Alumni Stories - Josceline Cluff, Cobham Hall
Josceline Cluff grew up in a country village in Kent. It was an auspicious start for Josceline, whose professional career in disaster relief has taken her on countless long journeys since, spanning the length and breadth of the globe.
Josceline’s first journey as a solo traveller took her to Oman as part of an international exchange organised by her school, Cobham Hall. Through student events and campus materials, the Round Square school had ignited her interest in the wider world as she recalls, “There was a large map on display at the school showing the locations of all the other Round Square schools around the world. I spent a lot of time looking at that map wondering what it would be like at each school.”
At the age of 16 she spent a month studying at Round Square counterpart the Indian School Al Ghubra and living with a host family. Josceline’s immersion into life in Oman was instrumental in challenging her expectations of herself and of others. “The exchange programme in Oman had a massive impact on me in a multitude of different ways. It was my first time being away from home for such an extended period. The experience also gave me a lot more confidence and fuelled what has become an insatiable desire to see more and more of the world.”
Josceline’s lack of confidence had led her to consider dropping English at A-Level, yet her experience on exchange, and the mentoring she received from a teacher on that exchange, encouraged her to change her mind. “When I was leaving Oman my English teacher there, Papri Ghosh, gave me a very sweet card saying that I was talented and should continue to study English. I followed her advice and ended up achieving very good grades, which I’m sure impacted my ability to get into the university of my choice. In that way, my time in Oman probably had a much larger impact on my life than even I’m aware of.”
On returning to Cobham, Josceline had the chance to travel again to attend the Round Square Conference at Gordonstoun School in Scotland. Whilst there, she met students from all around the world, an experience that was both inspiring and humbling. “There was one particular moment in the Conference when the delegates presented gifts they had brought from their own country. I was given a pebble with my name on it from a student in Botswana which I still have today.”
The next juncture in Josceline’s journey was an academic one, as she came to the point of applying for a university course, successfully gaining a place at the University of Warwick to read History. Yet in choosing her course, Josceline was also motivated by the opportunity to study abroad, actively seeking out universities offering the Erasmus programme. She succeeded in her application and was awarded a year-long position at the University of Seville in Spain. “The process for getting a place on the Erasmus scheme was very competitive and I believe the main reason why I was successful over other candidates was because I could prove through my exchange to Oman that I could cope with being overseas for an extended period.”
On completion of her degree, Josceline undertook a demanding law conversion course at City University in London, yet still found time to support a number of charity projects. She volunteered at a Law Centre in London working on asylum cases, gave support to the National Centre for Domestic Violence, and became chair of an environmental law charity, helping secure funds for and manage the charity’s annual conference.
After completing her Graduate Diploma in Law, Josceline came across the charity All Hands Volunteers, who specialise in helping communities recover from natural disasters. She joined an international volunteering team and was plunged into a series of posts across 2014-2015. Her volunteer work took her to the Philippines, after super typhoon Haiyan; to Nepal, in the wake of the 2015 earthquake; and to Malawi, to help communities recover from a mass flood. The work was hard and very physical and involved building houses and shelters, removing rubble and digging drainage trenches. “I worked with people of all ages, from 18-74. It really showed me that anyone who wants to help can get stuck in.”
While in the Philippines, Josceline followed with increasing horror the escalation of the refugee crisis in Europe. Within two weeks of returning to England for Christmas she flew out again to Samos in Greece and began volunteering with refugees that had just arrived by boat. “People were battling life-threatening journeys only to arrive on shore and find that the borders of Europe were closing. Often what people needed more than anything was legal advice but there was nobody there to offer it.”
On returning to England, Josceline began researching what she could do to help. Her solution was to gain the expertise she felt was lacking, undertaking a part-time Masters in advanced asylum law, refugee protection and forced migration, at the University of London.
