Saturday, 17th March was a tough day. Arguably one of the toughest I’ve experienced in Bangladesh. There are many connotations for this of course. It wasn’t tough in a physical sense. I didn’t spend the whole day doubled over toiling in the intense heat of the Bangladeshi sun in a rice paddy, or pushing my body to extreme limits on a construction site. I wasn’t peddling across Chittagong on a rickshaw from dawn until dusk, or risking my life on a beach meticulously deconstructing a huge ship. I was in fact sat at a table in an air-conditioned room on campus. Twice during the day I was brought tea and biscuits, and lunch was provided. So, in comparison to the days of most Bangladeshis, it wasn’t such a tough day at all.
However, despite all the comforts, my task for the next few hours would indeed be tough. Set down next to me was a list of eighteen names. Beside this was a list of guiding questions. Throughout the day I would be interviewing eighteen young Asian women, all harboring a dream to come and study at AUW. They’d already been on a fairly long journey (both mentally and physically) to get this far, and now they were here, at the interview stage. For some of these girls it may well have been their first experiences of a formal interview. To make matters even worse, it was probably a shock for some of them to find me sat in the interviewer’s chair. Many of our students come from conservative Muslim backgrounds and therefore may have spent their lives protected from any unessential contact with male strangers. I may be wrong, but I generally feel that some of the students found the whole interview situation even more stressful due to my presence. However, that is all part of the test in some ways, as this will be a daily occurrence if they are accepted.
When I volunteered to assist the recruitment process and conduct student interviews I had imagined it being an incredibly eye-opening experience. This it was. However, it was also emotionally grueling. There are just twenty places available to Bangladeshi students in the 2012/13 intake. Thus, roughly 90% of students interviewed would be left bitterly disappointed. It’s also important to remember that where in the UK non-admittance to a favoured university can be a huge setback, there is still often an array of equally suitable options at our disposal. For some of these students though this luxury doesn’t exist. Failure to gain a place at AUW can (for some) be a devastating blow. There are clearly other options in Bangladesh, but this institution is unique. It’s also essential to keep in mind that some of these students will have defied parents’ wishes in even applying. Therefore I knew that any judgments I made throughout the day would have a lasting effect on the lives of these hopeful students who sat before me. Their potential place at AUW didn’t rest solely on the personal interview of course. To even get to the interview stage requires many other previous assessments, and the final decision also rests on a further exam. It is an important component though.
Being the interviewer was an enlightening experience. It emphasised the importance of first impressions, and I was both pleasantly surprised, but equally a little horrified by some of the candidates’ honesty. For example, my first question was consistently the most obvious, but telling. “Why do you want to come to AUW?” Most responses were notable for their similarity to the previous student’s reply. However, two interviewees informed me straightaway that they’d applied for AUW after failing in an application for medical school. Imagine if a student turned up at an interview at Oxford and admitted they’d ended up at this point having been turned down by Cambridge! Anyway, I tried not to let this cloud my judgment, but it was certainly at the back of my mind. In some ways I found this honesty, although potentially naive, refreshing.
I met some fantastic students throughout the day. Many had sheer determination in their eyes, others a shy confidence that made it easy for me to visualise them sat in one of my classes at AUW. I sincerely wish there were places for all of them. At certain points a student would stutter or display a look of anguished frustration as she tried to gather her thoughts and construct them into the perfect answer. English is not the first language of these students and so there were times I had to fight the urge to jump in and finish the answer for them. One student stood out particularly. She made me feel totally inadequate and completely in awe. The manner in which she composed herself and responded to each question was as if she interviewed every day. She didn’t panic, but paused and contemplated, and clearly wasn’t going to be rushed. Every answer she provided was maturely considered and to the point. It was if we were sharing a conversation over a coffee rather than confined in the earnest conformity of the interview room. It’s out of my hands now, but I hope she makes it.
Once the last student had left my room for the day, I felt a sense of relief as the pressure was over. I had enjoyed it, but I felt a great weight on my shoulders. Every time another nervous student shuffled into the room clutching her education certificates I was once again filled with a degree of anticipation, but also underlying apprehension. I wrote up my reports and handed them to our admissions team. Maybe come September some of these inspiring young women will be back on campus as fully-fledged members of the AUW community.
Here’s a photo of me with one of my current classes. Students who went through this experience a year ago, but are now already contemplating completing their year in the Access Academy and starting their undergraduate courses.
p.s. if you’re wondering about the title of this blog, it’s actually the interview question which provided some of the most telling and enlightening responses.