Skip to main content

Aleksander Makal - Hebrew and Persian

'Before coming to St John's in October 2009, I took the International Baccalaureate at XXXIII Nicolaus Copernicus High School in Warsaw, Poland. I have to admit that, despite my school having a good record of students going on to study at British universities, I was concerned that my academic and linguistic background may compromise my chances of getting into Cambridge - however, I need not have worried.

'When I was choosing what to study at university level I didn't have a very clear idea about the type of career I would like to pursue thereafter. That's why I had to rely on my academic interests to navigate me through the Great Sea of Uncertainty that so often floods people's minds in the final year of high school. I had a long-lasting interest in - nay, a great passion for - languages and I enjoyed reading, talking, and writing about literature. But I also highly valued the "sobering" effect of history that helped me put things into perspective. I wanted to continue studying all three after high school and, browsing the prospectus one day, I found a course that would let me to do exactly this: AMES.

'Looking back at the admission process and in particular interviews (of which I had three in one day), I can say that there is really nothing to be afraid of. Coming from abroad, with little sense of what Cambridge interviews involved, I didn't know what to expect. I was very positively surprised when I realised that the interviews are conducted in a friendly, and not in an intimidatingly official, manner, the interviewers have a genuine interest in listening to what you have to say, challenging it, yes, but also letting you mould your thoughts anew, if necessary! I remember saying to myself after my interview with the AMES Director of Studies at St John's: "Wow! If this is how studying here looks like, then you'd better get in!" Less than a year later I arrived at St John's ready to start a four-year course in Middle Eastern Studies.

'The AMES Tripos is one of the smallest (in terms of the number of students), but at that the same time one of the most diverse, with papers on offer ranging from ancient Hebrew language to historical anthropology of the Modern Middle East. There are also some opportunities to supplement your "area studies" knowledge with a more general training in another discipline by "borrowing" papers from other departments, e.g. Linguistics or Divinity. In Part IA, I chose to combine Hebrew with Persian (which was a rather unusual combination at the time), taking also two general courses in the pre-modern and modern history of the Middle East. In my second year, building up on the linguistic achievements of Part IA, I did a course in classical Persian literature, which literally blew me away by the strangeness of form, and complexity and beauty of its language. I knew it was something I wanted to study in greater detail in Part II and, indeed, I ended up writing my undergraduate dissertation on the narratology of The Conference of the Birds by Farid al-Din ʿAttar.

'I would advise you to choose your track (East Asian or Middle Eastern Studies) and languages carefully as this will determine which papers you will be able to take in subsequent years. Also, when choosing your languages, take into account that at least one must be studied over all four years and it will involve going to a country in which it is spoken by the majority of people. Some countries become unavailable for year abroad purposes due to Foreign Office advice and the unstable political situation in the Middle East, so it is generally more prudent to take two languages from the very beginning if you feel you would like to. Studying a language, especially one which is more distant from English than, say, French or German, is a long-term venture which, though challenging at times, is very rewarding. The Faculty provides you with good language training, yet how much you benefit from it ultimately depends on how much you put in. So AMES does require a lot of independent work and self-discipline.

'All of the teaching (including supervisions) is organised by the Faculty and this is where the centre of your academic life will be. This does not mean that choosing a college is unimportant. I have benefited immensely from being part of St John's during my undergraduate years. There is a great deal of help that your College Tutor and Director of Studies can give you when things are not going so well. Moreover, St John's has a great library, generous book and travel grants (important when you want to brush up your language abroad!), and, most importantly, a diverse community of students with all possible interests which means you have best chances to find a group of friends with similar interests.

'I'm now doing a Master's programme in Middle Eastern Studies at Leiden University (NL) and only now I'm beginning to realise how much I learned in Cambridge, and how much of it is thanks to St John's!'

 - Aleksander Makal, October 2013