"...the truth, self-evident to us, though apparently unbeknownst to the University, is that Cambridge is home. Not by exception, but by default."Krishnan Ram-Prasad

I’m writing this from home. I imagine most of you reading this will be at home too. It is, after all, where we are supposed to be.

The thing is: for me, home is a house near Parker’s Piece, shared with a few other PhD students. This never felt like a pertinent or interesting thing to say before. Recently, however, I have been forced to examine in detail and justify, both to myself and others, why this is my home.

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!

I’m not unusual in calling Cambridge “home”; it is a sentiment that I think is shared by many, if not most graduate and mature students, especially those whose degrees will last three to four years. But over the last couple of weeks, we have faced a barrage of emails, from both the University and our colleges, repeatedly telling us to “return home”, i.e. leave Cambridge. Setting aside the fact that many of us are employed by the University, and have received the conflicting message that staff should “avoid any unnecessary travel”, being told to “go home” has left many of us rather perplexed. Where, exactly, do they expect us to go?

I don’t want to be facetious: I know by “home” they mean my parents’ house. In my case, this is in a small town in the North West of England, a place that is both very near and very far from Cambridge, depending on your perspective. I still catch myself occasionally referring to that place as “home”, like when I’ll be “home for Christmas” or “home for my sister’s birthday”. But this is a force of habit. That was “home” six years ago, when I arrived in Cambridge as an 18-year-old. Initially – choir tours notwithstanding – I continued to spend most of my time at my parents’ house. I vacated my accommodation every term, I changed rooms every year. Cambridge felt to me like what I imagined boarding school might have felt like, if I had been. In those days, my parents’ house was still “home”, however comfortable I was in Cambridge.

But as time passed, things began to change. My MPhil year – when we were expected to be in residence for the entirety of the 9-month course – was the first tangible shift in my perspective. Yet by that point, my transformation from seeing Cambridge as the “8-weeks-at-a-time-alternative-universe” to “home” had already begun. Now, halfway through my PhD, the former mindset is just a memory. I rent the room in my house all year round; I visit my parents at Christmas with a mini-suitcase, not a car-full of boxes; I have no plans to move until I finish my degree; terms come and go, my students with them, but I remain. I have even bought a TV licence.

“...for grads, our relationship with this fairy-tale town is a little different.”

And so the “wow, this is like Hogwarts” feeling is gone. This is not to say I have become any less enamoured of the place. The architecture is still breathtaking, and collegiate customs are still baffling. If anything, as your gown grows longer, you are exposed to levels of esotericism even your wisened undergraduate self might have balked at. But over time, I stopped associating the peculiarity of the college experience with the city of Cambridge itself. Once you compartmentalise your academic life here, Cambridge becomes just a medium-sized town in East Anglia, as good a place to live as anywhere else. It’s hard to say that without sounding flippant, but I think the demystification of this place is part of what allows you to feel truly settled.

So that’s what makes Cambridge my home. What’s crazy is that, as PhD students go, I am still one of the best-placed to be told to “return home”. I’m only 24, which puts me at the younger end of my cohort. My parents live in this country, and my childhood bedroom lies vacant. I also came through the Cambridge system, so I understand their attitude towards undergraduates. Yet I have colleagues as old as some fellows; colleagues with their own children; colleagues whose parents can no longer accommodate them; colleagues for whom losing their college accommodation would leave them literally homeless. This is without mentioning the situation for international students, and the inevitable connotations the phrase “go home” has with racism and xenophobia.


Mountain View

I’ll miss you, Castle Mound

So, when the University implicitly declared Cambridge as the secondary residence of graduate students, it came as a real shock. But now the dust has settled, and it looks like the majority of my fellow PhD students have stayed, where they have been able to. Why? Because the truth, self-evident to us, though apparently unbeknownst to the University, is that Cambridge is home. Not by exception, but by default.

I suppose, therefore, that this piece does not constitute a love letter to Cambridge. Afterall, it seems odd to write a love letter to your own home, when you’re still here. But it’s perhaps a way to highlight that, for grads, our relationship with this fairy-tale town is a little different. It still has the beauty, excitement, struggles, and frustrations that it has for undergrads. It’s still the one-glass-of-port-too-many after formal. But it is also something much more banal and familiar, like a cup of tea in bed when nothing else in the world makes sense.

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