"Being here felt right"Ming Kit Wong

Lifestyle’s new series, A Room of One’s Own, looks at Cambridge rooms and the students who inhabit them. For better or worse, we make the places we live in our own. In turn, these spaces — however small, and however temporary — transform us.

What your room looks out on transforms the space within; quite literally, it puts things in a different light. I’m visiting Maria Khan, a fourth-year PhD student in eighteenth-century German literature and theatre studies, at St Edmund’s.

Maria’s bedroom window has a view of grass, trees, and a chapel. More than some other rooms I’ve seen, it lets the sunlight in. “Every morning, I wake up to see the silent gardener working outside,” says Maria.

As a Muslim woman in a Roman Catholic space, Maria finds both her room and the community at the Margaret Beaufort Institute helpful for the practice of her faith.

“Being here felt right. I feel like I’m surrounded by people who really care about their inner life, whatever their beliefs. The other day I wasn’t feeling so good, and someone told me they would pray for me. That touched me. In a place so far from my family and my original home, that kind of support and community means a lot.”

Sunlight streams into Maria's roomMing Kit Wong

The youngest of five siblings, Maria dedicates the pinboard above her bed to pictures of her family. They all live far away — two of them in Pakistan, where Maria is from, and two live in New Zealand. A black and white photograph of Bertolt Brecht in a cap is the only departure from this familial focus; Maria is quick to assure me that he is no relation.

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One of the only other images of people she doesn’t know personally is a picture from Prince Harry’s 2018 wedding to Meghan Markle. Not a particular royalist, she admires the way Meghan has crossed borders and divides while remaining true to her own style and personality.

At home with her family, Maria has been used to sharing everything, including her bedroom. Having a space just for herself has enabled her to grow into the person she wants to be, and acknowledge the person she is. “In my room, I am allowed to cry, be angry, feel inadequate or great, dance and sing. The Persian carpet in my room allows me to take naps on the floor when the sun shines through the window.”

She dots her room with little inspirations. By her bed, fridge magnets on a radiator tell us to be true to ourselves. A hand-written sticky note affirms, in indisputable block capitals, that we are enough.

"I am enough"Ming Kit Wong

No experience of living in Cambridge is the same. We all have different points of reference, and as a student body have lived all over the world. Having done her undergraduate degree in Berlin, perhaps surprisingly, Maria found it to be a more relaxed place than Cambridge. “You wouldn’t think it was a capital city. People just go around barefoot! Here, people wear suits and gowns riding around on bicycles.”

Cambridge, for her, is a more intense place. The grounds of the Margaret Beaufort Institute and her own room provide a space within but apart from the rest of the city.

“I think some people have the attitude that, well, they might only be in that particular room for one year; it doesn’t really matter how it looks or how you feel living in it. I completely disagree!”


Mountain View

How to make your room feel like home

While some people spend much less time in their room than others, being out a lot can make your own room even more important, argues Maria: “Wherever I’ve been, whatever has been going on in that day, I can come back to my room and instantly feel myself again”.

For Maria, her room is a place where her academic and creative work overlap. Since being in Cambridge, she has got more in touch with her artistic side. Previously not thinking much of designing home-made cards, when people appreciated her work, she started to go to a painting society here. She shows us a piece of her art, a nude sketched out in confident, dark brushstrokes. It’s impossible not to pick up some of the enthusiasm she feels for her relatively new-found talent.

Maria leads us out. We pause by the apple tree, take a couple more photos, and try to take with us a bit of the warm, crisp peace we leave behind.

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