Introduction to ‘To Grow a Tree’

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My experience as an international student in the United Kingdom has opened my eyes to dynamic worlds, which I realised and accepted to make sense of my reality. After arriving in London from Lagos, Nigeria in 2012, I learnt to think differently of my identity as a Black, African male in England. This character has its subsequent roles, which shape what I can and cannot do, and things I must bear in mind before approaching anyone to start a conversation.

I grew to understand that, the life I lived in Nigeria was different to what I was about to experience in the United Kingdom. In my home city – Uyo, Nigeria, it is extremely rare to stumble onto someone who is not Black African, and as a result, I grew up thinking only that of myself, because that is the identity I had been assigned by my local space.

In a diverse nation like the United Kingdom, the ‘African’ part of my identity, I have found, has been made secondary, and I have been perceived first and foremost as Black. The denotation of this has entailed being cautious while in shops because of suspicion by shopkeepers, aroused by my presence. Also, walking on the road and seeing others cross to the other lane upon my nearness towards them. On a more positive note, I have been labelled as ‘cool’ by some, because I fit the physical description of popular figures from Urban Culture.

I was fascinated by the everyday difference I experienced whenever I left my house, and inspired to create a piece, which would explore the lives of other international students and unravel their version of events within the nation.

My documentary is relevant because it provides an opportunity for ‘the other’, who in this case happen to be international students, to speak up and have their feelings and voices dhered. Universities UK International estimates that, as at 2014, the United Kingdom was the second most popular destination for international study (Universities UK International 2017). It is furthermore highlighted that, a whopping number of 438,010 international students studied in the United Kingdom in 2015-16 (Ibid 2017). Aside the wealth of knowledge and culture, which international students add to British society and universities, we are also projected to contribute over £9.3 billion to the British economy, which makes up for 12.5 percent of UK Universities funding (National Union of Students 2016). This reinforces the need for enlightenment on our experiences, which is what To Grow a Tree looks to do; to inform a British audience on everyday realities of international students, which often gets overlooked. Coventry University is identified as the fourth largest recruiter of international students in the nation, for the year 2015-16 (UK Council for International Student Affairs 2017). This makes the University an interesting place for my research, as its high number of international students allows for a wider variety of perspective to be tapped from.

The title: ‘To Grow a Tree’ connotes the idea of an individual undergoing development, as a result of internationalisation. I represent individuals in this instance as trees, as they too are embodiments of life and growth. For most international students that I have spoken to, this is the primary purpose behind their decision to study abroad – to develop themselves in one aspect of life or another, and gain experiences that, they would not be able to gain back home.

The title symbolises the notion of ‘community’. This is signified as a tree once more. Trees are made up of branches which grow freely in their preferred directions, and the culmination of all of these branches form the collective entity.

The process of growing a tree demands action and hard work. One needs to dig the soil firstly and plant a seed, with the expectation of growth in mind. In order for the tree to grow and flourish, it needs to be taken care of. So, we often have to water and fertilise it, and exercise patience afterwards, even when it seems like progress is not being made.

Seasons differ. During certain periods, less hard work would be demanded from the individual, but others would require extensive hours of work and care onto the project. In order to develop something that would last long and be sustainable for the future, longer hours of commitment are often required likewise.

The fruits that trees bear make the development process worth it. For an international student, the thought of a prosperous future makes the risk of international study, and all of its challenges worth it.

One of the reasons why I am an international student is because of expectations that my family and self have, for me to achieve a better life. As a result, I have a responsibility to keep on striving to meet up with these expectations, as I have other people who matter dearly to me watching on and observing my growth.

To Grow a Tree entails expectations placed on the shoulders of international students by their families, societies and self. ‘To grow’ is to undergo challenges, engage and interact with people from different backgrounds, develop a fresh understanding of self. ‘A tree’ is the international student: the project considered worthy by her family, society and self for this experiment in the United Kingdom. The unique foreign individual is often somebody who has been nurtured her entire life, in hopes that one day, she will bear fruits, achieve her ‘greater purpose’, and be a source of joy and inspiration to her family and community.

In contrast to my other documentaries, To Grow a Tree sees me make an onscreen appearance – my first ever. I decided to do this because, I felt it was necessary for my audience to have a person narrating the events of the documentary and speaking to participants, in order to represent my message as humane and something worth relating to, and caring about. Also, I hoped because I am an international student too, my participants would feel more comfortable expressing themselves and narrating their experiences to me.

My work borrows heavily from Louis Theroux’s documentary style, which sees him constantly immerse himself into a space with a curious mind and uncover as much as he can about his participants and their lifestyles. Specific documentaries of his, which To Grow a Tree references include:

  • Dark States 1. Heroin Town (2017)
  • Dark States 2. Trafficking Sex (2017)
  • Dark States 3. Murder in Milwaukee (2017)
  • Transgender Kids (2017)
  • Miami Mega-Jail 1 & 2 (2011)

Because I was making my first onscreen performance, I felt the need to identify a mentor who I would resonate with, and follow in his footsteps, whilst expressing myself in my own unique way.

My documentary highlights a range of themes and discourses, including:

  • Emotional Labour
  • Structure, Power and Agency
  • Relevance of Everyday life and Ordinariness

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In this documentary, I aim to reflect what it means to be an international student, and the reality that follows. This sees me interviewing my participants in their residential homes, in hopes of capturing ‘student life’. This is often typified in rituals practised amongst housemates, items in the living room and kitchen, as well as their arrangements.

To Grow a Tree uses open-ended questions in creating more room for participants to express themselves.

I shall take my audience on a journey with me, as I explore the ways in which international students settle into the United Kingdom upon arrival, and discuss the complexities of this experience. I shall focus on the identity of these individuals who have embarked upon a journey, leaving their homelands, in hopes of gaining a meaningful experience, and exploring what the nation has to offer them. My work aims to challenge presuppositions about international students and obtain first-hand knowledge of what it means to be an international student in the United Kingdom.

 

Bibliography

National Union of Students (2016) The importance of international students [online] available from <https://www.nus.org.uk/en/news/the-importance-of-international-students/> [5th December 2017].

Theroux, L (2017) ‘Dark States 1. Heroin Town’ [online] available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0991fsb> [4th December 2017].

Theroux, L (2017) ‘Dark States 2. Trafficking Sex’ [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b099wspk> [4th December 2017].

Theroux, L (2017) ‘Murder in Milwaukee’ [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b099wspk> [4th December 2017].

Theroux, L (2011) ‘Miami Mega-Jail 1’ [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011k0xx> [4th December 2017].

Theroux, L (2011) ‘Miami Mega-Jail 2’ [online] available from < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b011qd97> [4th December 2017].

Theroux, L (2017) ‘Transgender Kids’ [online] available from <http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02n5fmf> [4th December 2017].

UK Council for International Student Affairs (2017) International Student Statistics: UK Higher Education[online] available from <https://institutions.ukcisa.org.uk/info-for-universities-colleges–schools/policy-research–statistics/research–statistics/international-students-in-uk-he/#> [4th December 2017].

Universities UK International (2017) International Facts and Figures [online] available from <http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/International/International_Facts_and_Figures_2017.pdf> [4th December 2017].

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