Receiving a Cambridge offer may feel like the climax and culmination of all the intense preparatory work. Any uncertainty and doubt about our next chapter instantly evaporate into clarity and certainty; the universe has magically rewarded our efforts just like Santa wondrously gifting us our most anticipated Christmas presents.

But in reality, in a year as extraordinary as 2020, the logistical processes are just beginning. For international freshers like me, who must meticulously plan a safe and coherent trip across the globe, managing that transitional phase is analogous to navigating a dazzling maze full of unexpected blockages, only to confidently embark on a clear path that later reveals itself as merely a mirage.

Even though these ‘black swan’ occurrences seem inevitable amidst our COVID-19 world, we can still feel disproportionally overwhelmed by them without an adaptation strategy to combat this randomness. With the humble intention to hopefully help even just one person, I’d like to share how actively applying the simple positive psychology model of ABCDE – an acronym for Adversity, Belief, Consequence, Dispute, and Energise – has assisted me in systematically rationalising my stresses from the recent travel arrangement nightmares.

Applying Our ABCDEs

In italics below is a scribed sample of my journal, with accompanying commentary for rationale and explanatory purposes.

A: Adversity

The problem/s as objective facts:

  1. The Visa Application Centre (VAC) in my city just closed indefinitely due to Covid-19, so I must travel across the country just to submit my biometrics.
  2. My airline just spontaneously cancelled one leg of my joint flight; no other similar flights from my airline to change to around that date.

B: Belief

All the spontaneous and honest thoughts, worries, concerns as they flow in:

So stupid that VAC is closed! There’ve been no confirmed cases here! There’ll be no flights. Would be cancelled anyway. Need to quarantine. Not even safe to travel. So expensive. Should’ve attended local Uni. Screw international trip! This process sucks! Nothing can be done. The universe hates me.

At this point, I noticed my jaw clenching, teeth grinding, and head boiling; the initial thoughts had quickly spiralled downwards into irrational complaints. Recognising this trend prompted new beliefs, so I continue journaling:


Mountain View

Onwards and upwards: A letter to myself in fresher's week

Wow I am so ungrateful and pessimistic. How dare I complain when people are going through far worse. I’m a nasty, selfish, and horrible person. So ashamed and inconsiderate. I deserve no success or happiness.

Neither of these polar extremes is particularly helpful or accurate, but the act of writing this down activates my so-called System 2 thinking, which is primarily guided by reason.

C: Consequence

Honestly reasoning the consequences of those beliefs:

Belief set 1: Nothing can be done. It’s all out of my control. I’m a victim. Bad.

Belief set 2: While more responsibility-focused, makes me feel terrible about myself. Hence unproductive. Bad.

I quickly realise how those beliefs would most likely lead to “bad” outcomes.

“I’d already met amazing people from around the world and the official experience hasn’t even begun.”

D: Dispute

Rigorously disputing those initial beliefs:

Nothing can be done/No flights – Not true. There are other airlines which I can book from. Even if it’s on a different day, I can still get my VISA and start Uni on time.

I’m such a nasty, selfish, and horrible person/The universe hates me – Too far. It’s human nature to react, or overreact, to a problem. Frustration is normal. At least I am now considering the plight of others and trying to maintain perspective.

Should’ve attended local Uni – No. Just check my past diary entries! I have always wanted this. The Uni support has been amazing thus far (again, read diary). I’d already met amazing people from around the world and the official experience hasn’t even begun. It can only get better.

Engaging in this internal dialogue out in the open helps me to reason more objectively.

E: Energise

A pledge or statement to move forward:

I can definitely do something productive to resolve the problems, so let’s take action now! How exciting!

Needless to say, I soon got my VISA, and God forbid another cancellation, should arrive on time!

Freshers Gratitude

Transcribing my reactions in my diary and actively disputing the negative unproductive beliefs – as opposed to allowing those irrational thoughts to oscillate in my mind, which adversely affects my mood – has made me more appreciative than ever to be able to commence as a fresher in October.

Indeed, despite all the complications, difficulties, and concerns, we all have countless reasons to be excited about commencing this journey. Cambridge, beyond its history of excellence and glaring appeal, has already welcomed us into its community. We can all be proud of the University’s adaptability measures, for instance, whether that be its quarantine arrangements, admissions flexibility, financial support, or weekly COVID-19 test offerings. To just think that so many individuals are working relentlessly, day and night, behind the scenes, all to create the best possible holistic University experience for us, fills me with infinite warmth and gratitude.

Personally, I also marvel at all the senior students – within the group chats of our respective colleges, tripos, and co-curricular interest groups – who’ve selflessly guided us. Their servant leadership epitomises the best of Cambridge; I’m deeply grateful in particular for all their Q&As, information packs, Zoom calls, and words of advice.

“To just think that so many individuals are working relentlessly, day and night, behind the scenes, all to create the best possible holistic University experience for us, fills me with infinite warmth and gratitude.”

Of course, I’m so happy and proud as well to be a member of this diverse cohort of freshers. Just consider all the creative and humorous personal profiles on @CambridgeUniversity2020 Instagram, our entertaining virtual engagements to date, and the character-shaping experiences we’ll share together. How could we not have a smile from ear to ear and, most importantly, feel inspired, blessed and uplifted to finally meet everybody this October?

Starting University with COVID-19 restrictions may not be ideal, but we can optimistically choose to adapt and flourish. That may, luckily, just be as simple as knowing our ABCDEs!