Stand up for your own needs and make sure they’re honouredStella Dixon

I’m about to go into my second year studying Human, Social and Political Sciences. But, plot twist, that’s not what I originally came here to do.

I applied and got a place to study Japanese. I changed to HSPS four weeks into Michaelmas, after finding that the Japanese course didn’t suit me. For my classmates, long hours writing grammar exercises were a step towards their dream of Japanese fluency. I, on the other hand, found myself realising that what I’d been looking forward to most was studying the cultural side of things – politics, history, religion, literature and so on. 

If you arrive at Cambridge and find things different and difficult, you’re not alone

It turned out that I had, in fact, been deluding myself about the content of the Japanese course. It says quite clearly on the website that intensive language study is part and parcel of studying Japanese here. I'd studied and enjoyed a language at A Level and thought it would be fine, but what I’d forgotten was that we take three or four subjects in A Levels, but just one in university. In the end I felt hemmed in and constrained by such a specialised degree.

This is why I felt that HSPS would be the best option for me. It offered the opportunity to study a hugely broad range of topics from the point of view of four diverse subjects, and it didn't require me to specialise until later in my degree.

I soon realised that for the sake of my mental health, I needed to change. The idea of this was liberating, but also innately frustrating – the process of changing subject is far from simple, and the view of the Sidgwick libraries from my bedroom window served as a reminder that the change I needed was close, but not close enough. I was relieved that there was a way out of my impasse, but also nervous in case I wasn't allowed to change, or fell behind so far that I wouldn't be able to finish the year.

There’s no need for the stigma around changing things up; you are not a fraud and you are not cheating the system

There was also an element of guilt. Everyone here knows very well how long and gruelling the Cambridge application process is, so the way I seemed to be slipping through the back door led to a hit of the classic imposter syndrome. To complicate matters further, my decision was subject to intense scrutiny. I had to meet with my old DoS, my tutor, the senior tutor and my new DoS before I was finally allowed to change.

The constant questioning of my choice sowed seeds of self-doubt that still niggle me to this day: Was I cheating the system? Would other students in the university still talk to me? Could I ever catch up after missing half a term of HSPS? And then, when I became a student ambassador: what would I tell people who asked me about the interview process for HSPS? Would they think I was a fraud?

Stand up for your own needs and make sure they’re honoured

Thankfully, despite the inner turmoil I initially faced as a fresher trying to fit into a new place, a new subject and with new people, I can happily report that life has been much better since I switched. I (weirdly) enjoy writing essays and discussing them with supervisors, and HSPS is so broad that I can study plenty of aspects of human culture. It’s been a tough ride to get to this point, but it’s definitely been worth it. Plus, in talking openly to others around me I discovered others who were also unsure about their subject choice, or had changed subject in the past. I found I wasn’t alone.

So, what does this mean for the average fresher reading this article? It means that it’s okay not to be totally enamoured with your subject from Day 1. You might not hate it enough to want to change subject – you might be having an off day, or week, or be struggling with a particular aspect of your course rather than the whole thing. That’s fine too. But if you arrive at Cambridge and find things different and difficult, you’re not alone. If you’re honest with yourself about it and tell people how you’re feeling, you will find support somewhere, whether that’s from your friends, your family, your college, or from other places such as the counselling or advice services.


Mountain View

Taking time to settle in

If you do decide that changing subject is in your best interests – at any point, not just at the start of the year – don’t let worries and anxieties stop you from doing it. There’s no need for the stigma around changing things up; you are not a fraud, and you are not cheating the system. You’re taking control of your own path through university, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of. All too often do people get swept up in the stresses of term and academic work, failing to realise that looking after their happiness and mental health is ultimately what matters the most.

If I had to choose one thing I’ve learnt this year and pass it on, it would be this: stand up for your own needs and make sure they’re honoured. Whether that’s in terms of academics, welfare or anything else, don’t be afraid to speak up. You are important, and you deserve to pave your own way.