CAMBRIDGE, England — What am I doing here?
If you talk to any fresher (that’s first year for non-Brits) in this weird and wonderful place known as Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK, they will tell you they don’t quite know why they’re here. Every morning we walk through one of the most recognizably academic cities in the world and breathe in the air of academia (supposedly)…
Exciting, it is.
Easy to adjust to, it is not.
I, C.E Lloyd Perrin of Cripps Staircase B, St John’s College, Cambridge University, have absolutely no idea how I got in… but that’s ok… most people here will spend most of the first term telling you they feel the same.
The university is not one organization that considers all applications – you apply to a single college, which is where you live and work.
There are teacher types called supervisors in college who supplement lecture-based teaching with discussion and set essays. These people also interview you and decide if you are good enough to enter the college, and the university.
The first few days are a social whirl, followed by eight weeks of mad work and sane fun. Yes, that means I have more holiday than term time, but it also means I type more words per day than my best friends combined.
For those used to other education systems, Cambridge is based on a system of colleges. Each college selects and admits undergraduates independently from the university as a whole. The college provides you with a support system, a place to live and professors on your staircase.
A “staircase” is basically a block within the first year accommodation at the back of the college. Each one has about 24 rooms on landings all the way up – usually with four people per landing.
Oxford and Cambridge universities are unique in British further education in that they can often provide two-to-one or even one-on-one supplementary teaching in college on top of lecture studies. These ‘supervisors’ assign essays for us to write and once they have read them, we sit down and discuss the topic in a more guided and in-depth manner than we can within the confines of the given question.
Once that business is out of the way, it is not particularly strange for a conversation about parking techniques or hats as statements of personality to arise. Cambridge teaching focuses on the stretching of the mind away from institutionalized, fixed syllabuses. It is steeped in tradition, but remarkably forward thinking and for an irrepressible enthusiast about the whole idea of learning, it is the perfect place.
On top of the mechanisms of learning described above, there are the odd Cambridge quirks, which inform every tourist’s dream view of the place that ever visited.
Yes, we wear funny black gowns around in the evenings. Yes, we have a Michelin-starred chef serve us dinner at teensy prices six nights a week if we so wish. Yes, we have people who barge into our rooms at 9 a.m. ready with a Hoover and bin-liners to clean our rooms and make our beds. Yes, we have porters who charge in on parties over 12 people in size.
And yes, we are complete twits. But why the surprise? We love it here, and everyone is so open-minded and ready to learn – not only from the academics but also from each other.
Do we spend every waking hour in the library?
No. This is a common misconception among my friends from home. It is not true. Admittedly, sometimes we get locked in at 2 a.m. and have to be rescued by a nice porter (read pseudo-security guard, but older and more stuffy and traditional).
This is when we don’t realize the card reader is upside down and the wrong way round. Events like this only occur when we have an essay deadline and realize we haven’t actually done any reading for it yet … and it’s due in tomorrow.
We actually have a lot of fun. It’s the only way to survive around here. No one has time to sit and watch TV or read a trashy romance novel – unless it’s the one you’re creating with a bunch of friends on Facebook.
You go ballroom dancing, or bell-ringing, row, play squash or attend a student union debate. No one can afford to waste time. If you do, it seems a bit like sacrilege.
Saying that, there is an exception made for after the hour of 9 p.m. Noone expects anything other than strange-but-true antics after that time.
As a case in point, there was a recent duvet race (boys, wrapped in duvets with little else on, running through college, are quite a sight at two o’clock in the morning…) and a water balloon fight.
Before that, it was Twister on the Bridge of Sighs. The bridge is one of the most famous sights in Cambridge – yes, an actual bridge, and one which was ‘inspired’ (read: doesn’t look anything like…) by the bridge of the same name in Venice which is part of the Doge’s palace. But we got ‘portered’ for Twister.
A ‘portering’ is when our porters, who are like friendly security guards who hand out lost keys, patrol the grounds at night and catch students who get up to naughty things!
If you commit an offense which is seen as serious in the eyes of the college authorities – such as streaking, going up on the roof at night or ruining a bedroom floor with water bombs – the porters will report it to the ‘Dean’ who will then decide on a suitable punishment, like 6 a.m. gardening!
