"I was living a double life and not being myself in either. "Louis Ashworth

I arrived at Cambridge excited, inspired and extremely nervous. Going away to university felt like a fresh start for me; a chance to leave all my past worries and problems behind, and I was determined to make the most of it. But, as happens so often in life, this is not how things turned out. From Fresher’s week, half of which I spent locked up ill in my room, to the huge culture shock, to the homophobic comments spoken to me in my first week of term, my first year was not off to a good start. 

Despite rather rocky beginnings, I soon found my feet. I made amazing friends, had fantastic experiences and, of course, the odd essay crisis. But as the first few weeks wore on, I began to move past this relative comfort and dig beneath the glossy surface that Cambridge has to offer, leading to an identity crisis that I am only now coming to terms with.   

In my hometown, attending Oxbridge is almost unheard of. With an ageing population, it is strongly conservative; and, it has real issues with racism and homophobia. As a child from a single parent, low income household, I have always been fiercely independent (perhaps too much so), particularly after I was forced to shoulder greater responsibility after my parent’s divorce at age 13. I therefore believed myself to be well-equipped for anything that university had to throw at me. 

"It is hard to feel at home when everything around you seems alien"

What I was not prepared for though was the difficulty of fitting in, of overcoming the infamous imposter syndrome, which manifests in many students with feelings of self-doubt and fear that they have somehow gotten into Cambridge by accident, without truly deserving a place. I have loved Cambridge and the time I’ve spent there from the first moment I arrived; but there is no escaping the wealth and privilege that exudes from it. It is hard to feel at home when everything around you seems alien, as if you’ve been magically transported into an alternate universe where you do not belong. I would enter a formal hall and not recognise most of the food on the menu, or fall quiet in conversation about schools or holidays as friends shared exciting stories of trips abroad. I somehow felt that admitting how conflicted I felt would make me weaker, proving the voice in my head right: that as much as I was enjoying myself, Cambridge was just not meant for me. 

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Returning home was just as tricky, as it felt like I no longer fit in there either. Outside of my immediate family, terms like “formal” and “matriculation” were words of a foreign language, and I would deliberately refrain from mentioning my studies to avoid the assumptions of money and upper-class privilege which people in the Midlands automatically ascribe to Oxbridge. I felt constantly on edge, wondering to what degree I could express myself, being careful to act unchanged from the person who first left for university.  

"I was so caught up in trying to construct the perfect self, that I lost the real me."

In short, I was living a double life and not being myself in either. I was so desperate to look the part of a Cambridge student when in fact it was as if the walls were closing in on all sides. I felt like I had to be studious and fit in seamlessly to Cambridge life, but still somehow represent my working-class roots and be myself. I had to be the “right” amount of gay, the “right” amount of straight, the “right” amount of feminist, the “right” amount of left-wing. I was so caught up in trying to construct the perfect self, that I lost the real me. 

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned at Cambridge, it’s that there is always hope. Over time, and mainly thanks to the patience and reassurance of those around me, I came to the realisation that the only person who cared about this complex algorithm of personality was myself. It was only when I realised this and stopped questioning every little thing I did and said that I truly felt at home.  

"Cambridge is a haven of freedom – an opportunity to be simply yourself"

You will never get on with everyone at university, and this shouldn’t perturb you. Just because those around you have different upbringings, does not mean that they are judging you or that they  will exclude you. Compared to my conservative hometown, Cambridge is a haven of freedom – an opportunity to be simply yourself. It doesn’t matter what background you are from: there are more people with similar experiences to you than you think.  

So, I intend to step into my final year with renewed confidence. Through this journey, Cambridge has given me the opportunity to really get to know and accept myself for who I am. But it has also taught me to accept others for who they are, and look past my first impressions to the person beneath. Ultimately, I feel that it is important to approach Cambridge with an open mind, and to just be you. Speak your truth, be open to new experiences, make mistakes, mend them. As the saying goes, you can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs.