FOR a group of fellows at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, in the United Kingdom, breakfast is not just the first meal of the day; it is also an opportunity to exchange opinions and to learn from each other.From topics as diverse as funeral rituals to working styles, the discussions offer a space to debate, and even serve as a reminder that one should constantly read and keep updated on current issues and world affairs.
“There is a tradition here at Wolfson College, that the dining area is a neutral social space where you talk to everyone as equals, whether they are a student, professor, fellow or staff member,” said Wolfson Press Fellowship (WPF) programme director Prof John Naughton.
“It’s not designed to be status driven, but rather to encourage interaction. You could one day be sitting next to the man who invented the AIDS test, the next day with a Royal Society fellow, and the following day an architect or an engineer.
“The point is to be exposed to a wide range of people living in a college, rather than being limited to meeting people from the same department,” he said.
The WPF is a 10-week media fellowship designed and organised by Wolfson College for mid-career journalists.
The programme has had over 300 press fellows from 50 countries since its inception in 1982.
More than 50 Malaysian journalists and communications practitioners have undergone the fellowship since 1987.
Khazanah Nasional Bhd has been sponsoring Malaysian journalists and staff members from Khazanah or a Khazanah-linked company (KLC) for the fellowship since 2013 (with the exception of 2020 and 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic).
To date, Khazanah has sponsored 14 Malaysian journalists from mainstream media organisations, as well as six Khazanah and KLC staff members.
Khazanah’s continued support for this fellowship is also aligned with its focus on building capacities among Malaysians under its new strategic imperative of “Advancing Malaysia”.
In line with the idea of “Advancing Malaysia”, Prof Naughton said he hopes the WPF results in more well-rounded individuals who then go on to empower others and make their communities better.
The WPF, he added, provides an opportunity for journalists to take a step back from their job requirements and undertake research in their areas of interest under the guidance of a supervisor.Their areas of interest, however, must be related to media and communications.
The press fellows, he said, get access to everything that the university has to offer.
That means some 100 libraries within the university network, lectures, events, seminars – ‒ whatever that interests them and is relevant to their work.
They get time away from normal work, so that there are no distractions in carrying out their research, Prof Naughton explained.
“We try to impose as little structure as possible, with the only exceptions being a daily breakfast and weekly seminars,” he said, adding that the aim of the WPF is to let people decompress and think, and try to provide an environment where that is possible.
“The idea is that if we immerse talented journalists from around the world in a university environment, good things will happen ‒ for them, the college and sometimes even the world.
“In recent years, one of the delights of our Press Fellowship programme has been the regular presence of Malaysian journalists, including a number of ‘stars’ from The Star (see table),” he said.
People outside of Cambridge, he added, sometimes forget that the traffic in ideas is a two-way street.
“Our overseas press fellows benefit, we hope, from being immersed in what one of them memorably described as ‘the ambient IQ’ of a great university.
“What we learn from them is that while independent journalism is always challenging, the challenges differ from culture to culture.
“Good journalism sometimes involves telling the public things that it doesn’t want to hear.
“Sitting with our Malaysian fellows at our daily working breakfasts, I have been continually amazed by their resourcefulness and ingenuity in navigating a media, cultural and political environment that is more complex than ours in the UK or in continental Europe – which is why I look forward to learning from a new cohort every year!”
Prof Naughton shared how being a member of a college was a key element to the fellowship and likened it to being a member of a tribe.
“There are 31 colleges at the University of Cambridge, and they are all self-governing, autonomous institutions.
“The colleges are where students live and are attached to, while the university is the central body that runs lectures, awards degrees and employs academic staff.
“Being in a college is like being a member of a tribe – they are all different and have distinct characteristics. When you join one tribe or family, you get a sense of belonging,” he said.
Describing Wolfson College as relatively modern compared to the older colleges, Prof Naughton said unlike the older ones established before 1800, Wolfson was founded in 1965.
“Wolfson College, which mostly houses postgraduates and mature students, is egalitarian and cosmopolitan as it is represented by 90 nationalities.”
Prof Naughton, a technology columnist, revealed that the fellowship has changed the press fellows in different ways.
“It gives them a sense of self-esteem that journalists sometimes don’t have. Others are deeply affected when working on a particular topic and run into people for whom this is a life’s work,” he said, sharing that for some, their WPF research project winds up being a book proposal and the fellows go on to become successful authors.
“Some of the former press fellows shared that they finally decided to do what they wanted to do and made a big break, career-wise.
“Many others achieved personal and sometimes career developments as a result of the fellowship.”Wolfson Press Fellows from The StarCecilia Kok (2013)Research area: Issues and challenges related to business journalism
Abdul Razak Ahmad Idris (2014)Research area: How Malaysian media practitioners can promote greater multi-ethnic and multi-religious tolerance and understanding
Tan Shiow Chin (2015)Research area: The causes of obesity from the perspective of the United Kingdom and Malaysia
Christina Chin (2018)Research area: Ways to improve the reporting of ecigarettes and vape from a medical and technological perspective
Jade Chan (2022)Research area: How placemaking can benefit the community and environment