My first day at school


I can’t remember writing a ‘first day’ essay when I first entered primary or high school; but I did write one when I entered Government office for the first time. As I am getting accustomed to the academic words such as library, attendance, assignment all over again after 6.5 years, my first day at Blavatnik School of Government (BSG) remained a special one.

26th September, 2013 – I got up as early as 3-00AM just to realize I was running 4.5 hours behind my usual sleeping cycle. The wait for the morning sun allowed me a good amount of time to reflect back on my journey from Agia to Oxford, to remove the airline tags from my suitcases and to take the first shower in this new country. The electric power points of my room were not allowing my Indian laptop chargers to make love and consequently, I was left with only 53 seconds to check the dress code from the BSG pre arrival newsletter – ‘Smart casual’. You have no idea how difficult these dress codes are for someone who knows only two uses of clothes – decent enough to cover private parts (in my county) and comfortable enough to do coding continuously for 24-30 hours (while working for Microsoft). Well, the dress code became real fun at the time of welcome dinner – I will write about that later.

I know my batch mates will envy this, but I couldn’t help sharing the statistics – I took only 53 seconds from my room to reach the BSG entrance door. The famous cover photo of the BSG Facebook page was right on top of my head as I entered my new existence for the next year.

The entrance lobby, probably accommodating more people than its carrying capacity, was filled with voices of different accents. The first hour of the first day for the 66 carefully selected individuals from 39 different countries and territories – I took the opportunity to observe these ‘supposedly’ future leaders by standing in a corner of the lobby. For the first time in my life I was watching human beings of so many physical orientations and colours at one place. However, my observatory mode was soon cut short and I joined the bandwagon trying to remember each other’s name and nationality.

At 9-28 AM, we were taken upstairs to the Lecture room and the welcome session started. The individuals, with whom I had been communicating only via email since September-2012, suddenly became ‘live’ – some turned out to be shorter, some longer, or some maybe a bit fairer. I loved the fact that BSG started with the explanation of the logistics for the day before the dean started giving the welcome address. It was a small point – but very useful when you had hardly an hour’s sleep and no food for last 20 hours.

Professor Ngaire Woods, the inaugural dean of our school focussed on having three things in her welcome speech — Respect, Integrity and Generosity. One of her statements is still resonating in my ears – ‘Oxford doesn’t like change’. In a way that gave answers to many of my questions that arose just after arriving Oxfordshire.

The associate director Peter A. Kemp, along with the other faculty members explained to us the individual modules that we are going to study in the coming nine months. No matter what my conclusions were after multiple comparisons of BSG’s course outline with the leading policy schools of the world, mere listening to the approaches of the professors convinced and excited me fully. Bring it on…!!

The introduction of the new students was an important activity of the first day. Everybody enjoyed the bits of humour as we had to introduce the person sitting next to us, rather than introducing ourselves. I experimented with this once in my home library to save time and the same purpose was attained today at BSG as well (it’s fine, I am not interested in copyright :) ). Here went my first public speaking at BSG to introduce the wonderful Charlie from Ghana to the class.

The lunch..hmm! There is a saying in my province back in India – ‘a monkey can never understand the value of diamond’. Well, I am not a monkey and the lunch was delicious. I have a small proposal here: for the greater interest of India-UK relationship, ‘bread in India’ and ‘rice in UK’ should be promoted in a large scale. I might write a ‘policy brief’ on this proposal by the end of my course.

In between, professor Ngaire Woods explained us the five key MPP skills and the expectations of the school from every one of us. ‘Expectation management’ is a super important area and everybody found these talks very useful. The first and foremost expectation was to attend every class on time which, in other words this means no bunking! One of my Indian friends rightly told me “you are going to a school, not a college”. Got the point now!

It was 3-40 PM when the day’s activity came to an end, giving us three hours to prepare for the opening dinner at Rhodes house. To be honest, I didn’t want my first day at school to come to an end so early; I absorbed myself in watching the portraits hanged in the lobby and staircases. It was a great feeling to be where you always wanted to be. A bit of self-contentment made me nostalgic. But soon I was interrupted by the growing whispers whose summary was ‘what are you wearing for today’s black-tie event?’

Black tie – 4 months ago when I was secretly Googling this pair of words, my friends in Mizoram (India) caught me from behind, gave a 2-hour lecture and ended up gifting me some dressing items – what awesome friends I have! Well, it was my first day at school and I thought wearing national dress would be a more humble way to present myself. But is India not known for its rich diversity? One dress, one religion, one language, one dance – these are not even theoretical concepts in India. I ended up wearing three pieces representing India (Kurta), Assam (Gamocha) and an Assamese tribe (Mising kamij). Funny combination? I admit, but c’mon, who knew me here?

To start with, we had a group photo with the dean and the same is currently the background of the homepage of the BSG website. Getting a nice photo of 67 people was indeed a difficult task. Soon the pre-dinner drink service started. Here went some cultural shocks – firstly, you could take alcohol with your professors; secondly, it was late evening and people were still discussing about the morning weather. Ok, I am in the UK!

Next was the most anticipated opening dinner which was also attended by Leonard Blavatnik, the American philanthropist and Andrew Hamilton, the vice chancellor of Oxford University. There were three tables of ‘The last Supper’ standard and a printed list to guide who would sit where. It was a typical British royal dinner; I found so many other things to swallow apart from the food. The conversations with Dr Atif, who is also my supervisor and Professor Monica were very thought provoking. The beautiful live music played by one young British singer just added a mesmerizing flavour to the whole evening.

As I walked back to my college accommodation along the empty streets of Oxford around midnight, I tried to remember every little thing I witnessed since morning. It was a whole new world, but somehow I felt myself to be a part of this new place. I realized its people who create the boundaries, places don’t.

I thanked my birthplace, and I thanked Oxford.

Manjit Nath is a MPP student of the 2013 cohort at the Blavatnik School of Government. Manjit is from the north-eastern part of India and currently a resident of University College.

Image L-R: Manjit Nath, Rahul Nayar, Aaron Maniam, Lekha Sridhar, Melvyn Lubega, and Mehreen Shahid from the MPP 2013 cohort at the Opening Dinner. Picture: John Cairns. Copyright: Blavatnik School of Government.