of people actually came from UK. Some Middle Eastern students, a big number of East Asian, one Australian, one American, and one Southeast Asian. Yes, I am the only student from Southeast Asia, let alone Indonesia! Thank God most of them have heard of Indonesia.

My class is consisted of eighteen students overall. The interesting part of this summer school is that most of the students are not currently pursuing undergraduate degree. They were mostly graduates, have finished either undergraduate, master, or doctoral program, and have been in work ever since. A small percentage of students are currently pursuing undergraduate studies, but when the lectures and tutorials start, it was clear that the discussion mostly centered around the graduates. I felt intimidated quite immidiately after realizing that.

I actually felt quite annoyed with the studying climate between students there. Literally nobody wants to study together—the professors mentioned in the beginning of the class that studying culture in UK is very different than the group studying culture in US, that was way they proposed tutorials as an alternative. I asked the class a few times, with some of them responded that the class was tiring enough (10 am til 3 pm) that they want to take a break after class, and the rest of them just ignored me while I found them to be studying alone in the library. It was frustrating and such a big culture gap! I am very used to group studying to understand things better, and as I spent a month with the Americans, the tendency just got stronger—I need to discuss things. That was why my first comment to my sister when she asked me on the course was “Do people in UK not study together?” which she answered with a laughter. I just cannot stand the studying culture and the reservedness of the people, especially after all of those all-hugs-shouts-and-open-culture I experienced in US.

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My classmates and I went into an outing in one Friday evening, which includes dinner in a restaurant – pub – and finally club. The people there really go all out whether in studies or outing, I may say. It went home a minute before midnight when they decided to go to a club, and I think they stayed there for another hour. And surely, they can hold their liquor.

 

On the City

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London is simply amazing! Sure it is not New York where people can simply compliment you on the street, but it has its own perks. Unlike most central cities which are smelly and scary at parts, it is clean and just breathtaking. I did not get to visit many tourism attractions, though, because I was just too consumed with the class. However, I got the chance to explore the streets, do some sightseeings, and even got caught up with the Harry Potter enthusiasm in the city!

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By the end of my stay, I had gotten used to the reservedness of the people and often went to walk on my own. I noticed that many people do that. I enjoyed being by myself in the park and library, which is an impossible act to be done back home. And that was the thing that I miss the most when I got back to Indonesia. Sure, people in London differentiate between work and personal life and therefore is hard to be approached with my Indonesian-American social openness, but it made me realize and feel¬†grateful for the times I had alone. Somehow, when I am home in Yogyakarta, the only chances I got to enjoy the time with myself is either in my room with the door locked, the toilet, or my car. I cannot go out without worrying what people may think—I cannot be content with myself. Though the work and study in London is very demanding, it is amazing how not many people got stressed out, because they can easily relax by themselves afterwards basically anywhere.

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I love the parks, the streets, the long walks of London. I love how there can always be something to do in the city, and it is perfectly okay to go by yourself. I love the buildings, the respect people have towards others (in some cases reservedness), and obviously the sexy Harry Pottah accent! Though I still hold dear New York in my heart, London is definitely on my list of cities to visit again in the future (definitely less smelly than New York).  This is definitely a great way to spend summer.

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