Having accumulated a wealth of expertise in disaster relief, Josceline secured a paid position at All Hands Volunteers as a logistician. Her first project took her to Fiji following a devastating tropical cyclone. Josceline handled the logistics for an emergency latrine building project, in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and UNICEF, managing all aspects from initial assessment to sourcing and overseeing the materials, vehicles and suppliers. “The cyclone had completely decimated the area and the lack of remaining toilets led to a risk of typhoid spreading. There was a lot of pressure at that time to get as many toilets out to communities as quickly as possible, and a lot of tricky terrain to navigate. Some of the communities in need were very remote, which meant at times, having to transport materials on foot across rivers or impassable roads.”
The complications of her work, however, went far beyond the obvious operational challenges; there were cultural nuances to navigate too. Josceline was also responsible for acting as a liaison between the supporting organisations and village and district headmen and chiefs. As she explains, “There is a complicated hierarchy in a Fijian village. To gain permission to work in the village, I had to meet the headman who would then introduce me to the chief. I would bring a Cava root with me as a gift, which the chief would accept in a ceremony called Sevu Sevu. It was only then, that I would have permission to walk through the village and begin assessments.”
Josceline’s next project took her to Ecuador with the task of building a community centre to support over 500 families displaced by the 2016 earthquake. Josceline was in charge of all the finances, all aspects of the logistics and co-ordination of the volunteers. It was also her first experience managing a staff team. “I was involved in every single aspect of the project, from managing people to overseeing tight budgets and deadlines, which was a great learning experience for me.”
After Ecuador, Josceline directed a debris removal and demolition program in Haiti following Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The following year, she joined a response project in Peru managing a team of 80 staff and volunteers for a clean-up operation following recent flooding. The project in Peru enabled her to draw upon contacts made in her time as a Round Square student, having met pupils from Peru’s Markham College at a Round Square Conference many years ago. “When I was hired to work in Peru, I immediately thought of the students I had met all those years ago at a Round Square conference.” Through Round Square, Josceline contacted Markham who offered invaluable advice on affected areas and schools in need. Josceline is now in Nepal setting up a program to build two permanent schools.
A career in disaster relief is not for the faint-hearted yet for Josceline, the challenge is part of the appeal. “I love the challenge. On every single project, I encounter something new, from having to work in a different language to overcoming logistical challenges or even dealing with emergency situations. The opportunity to continuously learn and come up with creative solutions to problems is one of the things I love most about my job.”
Josceline also continues to be motivated by the philosophy behind Round Square: “Kurt Hahn’s philosophies are beautiful. This is somebody who stood up to Hitler publicly and had to flee Germany as a result. Everything about the Round Square IDEALS is about justice and service and helping people who are most in need. The longer I have spent out of school, the more I have appreciated how fortunate I was to be part of such a wonderful philosophy. It’s quite a rare thing to have received an education that nurtures your desire to explore, learn and care in such an organised and exciting way.”
Of particular significance to her is Round Square’s motto ‘there is more in you than you think’. “I very much took that phrase to heart. I never think just because I don’t currently know how to do something that I’ll never be able to do it! Every time I find myself without the skills to do something I just think ‘there’s another skill I need to learn’ and am confident that with enough effort I’ll be able to learn it. I think that confidence is something I learned through my experiences with Round Square. I surprised myself a few times at a young age; from carrying a big backpack on my shoulders for adventure challenges to travelling by myself to Oman. It’s made me certain that whatever challenges lie ahead, I can continue to surprise myself.”
As she reflects further on her time as a Round Square student, Josceline has some wise words of advice for the current generation of students: “Remember that there is a lot more similarity in the world than there is difference and that with some effort and some courage there are few things you cannot do. Secondly, try and learn as many languages as you can! They’re not only incredibly useful for most careers, and are easiest when learnt at a young age, but they also help you to see things from another angle. Finally, volunteer as much as you can- it will open doors in the future and will broaden you as a person.”
Josceline’s journey has taken her all around the globe, to the remotest parts of the world, and to some of the most challenging human situations one could possibly face. Yet, we suspect that there is much more to come, and her journey may have only just begun.