When I was a first-year student at Al-Quds Bard College in Jerusalem, I never thought about graduate school. I only thought about earning my degree.
However, my experiences there—taking courses on the Palestine-Israel conflict, media law and ethics and Arab cinema; doing volunteer work teaching young kids; and producing short films about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, women’s rights and other issues—made me think about my responsibility toward my society and how I needed to gain more knowledge to live up to that responsibility.
Now I am in London at SOAS University of London (School of Oriental and African Studies), where I’m in the master’s program in Critical Media and Cultural Studies.
The trajectory from the Palestinian refugee camp where I grew up, with all its social and economic barriers, to a graduate school in a foreign capital was not quick or easy, but my persistence paid off. Here are some observations from my experience that I hope will help other students from the Middle East and countries in conflict zones who want to make a similar journey.
To enter a foreign postgraduate program—especially a Western university program—you need very good grades, a detailed CV, good recommendations, a personal statement, and, most important for most students, funding.
You also need passion. You need to begin building your application a year or more before you actually file it. That takes dedication and time.
For example, every day is an opportunity to improve yourself and add to your CV.
I remember my first volunteer work at Al-Quds University. I helped improve the media office, starting with the university website. Designing and programming, which were not among my academic interests, gave me practical knowledge and skills.
Thus, I can fairly say on my CV that I have strong computer skills.
One of my teachers once told me that I could “lie” on my CV while applying to universities. You can’t do that. But you can value everything you do so that you can include it on your CV.
I volunteered for an organization that fights diabetes. That experience showed how I wanted to help my community. I worked with UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees. That was experience for an international institution.
Your personal statement is an important essay that reflects your postacademic experience, professional background, interests and goals. As you write it, one of the most important things is to relate your professional background to your academic career.
My work at Associated Reporters Abroad (ARA), a freelance journalism collective and independent news agency, significantly strengthened my CV and my personal statement. It was an opportunity that I seized. It took hard work and inspired me with a passion for journalism. Moreover, ARA expanded my professional network. I worked with journalists from Berlin, London, the United States and Egypt. I wrote for Al-Fanar Media through ARA. This experience was perfect for my personal statement.
To have strong recommendations, I needed people to acknowledge my strengths and ambitions. ARA editors wrote recommendations for me. Along with my professor’s letters, I had a broad set of people attesting to my preparedness for a British university.
I applied to eight universities. But I most wanted to attend either SOAS or the Media, Gender, and Cultures program at Goldsmiths, University of London.
I chose those programs because they reflected my passions: gender and media–what does a country and society need to realize the potential of both? I always think, “How can I improve Palestine? How can I empower women?”
In my personal statement, I wrote about how I wanted to develop perspectives on those questions. I had never taken a course solely on gender, I explained. Postgraduate studies were an opportunity for me to take courses that focused on gender.
I included personal experience, like how as a postbaccalaureate fellow at Al-Quds Bard College, a handful of female students asked me to persuade their parents to let them study abroad at the college’s exchange programs in Germany, the United States, Russia and other countries.
The last and the hardest part was funding. Studying abroad is expensive and requires money for everything: travel fees, the visa, airline tickets, living expenses like accommodations and food, and of course tuition and other academic expenses.
Foreign students studying in the United Kingdom pay double, compared to U.K. residents. Life in the U.K. is not cheap, either. Students need about £1,500 a month for room, board, transportation and other expenses for even a modest lifestyle.
As a Palestinian, I applied for the most competitive scholarships available, like those of the Saïd Foundation, where I was interviewed twice, and the British government’s Chevening Scholarship, but was not selected by either. I received the British Council’s Higher Education Scholarship Palestine, or HESPAL, which would have paid for me to go to the London School of Economics, but I didn’t want to go to that university.
I thought these were my only choices, but then I discovered a Felix Scholarship grant for students from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. As part of the scholarship, I received free accommodations at the International Students House in London’s Marylebone district. I am grateful to the founder of the Felix Scholarship to say the least.
I had looked for funding for two years before finding this program. Do not limit yourself to what you know. Keep looking.
I’m studying hard every day. But remember that I have no job waiting for me in Palestine.
According to the World Bank Organization, the unemployment rate in Palestine was 32.4 percent in the second quarter of 2018, the highest rate in two decades.
But life is about taking risks and fulfilling one’s passions.
Asma’ Jawabreh is a Palestinian student and journalist who has been blogging about her educational experience for Al-Fanar Media. Read more of her blog posts and reporting here: https://www.al-fanarmedia.org/contributor/asma-jawabreh/