On Friday 28th June 2019, I graduated with a 2.1 in my BA Hons in Modern and Medieval Languages. At many points over the last 5 years, graduating was something that seemed very much beyond my reach. And yet, just shy of 57 months after matriculating, I graduated. But rather than delving deep into my personal journey to graduation, I would like to dedicate some time and space to some of the things that I learnt during my time as a student at Newnham College, and to some musings on my experience at the University of Cambridge:
- I do not feel like a Cambridge Graduate; I feel like a Newnham Graduate. From the start of my Cambridge ‘career’, Newnham was incredibly nurturing. When applying to the college, I was already aware of the homely atmosphere that made its students feel so welcome, but it was only when I arrived that I appreciated the difference between Newnham’s ethos and that of the rest of the collegiate university. Being at Newnham, specifically, made me feel part of a community that was encouraged to think, learn and conduct itself in a certain way. For example, the Newnham MML cohort could take part in Literary Theory seminars that the college made available to us and held open ‘Pudding Seminars’ where students, alumnae and teaching staff could talk on a topic of their choice to whoever turned up to listen. Newnham felt like a ‘safe’ space, in which we could discuss a host of topics without fear of judgement, and as such we as women had the opportunity to grow in strength and confidence. Our extra-curricular and personal pursuits were also encouraged, and I personally felt like my Director of Studies genuinely cared about my wellbeing as well as my academic attainment. The things I learnt whilst at university are a result of not only my course but also the informal education that I received at Newnham College.
- I love learning, but not studying. The focus on attainment in exams, and the idea that you had to “study for the exam”, often became toxic. Knowledge and understanding were often overshadowed by information recall and ‘playing the game’ or ‘cheating the system’ with rehearsed, adaptable answers and stylistic techniques. In a place that is infamous for its successful alumni, thinkers, scientists and academics, it was disheartening to realise that what you wrote in the exam hall during Finals was all that mattered. I was personally told by some members of staff that I only needed to pick and choose excerpts of the texts I was studying, rather than bothering to read the texts in their entirety. Your grade is dictated by the words you scribble on a page under timed conditions, regardless of previous demonstrations of understanding, knowledge or even expertise. Students at Cambridge are, of course, encouraged to learn… but they are first and foremost urged to study.
- Everyone should consider taking a Gap Year. I say this because out of the most mature, grounded and confident individuals I met at Cambridge, the majority had done this. When I refer to a Gap Year, I am not referring to the obligatory Year Abroad that MML students have to complete, but instead a period of time taken between Sixth Form College and university study to NOT study; some people choose to work during this time, whilst the lucky amongst us travel and take a break. Like most British teenagers heading to university, not only did I not take a Gap Year but I was actively discouraged from doing so by my school. Had I taken a Gap Year, I think I would have been much more prepared for university study; mentally, I was keen – and ready – to go, but I had never been expected to do anything else. I think that the lack of time school-leavers have to reflect on what they want to actually do with their lives before embarking on a high-cost, high-effort degree has contributed to the mental health crisis among university students. I think everyone should at least consider taking a Gap Year and reflecting on what they actually want before heading to university.
- I loved MML… but I did the wrong degree. If you do not want to go into academia, be a language teacher, a translator or an interpreter, or ‘sell-out’ as a Cambridge graduate to Oxbridge-favouring City firms, MML is probably not the degree for you, as far as career progression is concerned at least. Admittedly, when I started my degree, I just wanted to learn, and academia was on the cards for me at the time. But I wanted to study languages because I was interested in people and culture, rather than linguistics or translation. When I applied to Cambridge, I was not aware that (a) you could sit language papers at the University Language Centre regardless of the degree you took, thus obtaining recognised qualifications outside of the course, and (b) ANTHROPOLOGY EXISTED AS A DISCIPLINE. The number of students I knew that realised this early on and switched out of MML to HSPS (Human Social and Political Sciences, under which you could study Anthropology) is frankly ridiculous. Why was I not advised against doing the degree that I did? Because this kind of information is not disseminated, and the people advising me probably had no idea that this option of Anthropology and extracurricular language study was viable. In the end, I did enjoy the content of my degree, and I was able to tailor my modules to my interests; I wrote on Baroque Art and the Incan Empire in my Golden Age Spanish paper, intersectionality in my Nineteenth Century French paper, and urban space, gender politics and contemporary philosophy in my European Cinema paper. I loved learning about these things. But the option to do a degree that was more appropriate to my interests was not one that I thought I had, and I wish that I had at least known that I had that option.
- At Cambridge, you are in more control than you think you are. At the end of the day, even though Directors of Studies and Supervisors can chase you for work, they cannot force you to do it. I knew many students that would pick and choose the lectures they attended because they knew they didn’t want to study certain topics. It’s easy to forget sometimes that you are doing your degree for no one other than yourself; you chose the degree, and you have control over what you do and don’t do.
- There is no shame in asking for help. In fact, the earlier you realise that it is okay to ask for help – academically or personally – the easier your university experience will be. At Cambridge, there is this huge pressure to succeed that ends up being crippling for many. Asking for help is often seen as a sign of weakness, and the thought of asking for help is considered to somehow damage your pride, making you ‘lesser’ than your fellow students. This is sooooooooo untrue, and academics generally really appreciate students who aren’t too proud to ask for help. Odds are also on your side that you are not alone in how you are feeling. Studying at Cambridge is tough, and no one that studies there has their life completely ‘together’. In this knowledge I hope that going forward, instead of this manifesting as a communal feeling of inadequacy and failure, this understanding will lead to more people asking for help and supporting each other.
- Going to Cambridge is about so much more than just studying. I, a stocky 5’4” woman, learnt to row competitively at Cambridge. I took part in charity events. I went out on the town with my friends. I stayed in and watched TV with my friends. I stayed in and cried with my friends. I realised that I wanted to work in museums and volunteered for a University Museum. I learnt about other people’s subjects and taught others about mine. I relaxed, stressed, lived, slept, worked, panicked, ate, had mind-blanks and eureka-moments and felt a sense of belonging… in a place with people who think like me.
- The amount and quality of support you receive at Cambridge can vary massively. I feel very lucky to have received the support I did when I was at Newnham, and so sad for the people who struggled during their time at Cambridge because they were elsewhere. I was lucky to be in a college that offered generous travel grants, book grants and bursaries. I was lucky to be in a college with an excellent, well-stocked library. I was lucky to be in a college where it was generally acceptable to walk around in your pyjamas, and where girls would huddle in the Buttery to talk as Directors of Studies and Supervisors wander past and join in with conversations as they go. College support at Cambridge is incredibly varied, and I have no regrets about choosing to study at Newnham. University-wide support has to be sought if it is wanted or needed, but at least the provision is the same regardless of your college.
- Cambridge *does* open doors. I need to keep reminding myself of what a blessing this is and how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to have gone to Cambridge. I often feel that so many doors have been opened that I don’t know which one to choose, but I know that I am in a privileged position to have such a choice. I have taken the opportunities Cambridge has offered me for granted at times, and I hope that when I find myself in a career that I enjoy and that fulfils me, I will be thankful for the chances in life that going to Cambridge has given me.
In conclusion, I am a more resilient person because I went to Cambridge; I am a more confident woman because I went to Newnham.