Earlier in January, when I received my Cambridge offer, I was jumping up and down in the living room with my parents. Romantic ideals filled my head: visions of wandering through the winding cobbled streets with towering sandstone buildings on both sides, pouring over the words of intellectuals as rain patters against my window and sipping wine while chatting over candlelight in ancient halls. I slept with the golden words of “Cambridge” dancing in my dreams, its shimmering letters emblazoned across the back of my eyelids. Wasn’t this what we were all expecting?

Yet, sitting alone in my room now 16,983 km away from home in the middle of a pandemic in a foreign country, this was not the university experience I anticipated. The fun of cycling into town to fill lecture theatres was replaced by staring at a screen. Supervisions to discuss fascinating topics with leading experts turned into online conversations with wifi connectivity issues. The experiences of going to restaurants, pubs, formal halls, sport training and societies became almost non-existent as this year’s freshers experienced a start riddled with challenges, high emotions, and disappointments.

“I am finding it so difficult to meet my own idealised expectations that I miss the familiarity of home.”

Personally, these two months in Cambridge have been the most emotional and difficult I’ve ever experienced in my whole life. I’ve felt like I’ve been strapped to the front carriage of an emotional rollercoaster rushing along an eternal track, oscillating between feeling on top of the world and then dropping hard back to Earth.

Don’t get me wrong. Looking at the bigger picture makes me feel so privileged and fortunate to be able to attend the world’s best university and follow in the footsteps of some of the most brilliant minds who have ever lived. I can’t avoid the twinge of guilt that stings my tongue with every bitter word.

But my overall experience of Michaelmas term has made me feel like I am stuck in some liminal space, disoriented between two worlds. While I want to make the most of my time here, I am finding it so difficult to meet my own idealised expectations that I miss the familiarity of home.

It was easy to get swept up in the exhilarations of the ride: moving into our new rooms, cringing at the ugly photos on our Camcards, twirling in our gowns for the first time, and proudly wearing our college puffers. These moments mattered because they meant that we belonged. We learnt to navigate Moodle and Panopto and the stream of lectures and essays while trying to remember the names and faces that flitted by.

Then, the lockdown hit. We all disappeared into our rooms and it seemed like that was the abrupt anticlimactic end. In a town of over 20,000 students, I had never felt lonelier.


Mountain View

Finding Optimism with ABCDEs

I still remember when people told me how brave I was in moving overseas and I had just brushed it off. I pushed away thoughts about the challenges that I was yet to experience and perhaps naively felt that the excitement would far outweigh any difficulties. I’ve tried to stay stoic and strong, to continue to be grateful for this education and to remember all the hard work that brought me from Australia to here.

At times, however, that front slips. For example, I made friends and played pool and laughed and joked late into the night. I felt being Australian made me stand out amongst the array of British accents in a good way. But at other times, my nationality almost becomes my personality, making it difficult for well-intentioned conversations to flow beyond small talk like “Where in Australia are you from?”

Especially during lockdown, it has been so difficult making friends and developing a deeper conception beyond the acquaintance stage of waving at them across college. It has left me, and perhaps most freshers, worried that we would never make the lifelong friends that all the older students seem to swear by.

And in comparison to back home where almost everything is back to normal, it is painful knowing that cases here are the norm.

It’s been a constant struggle of “Expectation versus Reality.” After all the highs and lows of this rollercoaster ride, I am left exhausted and flat, my hair plastered across my face and dried tears stained on my cheeks.

But if there is one thing I’ve learnt during these “unprecedented times,” it is to embrace how I am feeling. These emotions are what it means to be human. The only way to overcome the pain and sadness is to take the time to feel and process them because it is only then that we will be able to move on.

This rollercoaster ride is a transformative one. It shoots us out of our comfort zone into the unknown where we have no idea what twist or turn will come next or when, if ever, it will end. I want to make the most of my time here, throwing up my arms as I rush through the clouds, not only learning and diving into the wondrous array of opportunities, but also enjoying the view and taking the time to reflect on what I value and care about. It is about finding comfort in discomfort and accepting my rollercoaster of emotions, knowing that I will emerge stronger and more resilient than before.

“It is about finding comfort in discomfort and accepting my rollercoaster of emotions, knowing that I will emerge stronger and more resilient than before.”

In retrospect, I feel like I’ve learnt so much beyond anything I would have ever imagined in my first term. Cambridge, especially during this unusual period of time, doesn’t just equip us with theories and academic knowledge, but offers as well the chance to reflect on ourselves. It has been an incredibly difficult time but despite these challenges, I am so grateful for each conversation, interaction and experience for shaping my life.

So as I’m looking outside of my window while the sun peeks through the clouds above Cambridge and I’m reflecting on this chaotic term, my message to everyone, including myself, is this: While it may feel that this nightmare ride will keep going forever, trust in the fact that at one point, this ride will come to an end. The carriage will slow down to a halt. Our stomachs won’t drop anymore. Everything will settle. And when we pat down our hair and clothes and look back on the ride with our friends and family, with the experiences still fresh in our mind, we will never regret stepping onto that ride in the first place.