From engineer to master's candidate: my life as a student parent at the University of Cambridge
2021-22 GREAT scholar Jaki from Kenya completed her master’s in engineering for sustainable development at the University of Cambridge in September 2022. Hear her experience of moving from Kenya to the UK with her child to study and gain the expertise she needed to reach the next stage of her career after working as an engineer for ten years.
‘I had already worked for ten years before starting my master’s’
When I started my master’s at Cambridge, I had already worked for 10 years, first as a telecommunications engineer and then in international development. What I learned during my undergraduate degree in electrical engineering was very different from what I ended up doing in practice. This is one of the reasons why I was ready to do a master’s as I wanted to gain the expertise I needed to reach the next stage in my career.
During my time working, I developed an interest in technology for development. Rather than talking to machines, I wanted to help people directly by designing good solutions for real-world problems - humanitarian, agricultural, educational and otherwise. But there was a lot I didn’t know and I recognised that I needed to develop a skill set that I didn’t already have.
That’s why I decided to go back to university.
‘The University of Cambridge is one of the best in the world’
When deciding where to do my master’s, I knew that the University of Cambridge was one of the best universities in the world. From Nairobi, Kenya, Oxbridge and other world-class universities felt like faraway fabled lands. But I threw my hat in the ring and I was accepted.
When I got into Cambridge, I had high expectations. But one thing I quickly came to realise is that people at Cambridge are human, just like me. They do great things, and I want to do great things too. There is a reason that the university still has such a good reputation after hundreds and hundreds of years.
‘I had never been in a class that was so mixed’
The engineering for sustainable development course was fascinating to me. I had never been in a class with people with such a diverse range of experiences. My classmates were from all over the world. Some came directly from their undergraduate degrees and had never worked before. And others, like me, had been working for 8-10 years, had children and were looking to either pivot their careers or improve their professional capacity.
They also came from all disciplines of engineering. There were aviation engineers, telecommunications experts, architects, environmentalists, agricultural engineers, maritime engineers and civil engineers. Think of any type of engineer, and know they were there in that room with me.
‘My course brought people together from different places to discuss common problems’
The course was not prescriptive. It was about bringing together different people from different places with different views to discuss common problems. The different opinions in the class made for some interesting and, at times, heated conversations. One person’s focus might be agricultural or digital, while another focuses on urban planning. But at the core of these, we have similar problems. If it’s poverty. If it’s a social hierarchy. If it’s capitalism. All of these things affect us in our different disciplines and we need to have a common will and common approaches, to make sure the systems work together to address the challenges.
‘I love the libraries’
I love books and I love the University of Cambridge because of the libraries. The main library is huge. There are all of these old books that were written so many hundreds of years ago. If you want to take them out, you even have to wear gloves.
The libraries also provided a great place to study and, surprisingly, to meet other members of the Cambridge community. My personal favourite is the Law Library at the Sedgewick Campus. It’s so bright and airy, and the desks have extra screens which came in handy while writing my dissertation.
‘As a parent, there are so many things that you can do with your kids’
As a parent, there are so many things that you can do with your kids in Cambridge. Whatever the season, there are always festivals, markets and events. There are lots of parks and open spaces. And there are so many other activities to do and museums to visit.
My family particularly likes the Egyptian exhibit at the Fitzwilliam which has a mummy and everybody loves a good mummy. But we also like the Museum of Computing History and the Polar Museum. Another great family hangout is the Cambridge Botanical gardens especially in the spring and summer when they have concerts.
‘Punting is a great way to see the older colleges’
We also love being outside and have tried punting. I didn’t have the balance for it and my child outdid me, which I may never live down because they could do something that I couldn’t. Punting was a good way to see the older colleges like St John’s and King’s and Christ’s College which you rarely get to see. Everybody should give it a go.
Cambridge is also a cycling city. It’s one of my favourite things about it. I don’t think I’ll ever drive a car again. In the summer, my kid and I cycled to Grantchester and swam in the river. It was a really hot summer this year and swimming in the water was a great way to cool down.
‘We love hiking’
I’m an outdoorsy person and being out in nature makes me so happy. My child and I love hiking and we’ve managed to get out of Cambridge a few times from the Lake District to the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs to Snowdonia. When we climbed Mount Snowdon in Wales, I was struck by how beautiful and dramatic it was. I had seen pictures before but didn’t expect it to be so in my face with all of the lakes and valleys.
‘When I procrastinate, I paint’
A one-year master’s is intense. You start, and you keep going continuously for 11 months. Alongside running down the River Cam, which is just amazing, I have a ‘wall of procrastination'. It’s a self-care thing. I paint when I'm procrastinating, have work to do but don’t feel like doing it, or I’m just tired. My kid paints with me too. Our collection of paintings has grown quite a bit this year. We might even have enough for an exhibition.
‘The University of Cambridge is so supportive of student parents’
The University of Cambridge is so supportive of student parents. One of the things that my college tutor helped me to do in the first month was to get funding for childcare - both from my college and the University of Cambridge.
I received funding for the whole year to put my child in after-school clubs and holiday care support for the summer, autumn and winter holidays. This meant that I could focus on my education without worrying about the cost of child care, which is quite steep in the UK. I also knew my child was safe with friends taking coding, music classes, or any other activity they enjoyed.
The University of Cambridge has an assistance programme and officer to help international student parents with education applications for their children, among other things. It’s always worth checking and proactively finding out what kind of support is available to you as some things can be a bit complicated - especially when you’re new in the UK.
All in all, I absolutely enjoyed my year of study in the UK. Although I am biased towards the University of Cambridge, I fully recommend any other UK university as a study destination for international students.