While back home it's Big Macs for half the price, at Cambridge it’s a three-course meal served in a great hallPatrick Dolan with permission for Varsity

I find myself embracing the iconic ‘I’m lovin’ it’ as I gear up for another busy eight hour shift at McDonald’s and an enlightening eight week term at Cambridge. While the realms of the famous golden arches and the ivy-clad courts couldn’t seem further apart, I think there exist more parallels than initially meet the eye.

Eight’s the magic number and resonates within both of these household names. Curiously, the sentiments felt during the eight hours dedicated to flipping burgers mimic the contemplations I undergo while within the Cambridge bubble.

As the journey commences - at week one or hour one - the air rings full of vitality as I’m thrilled to see everyone for a catch-up and adjust to the rhythm of the day. The hours spent writing supervision essays and serving customers pass by imperceptibly.

All of a sudden, the clock strikes for the fifth hour and week. By this point, both roles start to feel like a repetitive grind with the realisation that you are only half way through. This juncture also often proves to be the busiest, requiring your full attention and leaving no room to think - it sounds familiar doesn’t it?

We take the liberty at work of dubbing the eighth and final hour ‘happy hour’, which, parallel to the final week of Cambridge, remains a time where demands ease, people loosen up and a genuine pursuit of fun begins as it’s finally time to say goodbye. Amidst the complaints of academia and employment, a revelation strikes as you leave both places of work: ‘it wasn’t that bad’.

“While back home it's Big Macs for half the price, at Cambridge it’s a three-course meal served in a great hall"

If the Cambridge bubble was a culture shock to me, McDonald’s provided quite a similar experience. A place in the heart of the East Midlands suffering from small town syndrome creates quite the dynamic. Putting a few hundred young adults in one place means the work-cest is on par with college and course-cest, debriefs are customary and venturing outdoors inevitably leads to familiar faces. Perhaps, it can be most observed in the subsidised meals I benefit from. While back home it's Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets for half the price, at Cambridge it’s a three-course meal served in a great hall for a discounted sum of money.

Cambridge University and McDonald's both immerse newcomers in a sea of acronyms and specialised jargon to be learnt within a week. The University boasts terms like DoS, HSPS, ADC, and JCR whereas the fast food chain counters with OE-PE, OAT, KVS, and UHC. Remarkably, my brain has the capacity to memorise this multitude of abbreviations. Nevertheless, to outsiders of either establishment, these contractions might appear pretentious without proper clarification and risk holding no value in conversations. The need for the shorthand in both institutions can only be explained by their shared characteristic of fast-paced environments; neither Cambridge students nor McDonald's employees have time for lengthy phrases like 'Human, Social, and Political Sciences' or 'Order End, Present End.'

Reflecting on my time in the hospitality industry, I take inspiration from our franchisee owner, Sarah McLean, who now owns over 20 stores in our local area. As an MMLer studying French and Spanish, I feel particularly in awe of the brand’s largest female franchisee who studied French and German at Royal Holloway, University of London and had previous dreams of becoming a translator. Sarah’s rapid progression through the famous brand is something that I believe should serve as a motivating example for all McDonald’s employees and Cambridge students alike.

However, similarly to the University, McDonald’s as an international brand is not immune to being subject to rightful scrutiny. Only last month, the company faced serious national complaints in a report published by BBC News that found a ‘toxic culture of sexual assault, harassment, racism and bullying’, alleged by more than 100 UK employees. McDonald’s fortuitous identity as a unifying juncture and cross-section for society prevails, but simultaneously struggles in these serious cases, as does Cambridge in its pursuit of inclusivity and diversity.

“The same individuals who revere the Oxbridge status will be the ones berating me in the drive-thru”

The profound realisation I’m also still learning to grasp is the disparity in customers' treatment of employees, whether dressed in the iconic grey uniform or adorned in black tie and gown. The paradox strikes me: the same individuals who revere the Oxbridge status will be the ones berating me in the drive-thru because their Big Mac isn’t ready in ten seconds. I’m a firm believer that if we did a social experiment, it would be the people who admire me most as a student that would cause the most fuss in hospitality.

The classic joke of ‘not even Maccies will hire you with those GCSEs’ does little to uplift its image and it seems this perception permeates wider society. It was only the other day that a customer questioned my long-term aspirations at McDonald’s. I needed ‘to get out of there’, as if the establishment were a chamber of toxic fumes (or perhaps they were referring to the constant smell of fast food).


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The truth is that both lifestyles, although not mutually exclusive as I have learnt, require different demands and it’s simply unfair to pass judgement on either. Cambridge isn’t necessarily guilt-free of casting prejudice either, as you can imagine. I’ve encountered disdainful looks from people when having a Maccies dinner - the same people proclaiming their vegan identity but enjoying a few chicken nuggets after a night out.

Although taken from the equivalent of McDonald’s ‘The Other Place’, Colonel Sanders’s KFC quote ‘I feed truck drivers and millionaires all at the same table’ serves as a reminder that the world of fast food transcends categories and that no one will ever be bigger and better than a McDonald’s.