If you could have dinner with any figure from history who would it be?

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.

7 responses

  1. Quite the experience; I’m sure you did the interview process justice! Way to leave a cliffhanger at the end of your post though – what were some of their answers?! Can we know or is confidentiality in play?

    I think I would have dinner with David Bowie’s dad, just to have a chat.

    March 22, 2012 at 3:50 am

  2. Jim

    Surprised you didnt try the brick or window routine stanlake!

    March 22, 2012 at 4:54 am

  3. Robbie

    John another excellent blog and I hope you are going to write a book at some point about all your experiences as it would open peoples eyes to things that they do not normally see or hear about!

    March 22, 2012 at 5:17 pm

  4. Alyssa

    Interviewing was really hard when I did it, too, for the same reasons–I remember a lot of those same experiences. I hope that the interviewees you like make it in.

    March 22, 2012 at 8:40 pm

  5. Dad

    Good experience for you John and may the best applicants win !

    March 28, 2012 at 3:41 am

  6. Sir, I am very surprised.
    After reading the entry, I miss the day when I have an interview in the entrance exam of AUW. I am reading, but maybe I am having an interview again in this year with the question “If you could have dinner with any figure from history who would it be?” which is simmilar fellings over a year ago.
    I think you will be a wonderful interviewer in the heart of candidates.
    Interviewing, a great job for you, Sir!

    May 24, 2012 at 9:05 am

  7. I had answered this question last year. Like any candidates, I also had difficulty answering a question in English which is not my native language. And like you, my interviewer understood and helped us to finish the answer if we paused. The last purpose was creating a chance for us to win a place at AUW, right?
    After a year, although the speed is not high, I myself recognize my little improvement.
    Thanks for understanding the difficulty of candidates. And I have to admit that I can understand what you say after 2 classes in the third semester. Is that the result of AA year?
    Sir, You did a good job and I think all candidates will be graceful to you because at least they practised and talked to a foreigner who comes from England, the town of English.

    May 26, 2012 at 10:42 am

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