But if you’re careful to avoid the porters, or at least know how to sweet-talk them, around every corner is a new adventure. And I haven’t even got on to my course yet…
Avoiding the porters and making our own fun
Official Cambridge parties consist of college-based ‘Ents’ – mostly music events along one silly theme or another, in a DJ and dancing format. These usually occur in a college and at St. John’s, we have ours in ‘the Boiler room’ – our own personal nightclub, which gets disgustingly hot, sweaty and dark.
You can attend other college’s ‘Ents’ as long as you get a ticket. In fresher’s ‘week’ – the three days at Cambridge or week to week and a half everywhere else that contains no lectures before the beginning of first term – we had two ‘Ents’ at my college. They were rather big events, holding not just freshers but random second years who remember the fun fondly and want to relive their glory days.
The first ‘Ent’ had a ‘Back to School’ theme, where everyone had to wear their old school uniform. This consisted of dancing madly, sweating hugely, and drinking cocktails in plastic cups which you scooped out of big tubs, getting the cup, and your hands, incredibly sticky.
The second, ‘Hollywood’ themed, entertainment was slightly less sweaty but no less fun, nor without its surreal moments. Losing my fairy wings was a big issue at the end of the night, with my insistence that those responsible for pseudo-cloakroom facilities behind the bar could not possibly have mislaid my meter high, neon blue wings…
Otherwise, it’s all about making our own fun.
I personally took up some slightly atypical activities on arrival. My friends still giggle (and coming from a 6-feet-4-inch-tall rugby player, giggling takes on odd permutations) whenever I talk about having to go bell ringing.
Once a week, I go to a tiny church opposite the pub where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of the double helix shape of DNA in 1953, and learn how to ring the bells which ring for services. I love it because it gets me close to the architecture, which inspires my studies here. My dream job is a church and Cathedral archaeologist, you see.
There are also our weekly ballroom dancing sessions where we bounce away at the class and then practice on the Bridge of Sighs in full view of the physics department’s webcam afterwards at approximately 11 p.m. every Thursday. (If you’re interested, you can probably see us online at their website…) Pancake making is another interest of ours, involving much planning and the odd combinations of toppings, which occur when people can’t be bothered to trek to Sainsbury’s supermarket to pick up their selected ingredient.
Overall, we are each other’s entertainment: Twister games in unlikely places, Formal Hall traditions and fooling the porters into believing we’re perfectly innocent parties in any mischief that occurs.
Formal hall is a brilliant occasion, which we can attend at any time, but up to six days a week. It’s like a dining room, except we get Michelin starred cooking, waiters, silver-crested services and dinner in a huge, very old hall filled with portraits of alumni. The traditions include the game of sugar lumps – passing sugar lumps from one person to the next using teeth – and ‘pennying’ (actually not allowed at our college, but done anyway but with an eye out for porters, where you drop a penny in a fellow diner’s wine, and to ‘save the Queen from drowning’ one must down the entire glass. There are quite a few complicated rules involved in the practice, but those are the basics). Our fellow students, usually in college, but sometimes from course, activity or home, are there to help us out and create more ideas for fun and laughter.
Late night essay writing and Cambridge-induced addiction to Ovaltine
Tonight is one of those nights fondly deemed ‘essay hell.’
It is a night when a Cambridge fresher has approximately four hours to write an intellectual-sounding, non-prosaic, long enough piece of insightful argumentation aimed at pleasing the supervisorial eye.
We have not yet mastered the idea of the essay plan, or the weeklong reading program. We just party too much, have water fights and look silly running around in our big floaty gowns for long periods of time in the general proximity of the college bar (like a small tavern but only frequented by members of college), before realizing, circa 11 p.m., that we have 1,500 words to write by morning.
Tonight is one of those nights. Procrastination and socializing have been key to my downfall. It all starts, and ends, with Facebook. Couple that devil-device with German cake, boys wrapped in duvets (and only duvets) and dancing at all hours, anywhere, and you have a perfect recipe for essay collision course.
Oh well, at least I’ve been tagged in a few photos on Facebook tonight. And drunk cups of Ovaltine which are a lifesaver when you need comforting in essay distress at 3 a.m. but there’s no one around for a hug.
Cass Lloyd Perrin is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.