Illustration by Alisa Santikarn for Varsity

Having been in Cambridge for a little over three weeks now, the notion of ‘settling in’ is something I’ve desperately been attempting to achieve. I suppose, I can say that I have ‘settled in’ to life here in a lot of respects: I’ve integrated into a social setting that is supportive with lots of like-minded people to myself, I’ve attended (most) of my lectures, and I’ve handed in all my essays on time, so far at least. However, to describe any element of life here as ‘settled’ would be wholly inaccurate. What’s become more apparent the longer I’ve been here is just how inescapably turbulent life at this university is.

Cambridge is famed for its academic intensity, but I think there’s often little consideration for how university is about more than pure academic endurance. We tend to overlook how university is a drastic change in all our lives. All of us will have physically moved away from home and emotionally distanced ourselves from the social safety nets of our friends and family.

While it’s certainly true that colleges provide students with essential support, I think that for a lot of students, the feeling of belonging which is crucial to creating an affinity with Cambridge as a secondary ‘home’ is cemented through developing deep connections and friendships with fellow students. It’s because of this that I feel like ‘settling into’ Cambridge is impossibly difficult. Forming, developing, and sustaining relationships with other students, is challenging on its own, especially at this preliminary stage of university life, but when combined with the torrent of lectures, supervisions, and deadlines, it can at times feel like you’re a kite in a hurricane.

Of course, how we spin our new social web depends on personality and place. I think it’s easy, given the pressures induced by the suffocating air of prestige and tradition which pervades every corner of this university, to isolate yourself, turn down event invitations, and stay in your room to work. Of course, for some students, this provides fulfillment and happiness. But socialising and bonding with others is a major aspect of who I am. Within just three weeks, I’ve had to ask myself multiple times whether to prioritise my academic obligations, after having invested so much time and effort to getting here in the first place, or fulfill my need for supportive friendships.

It’s as if I’m being forced to run to keep up with the gale-force speed at which everything here happens

Then there’s the fact that socialising means something totally different here than it does elsewhere. Last week, I attended my first formal, to celebrate Diwali. Just like how the individualised attention students get from academics is totally new to me, the concept of ‘fine dining’ at formals is equally foreign. So far, I can’t deny, I have loved feeling very James Bond dressed in black tie, a dress code I have never had to accommodate before.

But being served three courses by waiters in waistcoats and white gloves, against the backdrop of a vast and candle-lit hall, was a bit of a culture shock; especially when compared to the local chippy back home which, don’t get me wrong, is amazing, but now just seems to be in a unrecognisably different world. That, and learning to like wine (which actually has more names than just ‘red’ and ‘white’) adds to the blustering feeling of disorientation merged with disbelief. With barely a second to stand back and appreciate where I am or what I am doing, my first few weeks here have felt like walking on a tightrope, desperately trying to balance studying with socialising. It’s as if I’m being forced to run to keep up with the gale-force speed at which everything here happens.


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Mountain View

Can I keep up? My first few days at Cambridge

I feel as if my time here so far has been dominated by the prevailing philosophy of ‘work hard, play hard.’  I have found myself wanting to make the most out of every moment that I do have free, particularly the couple of nights of breezy bliss after submitting my weekly essays. Yet this, in turn, has also led to another apparent bump in the undulating road of my first term here: the fact that everyone is dictated by different timetables and has their own deadlines. There’s no one night a week that everyone can uniformly designate to social events. Someone will have an essay due, a supervision the next morning, or any number of endless obligations prohibiting them. And here lies one of the hardest things to grapple with, an inescapable whirling tornado — the fear of missing out. Especially as a fresher who hasn’t been here for that long, I find myself worrying that everyone must be making new friends, having new experiences, and producing new memories without me.

These feelings are magnified whenever I’m sat in my room, struggling to knuckle down and be productive, and instead finding myself bombarded with constant mental images of elated faces, fictitious reminders of how much fun everyone is having. This frustrating cycle repeats itself until I’m just too emotionally tired to continue, having done little work and realising that I may as well have just gone out with my friends. 

I’ve come to learn that Cambridge is uncompromisingly restless. Perhaps we’re just being trained for the hectic circus that we call adult life, practicing (and failing) to juggle the often conflicting commitments of socialising and working. But I think it’s perfectly understandable to feel unsettled, given the fact we’re living in this whirlwind.

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