Imogen pictured with her boat club: Day two of Lent bumps 2020Imogen Gander

Long days and late nights drowning in stress are characteristic of Cambridge life, but I’m sure most of you would say that you’ve never once looked back or wished that you had made a different choice. For five terms I felt the same way. Having nearly deferred weeks before I was due to start, I spent my first year and a half at Girton so pleased that I hadn’t made that choice - one that would have completely altered my Cambridge experience. However, now my third year looms strangely ahead, altered by forces out of my control, I’ve found myself thinking of what could have been if I had deferred my place for a year. I certainly wouldn’t be facing the prospect of missing many vital components of what I was looking forward to for the last time. Although I can’t change the past, I can’t help wondering what my uni experience would have been like if my “almost” had become a reality.

Going back to Summer 2018: I’d secured my place at Cambridge for the coming October, England were sailing through the World Cup, and we were experiencing one of the hottest summers on record - life was pretty great. However, by late July I had been to A&E almost a dozen times in two countries, spent 4 nights in hospital, and had permanently bruised inner elbows from a myriad of blood tests; still no-one could tell me what was causing my chest pain, palpitations, and general weakness. Unsurprisingly, this traumatic situation led to me developing severe health anxiety. I had panic attacks minutes after my mum went out, convinced that I would succumb to this mystery illness in the time it took her to pop to the shops.

“I’ve found myself thinking of what could have been if I had deferred my place for a year”

As September rolled around and my move to Cambridge loomed, I seriously considered deferring my place for a year on medical grounds. Logistically, this wouldn’t have been an issue as I’m too young for my year group anyway (trust me, being 17 in Freshers’ Week wasn’t exactly a party), and had a job at Hollister that would have kept me occupied whilst I learned to manage and overcome my anxiety. The flaw in this otherwise perfectly acceptable plan was my fear: if I didn’t force myself to conquer my worries and instead stayed at home letting them grow, I would simply be unable to face leaving the safety net that home provided. I was terrified that if I didn’t work up the courage to start university then, I would never go. That was an outcome I was unwilling to tolerate, having set my heart on Cambridge the moment I knew what university was.

So four weeks (and four hasty therapy sessions) later, I found myself moving into Girton; within a few weeks it was hard to imagine that I almost chose not to go. Yes, it was annoying to have weekly consultant appointments in Histon, and occasionally I would overreact to the smallest of symptoms, but until a couple of months ago, I didn’t once regret my decision. To have turned that “almost” into a reality would have meant forgoing my friendship group - the first one in which I’ve fully felt at home. I wouldn’t have joined the boat club in second year - it was those same friends who had convinced me to finally try rowing. And I would have missed out on the opportunity to be on the Girton Spring Ball committee, one of the most rewarding parts of my university experience so far, although at the time I had no idea that the GSB would be one of my last nights in Cambridge for six months.

“more frequently than I would like to admit, I wish I had turned that “almost” into a reality”

Of course, everything has changed since then. I said that “until a couple of months ago, I didn’t once regret my decision” because now, more frequently than I would like to admit, I wish I had turned that “almost” into a reality. My first five terms at Cambridge were perfect, but all I can think about now is that a deferment would have ensured a proper final year at uni without cancelled lectures and worrying about whether by next Easter we will even be able to have May Balls or Graduation. I would have been spending second year, instead of third, listening to lecturers via Zoom, safe in the knowledge that the world would be back to normal by the time I was experiencing all of my “lasts”.

May Week celebrations looked a little different this yearImogen Gander

Much of this regret certainly comes from having convinced myself that third year won’t be a proper year. Yes, the workload will be nominally the same, but having tried to revise from recorded lectures this term, I was surprised at how hard it is to focus on the topic, without straying between tabs. This may have been okay if next academic year had culminated in second year exams, but my finals will determine my degree grade, and as I won’t have taken any exams for two years, this is a rather scary prospect. The old adage “you don’t realise how good you had it until it’s gone” weighs on my mind as I also think about the extra-curricular moments that were going to make third year just as special as my first two. I’m suddenly frustrated at myself for not taking more from these experiences whilst I had the chance; I certainly won’t have the opportunity for picnics in the Fellows’ Garden and late night carol services at GSM once I’ve left Cambridge next June. I’m reluctant to dwell on the future and angry whenever I take in the present. The nostalgia that accompanies my thoughts about the past, and what could have been, seem to be my only escape at the moment.

“But then, if I had deferred, would I even have these memories to miss right now?”

I understand the enormity of concluding that I would have rather turned my “almost” into a reality. Whilst my “almost” would have given me new friends and experiences, this lockdown has forced me to appreciate how much I really did enjoy watching the sun rise whilst sitting, shivering, on the congested River Cam. I long to squeeze onto a bed with five friends to watch The Theory of Everything, solely to point out Cambridge landmarks and annoy my neighbour with screams of “That’s John’s, not Tit Hall!” It upsets me to wonder when I’ll next be able to experience these tiny treasures, and I begin to waver in my wish. But then, if I had deferred, would I even have these memories to miss right now?


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Adjusting to Adjustment

I feel guilty wishing that I had forsaken my perfect first five terms at Cambridge for a “normal” last four. After all, do I really value Christmas formal over life-long friendships? Humans are naturally curious, and I suppose we will always speculate over what our “almosts” could have become. For now, though, I must content myself with making plans for final year to ensure that I make the most of whatever the next twelve months will throw at me. I may not be able to hug my friends or listen to my lecturers in the flesh, but at least I’ll be in Cambridge - something that almost slipped from my grasp two years ago.

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