The Summer Programmes team at King’s College London project managed the UKIERI Study India programme from 2009-2012, initially with the University of Birmingham. Each year, 200 students from across the UK travelled with the scheme to India for up to a month.
We interviewed Alexander Gerritsen (* 1992), a participant in 2012, in summer 2022.
In 2012, was your international outlook before you joined the King’s College London managed UKIERI Study India programme?
I am originally from South Africa and was quite well travelled prior to the Study India trip. In secondary school I had participated in an exchange program in China. I had to travel to places in Europe. I had a passion for history and politics in a global context and so I was aware of some of the major pressure points in the world, such territorial disputes in the South China sea and of course between India and Pakistan.
Why did you apply?
The opportunity was brought to my attention by my course leader Dr Rachel Utley from Leeds University. We had recently been studying India and evaluating whether it is or would become a Great Power in the 21st century. I had also been learning about the British Raj and in particular the Indian mutiny of 1857. I used this all in my application for the course and I was successful.
The programme sparked my career path. Without it, I would not have been aware of the opportunities available to working abroad and the excitement of being exposed to different cultures.
What are your favourite memories of being in Mumbai?
Mumbai is a great city with such a rich history and an overwhelmingly vibrant present. I loved walking along the seafront or to the Gateway of India but my favourite memories were just walking around in any part of the city as well as exploring the markets. It was helpful to have locals with us to guide us to all the best places and try all the street food.
What do you remember doing there?
All the learning activities organised by King’s and the Indian partners – we did we start with a Mumbai treasure hunt walk, which took us to the major destinations. We also had visits to the Dharavi slums and the Bombay Stock Exchange. We attended lectures on economics, history, culture and religion which was fascinating. We would also have lots of group activities on the roof of our host college, including Bollywood dances to attend. We also had local student buddies so we got to visit their house. I was even taken by my buddy Aman to the country clubs where his family had membership – which had a clear postcolonial taste. We had two free weekends so for the first one we took the train to a nearby hill station- buying a ticket was a mission. On the second weekend I organised with a few people to visit New Delhi and Agra to see the Taj. It was an adventure.
What stands out most in your memory?
For me the internship with Unmeed really stands out. This was a NGO for vulnerable children who have learning disabilities. The NGO dealt with a cross section of society and really provided support to these people. A doctor told one set of parents that their little girl would be unlikely to ever go to university. The father was defiant at first and then began to cry. It hit home how incredibly competitive education is in India. Our student buddies told us stories about it and I remember seeing the billboards with the student grades. On a slight side note, this point was also illustrated in a movie we went to watch at the cinema which was called the ‘Three Idiots’ and featured three engineering students. I remember the film clearly. It was an absolute emotional rollercoaster.
Alexander Gerritsen with friends in Mumbai 2012
Have you been back to India since?
I have sadly not yet had the chance. I was actually supposed to attend an educational event in New Delhi in April 2020 but the trip had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.
What has your career been since?
The programme was instrumental for my career as it brought me into contact with the British Council. I was able to take advantage of all the opportunities that they offer. I was selected to participate in the British Council teacher assistant course in Wuxi, China for a year and that was an incredible opportunity. I taught at a local school and had the opportunity to get to know my Chinese colleagues, learn Chinese. I then saw an opportunity in Lima, Peru, and I was offered the job to become a full time History teacher. This was brilliant and I stayed in Peru from 2015 to 2021. I travelled extensively around all of the Americas. I even swam with Great White sharks in Mexico. I did everything I could. Professionally, I advanced to teaching IGCSE and IB history and I even became a Head of department for the Theory of Knowledge. I started organising my own overseas programming, leading groups to South Africa and I participated in the Amazon raft race.
Alexander Gerritsen ten years on
What has the UKIERI Study India programme given you in hindsight?
The programme sparked my career path. Without it, I would not have been aware of the opportunities available to working abroad and the excitement of being exposed to different cultures. I fell in love with India and continue to follow their politics. On a practical note, to this day the programme allows me to have an immediate connection with Indians who I meet. We have many things to talk about!
Did you keep in touch with other participants for some time?
Yes, I certainly did for the first few years. We had reunions in London and were all involved in presenting about our experiences in UK schools. I am still connected with my friends on Facebook and Instagram. Many have been doing masters courses, either in the UK or Singapore. Some are in the United States. We occasionally catch up that way.
What are your plans now?
During COVID, I moved from Peru to Barcelona to undertake a masters in Diplomacy and International Organisations. Luckily, I am starting as a Blue Book Trainee at the Secretariat General of the EU Commission, with the duty of reporting directly to the Director General. I will be undertaking this traineeship until the end of February 2023 with the hope of finding a position in the EU afterwards.