"It may not have quite been the dream that I thought it was as a child, but my time at Cambridge has made me the person I am today..."Photo courtesy of Ollie Winters

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of sexual violence and mental health. If you have been affected by any of the issues raised, please scroll to the bottom of the article to find a list of helpful resources.

When I was growing up, I always knew I wanted to come to Cambridge. I went to a school that made it clear where I was expected to go, and I listened to the stories my Dad told me from his time here. I believed that all the things Cambridge offered were the things that I aspired to achieve.

Love Letters to Cambridge

These are tough and uncertain times for us all, and a lot of us are left with little closure. Varsity are launching this series to give a platform to students reflecting on the parts of Cambridge they'll miss the most, and to gain some closure through writing. Just email our Features team with a 150-word pitch with your idea!

When I finally got my grades, I was thrilled to start what I thought would be the most exciting chapter in my life. But then, just before Freshers Week began, on holiday with friends, what was supposed to be a casual hookup went horribly wrong and ended up turning my life upside down.

All I remember from the night was a deep feeling of a shame and self-hatred for ever letting myself be so helpless. More than anything, I wanted to believe that no-one would ever be able to hurt me in such a way again. And so, I did what so many survivors do: I buried my experiences and feelings as deep as I could, told no-one what happened, and when I came back from my holiday, I prepared to start at Cambridge.

Looking back on the last four years I’ve spent at University, it is only now that I’ve started to realise just how much of what happened to me shaped my experiences and the choices I made. Instead of facing my fears head-on, I sought to rebuild myself into a new person, someone who was strong enough to take their life into their own hands and not let what someone else had done to me stop me from achieving everything I had dreamed of.

Although I tried as hard as I could to push the memory out of my head, there was only so far I could run from it. At random points, I would find myself freezing, overcome by the same paralysis that had taken me before, barely functioning as a person. I felt unable to tell people what had happened to me for fear of being judged, being seen as weak or as a victim and not the strong powerful person I wanted to project.

“More than anything, what Cambridge has taught me is that what can often seem overwhelming can also be empowering.”

In first year, my mental health plummeted to the point that I became suicidal and I turned to a variety of coping mechanisms that hurt both those around me and myself. Mostly, though, I found myself unable to engage with the world around me. I felt ashamed, not just because of what happened to me that night, but because I was letting it affect me, and thus my Cambridge dream was leaving me behind.

More than anything, what Cambridge has taught me is that what can often seem overwhelming can also be empowering. Especially as I think about my progression over the last four years, so much of what has helped me come to a place in my life where I can finally confront what happened to me, I owe to my time here. When I started, supervisions used to fill me with anxiety, a painful reminder that I wasn’t who I put so much pressure on myself to be. College life - surrounded by friends with whom I felt unable to talk about what happened but still had to deal first hand with my erratic and unstable behaviour - left me feeling alone, and prevented me from participating in the life I wanted to lead.

But now, looking back at my time at Cambridge, all of these unique university experiences have become things that prove I am a strong person, capable of achievement. Switching to Law from History in third year, being able to finally immerse myself in a subject that I loved and pushing myself to actually achieve tangible things - like getting a training contract - made me feel as if I was finally taking control of my life.

I’ve had new experiences, met new people and become part of a community that has shaped my life, and showed me that there is more to recovering from sexual violence than running away from something you cannot change. Cambridge has given me so many of the things that I now take pride. As I’ve finally learnt to throw myself into everything the Cambridge experience offers, I’ve allowed it to shape my life for the better. It has helped to make me the person I need to be, defined by so much more than just one traumatic night.


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Mountain View

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It wasn’t until Lent Term this year that I finally felt able to open up about what happened to me to someone else. Having been in previous relationships that were marred by my volatility and inability to confront my issues with damaging consequences, I’ve been lucky enough to finally meet someone with whom I felt safe enough and loved enough to admit what happened. Telling him about my experience was undoubtedly one of the biggest steps I will ever take in terms of recovery. But, more than that, it made me realise that I’m so much closer to coming to terms with what happened, largely because of what the past few years have brought to my life.

Ultimately, Cambridge is a tough place in which to survive, let alone thrive, and for people like me who hold this extra baggage, it can seem impossible. At times, uni has felt like my worst nightmare. But, now reflecting on my time, I know I also have so much to be grateful for. It may not have quite been the dream that I thought it was as a child, but my time at Cambridge has made me the person I am today: a person who is no longer scared of being weak, or tries to run away from something that, ultimately, there may be no escape from.

Even though it has been cut short, I know that when I look back on these years, despite the tough times along the way, I will cherish my achievements here and the community I have become a part of. Whilst I’ll never forget that night, I know that my time at Cambridge has helped me to heal and to begin becoming a person I can finally be proud of.

"I’ve had new experiences, met new people and become part of a community that has shaped my life..."Photo courtesy of Ollie Winters

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