The weekend before last, the MA graduation of the 2007 cohort marked my last degree-related visit to Girton College. For those not in the know, the MA at Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College Dublin is not a real degree that you study for; everyone who finishes a BA at one of these universities is awarded one a few years after graduating.
In hindsight, my mind boggles at just how utterly lucky and privileged I have been to go to Cambridge. It boggles to the extent that I still struggle to put into words „what it’s like“. This, therefore, is an attempt to do exactly that, with the luxury of time to collect my thoughts before putting them to paper.
I think there are two reasons why I’ve always had a bit of a tricky time explaining to non-Cantabs why I found the place so remarkable and special. Some people hold hard-to-shake preconceptions about its elitism and about how „normal people“ wouldn’t fit in with the crowds of Etonians and otherwise privately educated rich, white people. To others – mostly non-Brits, and I count my 2007 self among them – I struggle to convey how bizarre and extraordinary the whole place is, how different from anything else I know, and how lucky I was to be offered a place here. I will attempt to address both these positions and try to get across in a reasonably balanced manner my own conclusions.
As for the notions of elitism and privilege, I never thought it was that big a deal while I was still at Girton. Sure, we were lucky to have gained places at one of the best universities of the world, and we messed around in gowns and black tie more often than students at most other universities…but otherwise it wasn’t really all that different to studying anywhere else.
…Or was it? Having now lived in London for the best part of a year, I look back and marvel at just how isolated and coddled we were in the Cambridge bubble. The educational aspect of my time there and the friends, impressions and memories I have taken away from 5 years at Girton are of immeasurable value (it feels a bit tacky to even try putting this into words) and I would not have it any other way. However, I think it would be delusional to argue that elitism and inequality don’t exist in Cambridge. Now this isn’t a leftie rant about how horrible and messed-up it all is – the blame for this, in my eyes, lies with many different institutions and is not the topic of this blog. But the fact remains – Cambridge is overwhelmingly white and middle-class (and above).
That said, I in no way feel that this is a huge obstacle for people from different backgrounds to overcome if all sides keep an open mind – which, overwhelmingly, is the case. I guess I can only speak from my own non-British but white perspective – the I, too, am Cambridge campaign highlights that issues definitely remain – but on the whole I, or anyone I spoke to, never felt like anyone was actively prevented from experiencing everything Cambridge has to offer to the fullest.
By no means do I consider myself to have been among the poorest students at Cambridge – or the richest – but I was certainly a bit of an outlier. I rocked up with a big ponytail and a healthy dose of shyness in social situations, wearing faded, worn-out metal band shirts several sizes too big.
And yet within weeks I made friends – many of whom I am fortunate to count as such to this day – who accepted me despite a decidedly strange first impression of this grumpy-looking German (Austrian? Hungarian? Opinions abounded) economist. Yes, I was never going to be a member of the Pitt Club or a drinking society, and for that matter I don’t remember even knowing many people from those social circles. But I don’t feel that this diminished my university experience in any way; instead, it was enriched by the countless people who were open-minded, welcoming…basically students. I could have complained about the existence of these societies and my lack of access to them instead of just carving my own niche…but would this have made me happier or more content? Almost certainly not.
My point is that while it is possible to go on and on about the shortcomings of Cambridge, it is just as possible to just take the good bits, the opportunities, possibilities and the sheer variety of things on offer, and to make the best of your time there. And I like to think I did OK at that.
As for how tricky it is to explain why I consider my time at Cambridge so formative, I can empathise. Back in 2006, when I came up to interview, I had absolutely no idea what kind of place I was about to visit and how big a deal it is considered to have the privilege to go to Oxbridge. I remember driving along the Backs in a taxi and wondering at the collection of old-looking buildings; I had no context for them so they seemed to me fancy, but not all that special. Arriving in Girton, I wandered the corridors and sat in Hall for mealtimes – on my own, of course, as I was far too shy and socially awkward back then to talk to university students in a foreign country – and I was impressed, but not as blown away as I am today, seven years later. It hadn’t quite sunk in that people ate, slept, worked, celebrated, got drunk…in short, lived in these hallowed halls. I’m convinced this cluelessness helped me during interviews, as otherwise my complete and utter lack of preparation would probably have had me too nervous to even string together a coherent sentence. Somehow I ended up with an offer, though, and the rest is history.
What did make 5 years at Girton so special to me, though? In part it is the fact that as I became more and more familiar with British popular culture, history and social environment, it began to sink in how extraordinary a place Cambridge is as a place of learning, and of growing up. It is full of idiosyncratic traditions that make very little sense in the 21st century. They are preserved, in some cases, because they are deemed worth preserving…and in other cases, no-one is quite sure why they’re preserved – but preserved they have been, and I think that’s great.
The opportunity to have dinner once a week wearing a big, billowing gown and sit in a hall reminiscent of a castle and a fairytale in equal measures…
The possibility to try out every sport, every form of art and pretty much any other conceivable activity in the framework of a student society…
The completely batty concept of Bumps, the early mornings of objectively terrible rowing on a narrow, congested river, racing at the most famous regatta in rowing history at Henley, the carnage of swaps, Boat Club Dinners and Downing Tribal, getting your own blazer, and even the tiny, random details like first-eight bow ties…
The fact that every day there’s a chance that you’ll cycle past Stephen Hawking or some other world-famous academic you’re not even aware of…
The daily cycle to lectures which takes you along the most gorgeous buildings that all represent exactly these things, and which it is all too easy to get used to and take for granted…
The ludicrous opulence of May Balls, splashing out over £100 for a ticket to a night of no-limits revelry. Throwing on white tie and going from champagne and oysters to a poetry reading with cheese and port to Basshunter to punting into the sunrise…
And, last but not least, the graduation ceremony. It is held completely in Latin and involves much doffing of caps by people wearing morning dress and gowns of all colours, some bearing ceremonial maces. The College’s Mistress awaits at the front of the hall, sitting in a throne in front of which you kneel to have your hands clasped and be admitted to your degree. The occasion feels all the more momentuous for being held in a hallowed building, the Senate House, which is used for no other purpose and which you will never enter again (as a graduand, at least). As you line up in rows of four, waiting to grasp one of the Praelector’s fingers each while he presents you to the Mistress, the slightly musty smell of history is all around you, weighing heavily on your mind and yet light as a feather.
All of these things I look back on now and can’t quite believe it was all real. I would struggle to believe this world of the dreaming spires really existed if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, and I have never been able to do it justice in attempting to recount it. In a way, it seems as far removed from reality as Hogwarts, and the obvious parallels between the two worlds probably don’t help. Maybe this is my overly nostalgic streak speaking, but in a way my time at Cambridge seems every bit as magical as the wizarding world – and maybe the more so because I came into this world from the equivalent of a muggle household with no previous connection whatsoever to this world.
The road that has brought me to where I am now is such an unlikely one, and my time at university left such an indelible mark on it – and most likely its future twists and turns, as well – that it seems difficult to overstate how much I appreciate my parents’ efforts in getting me to apply. Every time I think about it, my mind is blown. And that’s a good thing because my current position is not something I want to take granted even for a second. I am not the high-flying hyper-achiever that many people I know are, and I often wonder at what point I strayed from this path – but I live in hope that this is for the best and that one day, I will find my calling in life.
I hope this was a vaguely coherent ramble, and maybe even enjoyable. It would be interesting to hear opinions, comments or other views on the matter!