Freshers starting this year will be subject to numerous restrictionsLouis Ashworth

Every October, thousands of freshers arrive at Cambridge. Starry-eyed and eager, many come with far too much luggage and an inflated sense of opportunity (speaking from personal experience). As the story goes, halcyon days of partying, drinking, and general mistake-making lie ahead; equal parts magical and notorious, depending on who you ask.

This year things are different. When Chloe Gommichon, an incoming first year at Magdalene from America, landed two weeks early for her mandatory quarantine, her arrival at the Porter’s Lodge was instead met with alarming confusion, as Porter muttered: “do we have a room for her?”

“On the spot I panicked and thought they had not registered my arrival on that day,” Chloe said. Things eventually turned out fine. She was put in a room at college to carry out her quarantine, but the incident nonetheless set the tone for her arrival.

“I’m just concerned about even moving into college, given the rising cases and the very real possibility of a second lockdown”

“I’m disappointed. I’ve been told countless times that your first year of university, and especially Freshers, is amazing. Now that I’m locked in a room for two weeks, I have no distractions and not much to look forward to. It makes dealing with homesickness more complicated.”

These feelings are echoed by many of her peers who have been preparing for a less than ideal start to university. As the second wave looms ever closer, what was hoped to be a week of safe and socially-distanced mingling is looking increasingly precarious.

“I’m just concerned about even moving into college, given the rising cases and the very real possibility of a second lockdown,” said Flo Brockman, a fresher at Murray Edwards. And with growing emphasis from colleges on the importance of socialising within allocated household bubbles, many are feeling frustrated at the prospect.

One fresher at Pembroke described being put in a household with only one other first year. “When I found this out I became so anxious that it made me not actually want to go to Cambridge at all,” she said. She later was able to have this changed, but the overall anxiety has prevailed. “I guess it’s just really not going to be what I imagined.”

“I guess it’s just really not going to be what I imagined”

It is evident that mental health will be a particular concern this year, especially amongst freshers. This has been a focus of Alice Gilderdale’s work as the Welfare and Community Officer at the Cambridge Students’ Union (SU). “For a fresher arriving in a city they’ve never lived in, knowing few or no other students and then having to maintain strict social distancing by isolating themselves in rooms or households — it isn’t an ideal situation.”

The SU recently launched the ‘#DemandSafeCambridge’ Campaign calling for the University to commit to basic assurances, such as providing accommodation for students who would prefer to remain in college in the case of a second lockdown, and adopting a compassionate approach to student discipline.

“We hope this campaign lays the basic red lines we wish to see the collegiate University committing to support students returning — particularly those who may be nervous coming to Cambridge as freshers.”


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Despite this, a lack of clarity and inconsistencies in college policies have added to the stress and worry. The information that students have received about events planned for Freshers’ week have varied widely across colleges. For example, a socially distanced matriculation dinner is happening at Murray Edwards, but still up in the air at other colleges. “People have been planning what to wear as if it’s going forwards as normal, but I don’t think we’ve heard anything about how that’s going to work,” said a fresher from Pembroke.

Along with the closure of most social areas in college, like common rooms, cafes, and halls, this has fed into a shared sense that Cambridge this year is a bad deal financially. “I’m not even sure how accessible the library, both in college, or the faculties, will be,” said Flo.

“I’m not even sure how accessible the library, both in college, or the faculties, will be”

Many other students expressed the same sentiment, although some have acknowledged that staff must be paid regardless of whether learning becomes online.

“My dad is a lecturer so I have seen how much effort he has put into making his online lectures as smooth and useful as possible. It’s far more work than he normally would need to do,” said one fresher. But she conceded: “a reduced price for the reduced experience would have been nice.”

Kevin Du, an international fresher hailing from Shanghai, felt the same: “going to lectures, attending supervisions, and having a face to face social life — these are necessary elements of college life, especially for a university known for its supervision system.”

Yet there is something to be said for the resilience and optimism that freshers have shown. Group chats and virtual events have been a source of solace and camaraderie, in which freshers have experienced the warmth and solidarity of the student community.

“Attending supervisions and having a face to face social life – these are necessary elements of college life”

“I definitely doubted choosing Cambridge during lockdown, but the people I’ve met through social media have reassured me that I have made the right choice. Despite the circumstances, I am really excited to move in,” said Flo. Chloe is feeling similarly positive about the future. “Freshers’ Week is not a once in a lifetime type of experience, and once we’re allowed to properly go out with our friends, we’ll have just as much, or even more fun, than we would’ve had in Freshers'.”

There’s no skirting around the fact that we will be arriving at a very different Cambridge this year; one that we hadn’t expected, one that we might not recognise, and one that we probably weren’t hoping for. Still, David Quan, entering his first year at Clare studying Education, is nothing short of sanguine.

“Everybody I’ve met online so far has been so kind, caring, and encouraging. We all have a shared understanding that we will be relying on one another in the coming weeks and months — I’m just excited to finally be a part of the Cambridge community”.

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