Former WHT scholars always looked dreamy when telling us about the days at the Cumberland Lodge. “It’s really special”, they’d recall. When our bus drove through the bare trees of Windsor Great Park, on a sunny winter morning, we were quickly ushered into the lodge’s old Victorian library to find out why.
Interview and presentation skills were the first part of the programme. But in order to really get through to any public, we were encouraged to look deeper into ourselves. In order to connect, we had to get personal. We had to tell our stories. We had to convey our “personal truth”. It was the start of a journey where we laid bare aspects of our personalities and our aspirations, exposing each other to our colleagues, and even to ourselves.
We were divided into groups of five, and our first exercise was an imaginary job interview. If interviews with future employers are often quite intimidating, introducing ourselves for a dream job in front of fellow scholars wasn’t exactly easy – especially being filmed on camera and having to watch our performances back to scrutinise content, body language, and tone. But because we had built an environment of trust, it felt ok to expose ourselves. It was intimate and empowering. Watching what our colleagues were doing, their strengths and weaknesses, we were inspired to enhance our own performances.
The next step was to develop a presentation. Being a journalist, I decided to speak of a pressing challenge faced in my profession today: the spread of fake news in the digital era. The simple techniques we learned to structure our ideas made me feel a lot more equipped for speaking in public. My instinct had been to conceive a fact-driven presentation. But I was amazed to see how creative and bold some of my colleagues were. They embraced this opportunity to convey life lessons they had learned, or to nudge people into action.
“Choose a problem to solve”, challenged Arlette. She had chosen education – what would we pick? “Choose someone to mentor”, prompted Dennis. As he knew too well, this could transform someone’s life. In a success-driven world, Nsuku flipped the idea of “failure” on its head. “Congratulations for your failure”, she began – “may it bring you great successes”. She encouraged us to “fail forward”. We learned of Vignesh’s brave encounter with a King Cobra – risking his own life to protect the venomous snake from townsfolk at the south of the Indian Western Ghats mountain range, moved by his passion for biodiversity. And small Yeukai suddenly towered before us, presenting herself as a leader to help better her home country Zimbabwe, and the African continent, without a hint of hesitation in her powerful speech.
Cumberland was also about further developing our networking, writing and entrepreneurial skills. We learned useful tricks to engage in conversation at social events and establish valuable professional connections for the future. We were taught basic principles for writing clearly and effectively for the internet. And we had the opportunity to present the projects we developed in the WHT Enterprise Challenge projects to a panel of experts.
Bivishika, Andi, Minah, Suta, Gurmehar, Gosia and Shabana all shined while showcasing their groups’ ideas and the problems they strived to tackle – in fields as varied as healthcare, sustainability, education, childcare and cybersecurity. The panel’s response was both encouraging and thought-provoking. They challenged us to better outline our business models, to narrow down scopes of action that were still too broad, to think hard about competitors who were already in the market and not be naïve about the possibility that a good idea might easily be absorbed by well-established companies with much more power – so what would our unique selling point really be?
Beyond the high-level training and discussion sessions, however, what made Cumberland so special was everything in between: the coffee breaks with panettone, biscuits and mince pies brought by Jane and Maggie; the unique experience of being in a park with a curfew from dusk until dawn – after all, we had to mind our royal neighbours; the cold walk led by Alexandra at 8am sharp to hill with the Copper Horse – so that we’d get a glimpse of the Windsor Palace before leaving the Great Park; the warm dinners followed by drinks at the bar, and energetic sessions of ping-pong and foosball and dancing in the basement; marvelling at the different styles of body moves and grooves gathered here from across geographies, in a group that unites such different cultures and world views.
Cumberland was about developing valuable professional skills, but it was also about bonding, nurturing friendships and strengthening ties that will last far beyond Oxford. What a privilege and inspiration it is to be part of this group.