Cambridge is full of strange traditions and eccentricities. From formal halls to May Balls (in June), starting our weeks on a Thursday and celebrating Bridgemas, these traditions often make little sense to the students studying here, let alone those observing it from the outside. Although we get a flavour of what it’s like to spend time outside of this bubble when we leave during the holidays, only a few students actually experience what it is to spend a year without all of these bizarre yet familiar aspects of our shared university experience. Despite embarking on the year abroad being a daunting prospect, everyone I spoke to told me of the benefits of escaping the bubble for a bit.

For Jam, studying in Germany revealed to them how “it’s really easy for your Cambridge experience to be very insular,” and Will reiterated this, describing Cambridge as “a very cloistered environment”. He noted the absurdity of how students are technically “contractually obliged to stay in Cambridge for the entirety of term,” contrasting greatly with his experience in Portugal of most students leaving to spend the weekends at home with their families. Despite Cambridge students spending the majority, if not all, of the term in the city, there is still a paradoxical disconnect between the students and the city itself, hence the ingrained ‘town vs. gown’ tension. Upon returning from her year abroad in Paris, Katie also felt “less aware of what is going on outside Cambridge,” being absorbed back into the insularity of the Cambridge term.

“It is very hard to keep track of time in Cambridge when you are abroad”

This disconnect is inherently tied to the academic rigour of terms; students are so focused on meeting deadlines and preparing for supervisions that it becomes difficult to spend time thinking about much else. Jam explained how they “feel like a ‘Leipziger’ here [in Germany] – both a resident of the city and a student, but in Cambridge, my connection to the city is entirely around me studying there.” While in Cambridge we may feel connected to the University and our colleges, we don’t have this same affinity with the city itself. King’s Parade becomes something we hurry down on the way to a lecture and Grand Arcade somewhere we go for a bit of retail therapy after a tough supervision – it’s easy to forget that there is more to the city than just the University. Cambridge is home for many.

One of the most noticeable elements of Cambridge’s bubble is how time functions so differently. Andrew, who intermitted after his first year to study in Italy, described Cambridge as “a time warp” in which eight weeks suddenly flash by. Days drag out while weeks go by in an instant, and it is only once you leave that you can properly appreciate just how warped the passing of time here is. “It is very hard to keep track of time in Cambridge when you are abroad,” one student (who wished to remain anonymous) noted, with many of those I spoke to saying they use platforms such as CamFess to keep up-to-date. While on his year abroad, Will realised that Cambridge’s rigid structure means “we start measuring our time by it,” to the extent that it is possible to predict CamFess posts based on the time of year, further perpetuating the insularity of the Cambridge experience.

Nearly everyone recounted the difficulty of explaining the eight-week terms to their friends abroad. “Once you leave and come back the length and intensity of each term is very striking,” one student remarked, with Jam and Will both reiterating how shocked people have been at hearing how much is packed into two months. It’s revealing that many students will return to Cambridge a week or two before term starts to begin the acclimatisation process. “I remember feeling so stressed in Cambridge, writing essays non-stop,” Will said, and so the slower pace of his year abroad has “been a nice reprieve”.

While this break has been welcome for some, one student told me that they “miss the busyness of everything, when you’re constantly trying to do everything at once”. Katie reiterated this, explaining that while the dramatic change in pace has allowed her to “see the bigger picture of the world outside Cambridge,” she misses “how much stuff there was organised in Cambridge with societies, music and sports”. Although the incessant activities can at times feel overwhelming, the virtue of an eight-week term is that it is just about manageable to fit everything in before crashing as soon as term ends.

