From: Cambridge, England
First degree: English
Institution: University of Oxford
Graduate degree: MS in Journalism
Simon Akam from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, New York, USA
Simon Akam appreciates the boost to his career his education has given him. "I think going abroad for a graduate degree is an extraordinary opportunity that can both broaden the mind and open the door to opportunities that would not otherwise exist."
He also appreciates the fact that he has been lucky enough to study at two world-class universities. "I think doing an undergraduate degree at Oxbridge and then a graduate degree in the US allows you to study in the two best higher education systems in the world at the level where each operates best."
Simon says that future employers will be impressed by his qualifications, as they would be by anyone with similar qualifications, although he thinks "the amount of kudos depends on the institution that you attend."
Simon came to the US culturally unprepared for what the country would be like. "Initially I thought New York would be like England with an accent, but in no way was it at all. The longer I spent in America the more foreign it seemed." He also says the cultural differences extended to life at university as well. "The academic environment is also very different - certainly less gladiatorial than Oxford. At times I encountered difficulties but it is important to be open-minded and appreciate the element of adventure involved."
This is often the case with international students who travel to countries which speak the same language - they find the culture shock takes longer to build up. However, one thing Simon did find was that America is a much less cynical place than Europe, which he says, can at times be frustrating but is also rather inspiring.
Highlights of his time in New York included the enthusiasm and excitement of New York and New Yorkers. "I loved Central Park on a spring morning and the old masters paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art."
He took advantage of as much of New York as he could, from the opera to museums, soul food in Harlem to tea at the Plaza. "I felt enormously privileged to live in that city," he says. Simon was also there during the Obama presidential election, which he felt privileged to watch. On the downside, he hated the 'subway, the summer climate and the cellphone service.' "I also lived next to a fraternity which was occasionally frustrating, although always fascinating," he says. Simon had his heart set on doing a journalism course as his master's, which made his choice of institution relatively straightforward once he had picked the US as a study destination.
"Journalism is something of a special case but Columbia is the best known institution for the subject in the US, and the only journalism school in the Ivy League. It seemed the obvious choice, and is not one that I regret." He did his research online, ordered a prospectus and only applied to Columbia University. Timing is key when applying to study in the US and Simon says he began his research about a year before he left for the US.
A Fulbright scholarship helped Simon study abroad. The Fulbright Commission helps students by giving them information on studying in the US; they also guided him through the visa process. "It was relatively hassle free [with the commission's help]," says Simon. "Doing it on your own is a little more complicated, but still feasible," he adds.
Despite the fact that Simon had a Fulbright scholarship which paid for his tuition fees, he also applied for four other scholarships whilst he was in America. "You have to be proactive in the search for funds. There is a surprising amount of money out there. I would advise candidates to be as proactive as possible and seek out as many funding bodies as they can."
During his one and a half years in America, Simon was constantly busy. "I began interning at the New York Times during my course at Columbia, and was able to continue working full time at the newspaper after I graduated. I also brought my skis to Manhattan with me, so was able to put them to good use in Vermont, New Hampshire, Idaho and - when conditions permitted - Central Park."
He also travelled widely during his time studying abroad. "I was able to travel a great deal during my time in the US - in part through journalistic assignments, partly because the Fulbright commission provided generous travel grants, and partly because I was determined to see as much of the country as possible," Simon says.
"My regular moonlighting from Columbia raised a few eyebrows among the faculty, but gave me a fascinating insight into some seldom-visited corners of America."
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