Katherine Kucherenko


Diploma in Financial Strategy







By Katherine Kucherenko

Traditional education

How do you look back on your education? What do you remember? Well, when I look back on my mine, which I received in Ukraine, where I attended a grammar school, I can describe it as a traditional education. There were strict rules including wearing a formal school uniform and we were only permitted to write with a fountain-pen containing purple ink. Each day started with us working on our calligraphy skills: writing out the ‘letter of the day’ in neat rows: the capital letter along with the small one. The biggest embarrassment was when your ink ran out; this meant you hadn’t filled it at home and so had come unprepared. You had to sheepishly raise your hand and ask the teacher for a refill from her pot. Luckily this humiliation only happened to me a couple of times, mostly when my pen was old and had started leaking; then it lost a lot of ink.

The whole drill seemed rather pointless at the time, although I could completely loose myself in trying to perfect my letter ‘K’ making it more beautiful with every curl, but the ability to write quickly and clearly proved useful many years later, when I was doing my first exam at Oxford. Although it may not sound like a big deal having to answer three out of five questions in two hours, I can tell you, trying to explain why an airline industry is more profitable now than five years ago using Michael Porter’s five-forces framework, describing which vertical and horizontal parenting advantages the TATA Industries subsidiaries experience, and visualising the blue ocean strategy of Nintendo Wii using the strategy canvas, is no mean feat not to mention what it does to your nerves. Since you only have two hours, you need to remember these things without a second thought, and you need to be able to write quicker than the wind.

My hypothesis is that writing something decent during an exam has a positive correlation with the amount of hours spent studying. When you’re  studying at Oxford, your life has just a handful of highlights and these are all quite similar – namely the exams. The periods in between them consist of non-noteworthy work-related necessities and other obligatory gatherings where you just need to show your face you, while being continuously shadowed by the nibbling thought that you should be studying instead. In our case it was: reading either one of two books both of which in terms of thickness could compete with Encyclopaedia Britannica, plus a dozen Harvard Business Review articles.

A while ago, I read that while learning, you need to go though three stages: trying to remember, trying to recall, and trying to put what you’ve learned into practice. Diligent as I am, I really tried to do my best on all three fronts. The first one was quite a challenge; with a full-time job you chronically lack time to read all the required chapters extensively and also patience, because there is always an ever-growing to-do list with short-term deadlines. The second one proved really hard, I’ve noticed that with advancing years, my memory capacity has somewhat degenerated. And the third one was actually quite amusing. Inspired by the article “Can you say what your strategy is?” I bravely approached my colleagues, some of whom I confronted even before their first cup of coffee, with the question of what our 35-word strategy statement was. Their answers were divergent, to say the least. One colleague redirected me to our website, to where our mission and vision are stated– perhaps from the time when the company was founded-. A couple of them were spontaneous enough to improvise. But most of them looked at me as if I asked them to write Einstein’s relativity theory on a flip-over.

But putting things into practice was a compelling learning experience; it felt like an accomplishment simply to recognize the things that you had learned. While listening to a motivation speech, you understand that there are ‘empire building’ motives in place; while reading a report, you recognize an anchoring bias; while listening to someone’s proposal presentation, you identify the sunk-cost fallacy. You just notice that you see more, you hear more, and you understand more. So, going back to my exam, there was a reason for hope.

Maybe it’s because of my highly traditional education that I really like my new alma mater a lot, it’s also a very traditional one. Oxford is perhaps the last university on earth where you wear the academic dress not only during graduation, but also during the examinations. The dressing-up ceremony, where you are provided with gowns and mortar boards (caps), is an experience you’ll never forget. Although the list with restrictions we received in advance seemed exacting and draconian, ultimately, everyone looked at his/her most fabulous. Putting on our gowns together and helping each other with our bow-ties created a feeling of kinship and belonging. We all looked the same. And we all had the same goal: to pass the exam.

Two hours later, after the compulsory request to stop writing, put your pen on the table, and leave everything as it is, I stood up and I walked through the long hall of the examination building with massive marble columns and black and white tiled floor, and went outside. For the UK, it was an amazing weather. While my eyes were getting accustomed to the sudden brightness, I felt the sun caressing my skin. I took a very deep breath. My mind was somewhat dazed, but the feeling of relief and completeness was indescribable. I took a second to recall my past weeks before the exam. Going through all the three stages of learning was like climbing a steep mountain. I had to stay disciplined, regroup myself after various setbacks and stay focussed. And also, skip my annual ski vacation, miss a couple of birthday parties and even reject invitations for Michelin star restaurants. But after reaching the top of that mountain, the beauty of the view on the top echoed so deep in my soul, that every trace of suffering was instantly forgotten.

I looked at my hands after trying to write as fast as I could for two hours. My wrists  hurt, my hands were shaking. My fingers showed tell-tale sores from holding my pen voraciously and trying to pour all my knowledge onto a piece of paper. I took a closer look. They were in the same places as I used to have purple ink spots from my fountain-pen. I remember that those spots used to stay for so long that at one point I thought they would never go away. Eventually they did. But luckily for me, the skill of flawless handwriting has remained.

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