A conversation with Alex Gilbert Naijuka-Njuneki on studying abroad

Alex is an East African lawyer based in Nairobi and Kampala. He holds an LLB from the University of Nairobi, a Diploma from Kenya School of Law and an LLM in International Law from China University of Political Science and Law. We caught up with Alex to discuss his journey so far and his experience studying far away from home. Here’s how the conversation went…

Q- What made you want to do a masters?

A- Having worked for slightly over a year after undergrad (and sitting the bar) and learned so much on the job, I realised what kind of work I liked doing and got interested in taking that career path. I felt that a masters degree would be beneficial not only for my legal knowledge but also my career growth. It had also always been on my bucket list, so by the time I made up my mind to start my applications, it wasn’t a difficult decision.

Q- How did you decide on what masters programme to do and the university?

A- I narrowed down what I enjoyed doing from the all the internships I’d had in undergrad and also everything I’d done professionally post-graduation. I made a pros and cons list of the masters courses I felt I liked. Then I did my research on different programmes at different universities worldwide and which ones would be relevant to me, should I decide to move back to Uganda and Kenya. Luckily, some of my clients had been Chinese and I was interested in something that would teach me more about the law in China as well as international law aspects, especially in the fields of trade and investment.

I applied to several universities in China, the U.K., Australia and South Africa. I got accepted to all of them but my decision ultimately came when I thought of diversity in terms of the learning experience. That’s where China stood out the most. More so, China University of Political Science and Law’s (CUPL) International Law LLM had everything I needed. English taught, a workable timetable that catered to foreigners, professionals and those who might have travel considerations, an intense teaching curriculum that encouraged students to do research on their own.

Not to mention, I was offered a full scholarship to study at CUPL which heavily reduced the financial burden compared to my other offers which had partial funding or none at all.

Q- How did you find the course?

A- I did a lot of research through google (Google is my best friend). I was also lucky enough to have known a friend who had studied there for a year on an exchange program prior. I did as much as I could to figure out what the requirements were, the university’s ranking and history as well as student life there for foreign students.

Q- What did you love most about it and what did you find the most challenging?

A- I liked that the term times were very accommodative. Given that the programme was catered to foreign/international students, it took into consideration both the Christmas break as well as the Chinese New Year and the summer break. Many of the exam requirements were based on research papers as opposed to written examinations so a semester that would begin in September, would essentially be done by the end of November or first week of December since written exams would be done by mid-December if there were any and ample time was given to submit research papers online so you didn’t have to stay on campus. The spring semester would begin in mid- February and end in May.

Also, you were able to do all the requisite class credits in the first year by taking as many classes as possible and free up your second year to focus on your dissertation, so essentially you could be able to go back to work in your second year if you so choose. As long as you met your supervisor’s requirement for your dissertation and the deadlines.

Additionally, I loved that the course relied on research. A lot of the lecturers would teach the basics but expect you to do the bulk of the reading on your own. Some had weekly readings that made it much easier the following week to grasp concepts in class. It prepared us for our own research when it came to our dissertations since we’d spent a year basically doing what was required to make it on our own. And being a class with many nationalities, mostly European, Pacific Nations, Asian and American (North and South), the exchange of ideas and the opportunity to learn from the thinking in different legal systems was a gold mine.

We also had the opportunity to study some Chinese legal courses which we would never have gotten first-hand anywhere else. And there were free Mandarin classes for anyone who wanted to enroll within the university for the duration of your stay.

The most challenging aspect of my entire experience was being one of eleven black students on campus at any given time out of the multitude of Asians and Caucasians. And also, some people had limited mindsets when it came to their ideas on the African legal system or anything to do with Africa (and black culture) as a whole. I was in a class with only two other black people in my first semester and one African my entire course. If anything, it took a lot of educating inside and out of the classroom to have a meeting of the minds.

The second most challenging aspect of the course was figuring out how to navigate as many legal aspects as possible. Coming from a common law jurisdiction, a few aspects of the law were more liberal than they are internationally while others were slightly different. But eventually, I was able to broaden my scope of view from the more municipal to international, so it was an added bonus.

Q- Would you recommend the course to our members?

A- I definitely would. There’s so much to learn and experience and China is a good place to have that. Both academically and otherwise. One of the things I admired about Chinese culture is their hard work which I did my best to emulate. I was able to achieve so much just by keeping my focus on what my goal was and produced excellent results. Graduated with a 4.0 GPA, was on the Dean’s List every semester since I joined, and graduated among the top of the 2020 class. I also had the opportunity to travel within China and within Beijing. Met some incredible people and lifelong friends in the process too. Moreover, the opportunity for funding through the China Scholarship Council is available to people from most countries so it’s worth the attempt at the very least.

Q- Were you home-sick at any point and how did you deal with that?

A- I made the decision not to leave China during my summer holiday last year and I was terribly homesick. And with most people having travelled home for the holiday, those three and a half months were quite challenging. However, I was in luck as summertime in China is a very vibrant time of the year. There were a bunch of activities that I was occupied with and also got the opportunity to attend conferences and seminars through my university that aided travel to different parts. So as long as I kept myself occupied, it wasn’t too much to bear. And of course, constant calls and video calls with family and friends helped to bridge the gap for the time. Having been the only time I didn’t go home during a semester break, it served as another of many learning experiences in China.

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