Lessons were often learnt without realising Isabel Brooks

One year ago, I found out I had got into Cambridge. Suddenly, the suspense of results day was replaced with anticipation at what was to come. Yet, for all my nervousness and excitement, I could never have predicted the extent to which the people I’d meet and the city I’d live in would shape me.

For most of the year, life went by in a fast-paced blur. The unrelenting nature of Cambridge time means weeks fade into each other, entering a ‘bubble’ in which the exterior world becomes easily forgotten. In an odd way, this was a blessing. Without realising it,  I was forced to be spontaneous: learning that last minute decisions often lead to unplanned positives.

I was no longer held back by a fear of being the only person to do something.

There were a few brief moments, however, when I was able to stop and view Cambridge as a tourist, not a student. It was seeing the buildings of Senate House Passage bathed in sunlight the morning of Caesarean Sunday, or cycling down King’s Parade as church bells chimed, which made me realise the simple charm of the city. Suddenly, I understood the romanticised perception of Cambridge: a place of beauty, not of functionality.

At times, there was a surreal reality to living in such a historic and famed place. Some experiences were so removed from notions of normality, it was hard not to feel as if I was living in a fictitious world. Punting down an empty River Cam at night, bats flying over John's, playing lacrosse on Queen's Backs, walking home among hoards of students in black tie the Tuesday morning of May Week: all moments that can only be explained by way of this is Cambridge.

The people I met impacted me just as much as the city itself. Despite being my biggest worry as an incoming fresher, my year was made by the friendships I formed. When you arrive, you will quickly realise that everyone is in the same situation, and has the same fear of remaining friendless. People’s willingness to communicate became transparent, causing my pre-arrival worries to swiftly fade away.

Friendships fuelled the harder moments.

Closeness gradually built over term, until I found myself in hysterics at Bridgemas singing ’Twelve Days of Christmas’ with people who  were complete strangers eight weeks before. The awkwardness and small talk of Freshers Week had been erased by mealtimes in the buttery and late night talks on drunken walks back to college.

These friendships fuelled the harder moments. We bonded over the difficulty of our work, transforming it into shared moments of hilarity. It was this that made an evening stuck in the library basement attempting to translate Sir Gawain bearable, my friend and I laughing at each other as we both slowly lost the will to live. This mutual acknowledgement of the difficulties of Cambridge made the light relief even better, culminating in a May Week of laughing and dancing with people who had become the highlight of my year.

On the flip side, I also discovered that being alone could be revitalising; choosing to walk 20 minutes listening to music, instead of cycling, or having lunch by myself was sometimes enjoyable. In a way, this was part of me learning how to do what I want, not what I felt I ought to; reducing the importance I had once placed on other people’s opinions of me.

The workload and traditions could be both wonderful and frustrating Isobel Bickersteth

This was a liberating realisation to make, particularly as I was no longer held back by a fear of being the only person to do something. I went to societies, talks and sports in which I knew no one and left with new friends, enriched by interesting conversations. This developed a newfound sense of self-confidence, a belief in my own abilities and attributes and a willingness to step outside of my comfort zone.

There was a caveat to becoming more comfortable, settling into university bringing with it an awareness of its problems.

Alongside this came the realisation of the importance of prioritising myself and my wellbeing, particularly with regard to work. It really isn’t that bad if one week you can’t finish an essay – your supervisors will understand, and there’s no point overworking yourself for something that is fairly inconsequential. Part of this is discovering that learning is a process, not a final product; with supervisions a chance to explore your thoughts, designed to be a springboard for future ideas.

It’s also normal to not always like what you have to study. This is particularly relevant in the context of the tripos system which means that, for my subject, I have no choice of modules until my third year. However, every text I didn’t enjoy was worth it for the spark of interest when I discovered something new. In these instances it was finding myself reading more out of curiosity, not necessity, that reminded me why I wanted to study an English degree in the first place.


Mountain View

How to survive Cambridge Freshers’ Week

As the year progressed, there was a caveat to becoming more comfortable, settling into university bringing with it an awareness of some of its problems. This is when it became important to listen; understanding from my friends experiences that many things I took for granted make the university inaccessible, or isolating, for others. That issues such as high rents and access disparities will continue to stop Cambridge from being an universal experience; acceptance to the University still not a level playing field. This made me reconsider my own privileges and the impact they have had on my life, realising that sometimes I had not been as self-aware as I once thought.

Within the bubble of Cambridge, it was easy not to realise how much of an impact the city and my experiences within it had had on me. Cambridge is an undeniably unique place, its workload and traditions both wonderful and frustrating. I am grateful for all first year has given me, the lessons I have learnt and the ways in which I have grown.