1978 arts graduate Stuart Black recalls his unconventional entry to university and the winding path to finding an enjoyable career in international development.
|Year of Graduation
Your time at the University
I grew up in Canada and Jamaica, and after completing high school in Canada I wanted to travel. So at the age of 19, when everything seems uncertain, I came to the UK to visit my relatives in England and Scotland. The first thing I did after arriving was apply to attend university, with Edinburgh as my first and perhaps only choice. My parents were both from Edinburgh and both had attended Edinburgh University (neither of them passed).
While waiting for news of my acceptance, I befriended some Scottish students who were attending Edinburgh University, who had grown up in similar circumstances to me in Pakistan, Kenya and Guyana. We took various jobs in restaurants and pubs, and traveled around Europe on train passes. However, the news never came. I phoned the admissions department and was told that they had not received my application. But as luck would have it, prior to this, I had met a Maths Director at the university who helped me secure places in the classes I wanted to take. The admissions department was a bit reluctant, but they eventually admitted me, and I was quite happy to start a week late as I had come in through the back door.
Paying the fees was the next hurdle. I had anticipated that, as my parents were Scottish, I would be admitted (free) as a Scottish student. However, because I had not attended school in Scotland, I was considered a foreign student, and had to pay exorbitant fees (400 GBP! which increased to 600 in second year and 800 in third). I applied and was accepted by the Carnegie Trust, which was established by Andrew Carnegie (the American steel magnate) to assist students of Scottish descent to attend university.
On weekends, I worked at the Yellow Carvel pub (now the Tron pub) until 11:00 pm, following which I would make my way to Teviot Row, buy a pint for the doormen, and get let in through the back door (this was becoming common practice).
I attended classes in English, maths, history and philosophy and linguistics, and shared a flat with four friends who were studying medicine and law. I wasn’t a very attentive student. But one of my English profs (Paul Edwards, who used to bring his homemade beer to tutorial to encourage the shy Scottish students to speak out more) said, “If you are stupid and work hard you will pass, if you are smart and don’t work you will pass, the only way to fail is if you are stupid and don’t work”. I managed to pass all my subjects, apart from linguistics, but I took criminology — just in case I needed a backup course to pass.
I spent far too much time in pubs and partying, and not enough time studying and hiking in the countryside. Although, I did go waterskiing on Loch Lomond in October (once, never again), and I went on two trips to Switzerland with the ski club, where we had lots of fun with impulsive food fights and general carousing.
Your experiences since leaving the University
After being away from home for three years, I started to appreciate the freer lifestyle that Canada had to offer. So I was glad to figure out where ‘home’ was. But I realized that I didn’t have a clear career path. So I spent a year upgrading my general Arts BA to an honours in History. While attending classes at the University of Western Ontario, I realized that 12 years of school and three years of university had not taught me to write clearly. I also realized the difference between the expectations at universities in the UK (where you were part of an elite club) and North America, where you were expected to produce properly researched academic essays.
After a year I was still no closer to a career path that I was happy with. My studies seemed to be leading me towards teaching, which I had no interest in. But one of my fellow history students was planning on doing a one year master’s degree in International Affairs, at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa. I jumped at the opportunity, and applied. I had to do a qualifying year because I did not have the prerequisite courses in Economics and Political Science.
After finishing my MA, this degree provided better options for a career path: a) Foreign Service, b) working in developing countries with the United Nations, or c) Academia.
I applied for and was offered a two-year internship with United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), working as a Junior Professional Officer (JPO) in Jamaica. This was a fantastic opportunity, as only eight positions were offered each year, paid for by the Canadian government. My fellow students were placed in Syria, Mozambique, Costa Rica, among other places. I used this experience to apply for other overseas projects, and landed two public sector and training projects in the Caribbean, two years each in Dominica and Barbados.
While I did not figure out my career path until several years after attending Edinburgh University, the BA Arts degree I was awarded provided me the opportunity to pursue further studies, which led to the career path I stumbled onto. So a big thank you to the admissions officer who let me in the backdoor. Over the years, my level of patience has dropped to the point where I now prefer to go on shorter assignments (two weeks) but I still get to do a lot of traveling to the Caribbean, Africa, Eastern Europe and the Pacific to do something I very much enjoy.
While I did not figure out my career path until several years after attending Edinburgh University, the BA Arts degree I was awarded provided me the opportunity to pursue further studies, which led to the career path I stumbled onto.
I would highly recommend anyone interested in international development (or climate change) to look into internship opportunities with UN agencies or the World Bank.
The Junior Professional Officer position is paid for by various governments, most European countries and Japan, but unfortunately not the UK. It is one of the few ways to get into the UN system, and it gives young graduates an opportunity to turn their degree into a career. Unfortunately, the JPO position is no longer offered by Canada, and only six month, self-financed “Junior internship” positions are available. Nevertheless, a six-month internship will still provide students with a good career-launching opportunity. And once you have some experience under your belt, this can lead toothed opportunities.
The JPO programme (external link)
United Nations Development Programme (external link)