"But, was it selfish to want to escape? To use Cambridge as a chance to channel my resentment and confusion into a subject I love?"Florence Brockman for Varsity

Content Note: This article contains discussion of various sensitive themes, including domestic violence, family trauma, depression and severe mental health difficulties.

Without context, my A-level results day sounds like a dream. I wasn’t panickedly calling up for clearing, or impulsively enrolling for Autumn exams. Rather, I was being showered in praise as the first in my family to get into Oxbridge, not having to worry about results because I (unlike many students) hadn’t been done dirty by the government’s centre-assessed grades.

Yet my A-level results day was the lowest I have been in my entire life.

Roughly eighteen hours before results day, my parents had the nastiest argument they’ve had in their life. This wasn’t like those arguments where dad would leave to stay with a friend for a few days and come back, or mum would say sorry for smashing his phone by making his favourite curry. Things had gotten physical, my dad had been arrested, and my mum was distraught. This was the end.

“For me, Cambridge was a ‘way out’ from my family issues”

My dad had no idea I’d got into Cambridge because he wasn’t allowed a phone while being questioned at our local police station. The morning of results day, my mum could just about summon the strength to get out of bed and acknowledge my grades with a weak smile. I didn’t even want to tell my brothers that, while they had to endure living in the place where the twenty-two year marriage of our parents came to an ugly end, I had the opportunity to escape to a whole new city and life.

I didn’t care about the lack of reaction to my ‘life-changing achievement’; I was too worried for my family. My mother was being offered professional help for her depression and would simultaneously have to venture into the world of single parenthood. My dad had practically lost his family life, having nowhere to live and no one to turn to. My older brother would undoubtedly need to take on a parental role while in his final year of university, and my younger brother was already finding it especially difficult to process the situation because of his autism.

My A-level results day was certainly not a dream. The timing of everything happening in my life meant it was my worst nightmare. It was a nightmare the whole family was trapped in, but only I could escape. My Cambridge offer was a golden ticket that would immerse me in a completely new reality. I could — quite literally — pack my bags and leave.

“The physical distance between me and my family ... grew us closer

Many people from similar backgrounds to me refer to education as ‘a way out’. A way out from poverty, from unequal opportunity, and from that unlevel playing field existing between the privileged and the unprivileged. For me, Cambridge was a ‘way out’ from my family issues. An escape from having to decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

But was it selfish to want to escape? To use Cambridge as a chance to channel my resentment and confusion into a subject I love? Was it my job to console my family, to stand by their side during the hardest times of their lives? Or was Cambridge my source of salvation — an opportunity for me to distance myself from my family, grow personally, and return to them stronger than before?

For the rest of the summer, my mum would randomly break down and tell me she needed me to reject Cambridge; later, she’d profusely apologise and tell me I couldn’t not go. My dad tried to be happy for me when I finally got to tell him but, between applying for housing and sleeping for days at a time in his car, I knew he would feel that he had especially lost me if I chose to move away. I couldn’t help but know I’d regret my decision either way. Staying would make my family feel like a barrier to my success. Going would make me feel like the only success I cared about was my own.

In Michaelmas, neither Cambridge nor the city where my family lived felt like somewhere I wanted to be. I hated both. Neither felt like home, and I felt as though my selfish decision perhaps was not worth the salvation. It was hard when I’d return home from university for the weekend to visit my dad in hostels, or to see my mum come back home to cook dinner after a fourteen-hour shift. I even began to become angry at myself for leaving, questioning how they weren’t angry at me for abandoning them to such a situation.


Mountain View

New Olympic event: Family bonding

But in many ways it helped me to see my family beyond quarrels, drama, and meltdowns. We are a group of people who, despite being somewhat dysfunctional, actually can get through the hardest of times in our individual ways. Now, I sometimes find myself clinging to the last days of the holidays before I have to leave them all over again.

To this day, I’m not sure what made me choose to come to Cambridge. I still think it was somewhat selfish, but I’ve learnt to be OK with being selfish sometimes. I left my family to start a new chapter of my life, but doing so made me look back on my previous chapter of living with them a lot more fondly. When washing my clothes in the College laundry room, I could reminisce about mum offering to do my laundry after a long day’s work. Or when I’d cause borderline health hazards in my communal kitchen while attempting to make myself dinner, I’d remember dad attempting to make me and my brothers food. The physical distance between me and my family and the opportunity to focus on something other than our collective situation made me appreciative of them.

Finding my chosen family at university, and being able to finally call Cambridge home a year on, has made me appreciate all of the people and places that brought me to where I am today. Coming to Cambridge may have been selfish in some ways, but I wholeheartedly believe it saved me from a lifetime of resentment, regret, and ruined relationships.