“It’s definitely a bubble but I don’t think it’s always a bad bubble”

Cambridge’s insularity does have its benefits, with everyone mentioning how leaving the bubble made them realise just how intimate friendships in Cambridge can be. Andrew described Cambridge as a “pressure cooker,” with this intensity enabling very close friendships to be forged. One student was surprised that the biggest change they noticed when going abroad wasn’t the lack of essay deadlines but “the sense of community”. Everything “seems more personal at Cambridge” – from the pastoral care to the friendships, there is a large support network we often take for granted. Friendships are at the heart of this network, and with everything being so self-contained, especially with the collegiate system, “even if you’re not actively going to socialise, you’re going to walk past someone’s room in college, you’re going to bump into someone.” For most of the students I spoke to, returning to their friends is what they are most looking forward to upon their return.

Leaving the bubble is ironically one of the best ways to learn how to make the most of it: “You can get caught up in Cambridge […] there’s always these deadlines, and sometimes you need to take a step back and appreciate everything.” Furthermore, for someone like Andrew, spending a year abroad offered him the opportunity to reflect and work out his priorities. Despite emphasising to me that he didn’t want to sound “cringe,” Andrew said he “found [him]self” during his year out. He also learnt how to take care of his mental health and make time to think about what he actually wants to do after university. Katie noted a similar experience, realising that “the majority of the world does not go to Cambridge and they’re fine […] I’m just going to enjoy it and try and enjoy what I’m learning.”

The revelation that work “is not the end of the world” is an important one. It is not until you take a step back that you can see just how much of a “sense of competition” there is here, forcing you to work in unsustainable ways or to forget about the myriad of other opportunities available. Jam explains that because Cambridge is so competitive, “the idea of a casual hobby” doesn’t exist. Everything has to be done to a high level of commitment and intensity, Jam said, but on their year abroad they’ve been able to join a choir and “just show up and sing each week for a couple of hours. It’s just about having fun.” Amid the stress of essays, it is easy to forget, as Andrew did, that Cambridge “is so much more than just education”. You only get to experience university once, and so taking advantage of all the incredible societies on offer is just as, if not more, important than churning out eight essays a term.

“You need to take a bit of a step back to appreciate everything”

There are now 1,850 undergraduate courses at 69 institutions across the UK offering a year in industry – not one is Cambridge – and 1,081 options for an integrated year abroad. Other top universities such as Durham even have a dedicated webpage encouraging all students, no matter what they are studying, to spend a year abroad. Everyone I spoke to agreed that Cambridge should expand its provision to allow as many students as possible to experience the benefits of going abroad. While one student noted that it could cause you to “lose momentum,” with Katie saying that “it’s not for everyone,” she also described it as “a really good time to just pause” in the middle of your degree. Will explained how “the Cambridge bubble does encourage a bit of stagnation” in your development, citing how having bedders or laundry services doesn’t encourage self-sufficiency but merely fosters a sheltered environment. “The only way to solve the Cambridge bubble is to let people travel outside of Cambridge,” he remarks, reiterating the need to widen students’ horizons to help with their development, especially when many might go on to lead the world in some shape or form.


Mountain View

Rowers, rust, and the river: What’s it like living on a houseboat in Cambridge?

More than anything, escaping the Cambridge bubble for a year proves the age-old adage that absence makes the heart grow fonder. We have all faced moments when the prospect of another term or another year of our degree seems too much to bear, and a year abroad can help reignite the passion for our subjects that drove us towards Cambridge in the first place. A feeling of excitement pervades students’ responses at the prospect of returning, having realised while abroad how lucky they are to experience a Cambridge education – a feeling that can easily be forgotten on a rainy week five day. Following a year away, everyone I spoke to was “quite excited to get down to work again” and “be nerdy about the subject [they] love”.

“It’s definitely a bubble but I don’t think it’s always a bad bubble,” one student tells me. It certainly has its eccentricities, including the belief that seeing BeReals of people in the library at 4am is “normal” or that worrying about how to ask bedders for more bin bags is a major issue. However, despite these drawbacks, the Cambridge bubble is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience which should be appreciated for the incredible opportunity that it is. If escaping it for a year is the key to figuring out how to make the most of it, then perhaps the University should seriously consider providing more students the opportunity to venture beyond the bubble – even if it is just to return and be absorbed right back in.