College seems 'strikingly empty', said one student at Sidney SussexDaniel Gayne

While many students reminisce about a pre-lockdown image of Cambridge, those that remain find themselves in a city which, like much of the UK, has markedly changed in the last few months.

Likewise, life within Cambridge’s 31 colleges has altered dramatically in order to comply with measures to combat the spread of Covid-19.

In March, as the University began to come to terms with the threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic, colleges issued swift, and at times somewhat stressful and confusing, advice to their students.

Many firmly urged students to return to family homes if at all possible, while others committed to offering support and accommodation to all those who sought it.

Speaking to Varsity, some students reported feeling pressured to offer compelling – and often extremely sensitive – reasons to justify remaining in their accommodation. Some at King’s College even previously reported feeling pressured to leave their colleges despite offering such compelling reasons, and despite warning that doing so would put vulnerable family members at risk. King’s College has since apologised for this.

By contrast, in some other colleges, students reported feeling “supported” and “welcomed” in the decision – or, perhaps more commonly, necessity – to remain.

The students who spoke to Varsity shared a wide range of reasons for remaining in Cambridge during the lockdown. Some elected to stay in college accommodation in order to avoid home situations which they felt would be detrimental for their mental and physical health and wellbeing, others as the result of insecure living arrangements, and some in an attempt to shield vulnerable family members.

Others were compelled to remain in Cambridge as the result of logistical challenges arising from Coronavirus-related restrictions. One student’s family, for example – who had intended to drive to Cambridge to collect her – were self-isolating, after they were themselves exposed to the virus, in the days leading up to the announcement of the nationwide lockdown – so were unable to bring her home prior to the introduction of travel restrictions.

Where colleges were, in the words of one student, “more welcoming”, students were able to elect to remain in their college accommodation for academic purposes, or simply out of personal preference, without feeling compelled to the offer the powerful – and at times, deeply personal – justifications which others felt were demanded of them.

This was the case for Anna Oakes, an MPhil student at Clare Hall.

“I knew it would be much easier to finish my MPhil here, even without access to the libraries or faculty, than at home in New York”, said Oakes, who is studying for an MPhil in European, Latin American and Comparative Literatures and Cultures. “I’m only at Cambridge for a year, so I wanted to get what I could out of the experience”, she added, noting that her college has, in her opinion, been “very accomodating”.

“Our college was incredibly supportive, which helped – they committed pretty much from the start to helping those of us who wanted to stay, so I’m lucky to have space and a good community still here”.

Elsewhere, however, others did not feel so supported, as one Wolfson College student, who asked to remain anonymous, explained: “We are quite fortunate [at Wolfson] in that the college has begrudgingly allowed us to stay here, as I understand several other colleges were even more forceful, but that did not make us immune to endless emails with a guilt-tripping tone.”

Many at Wolfson, the student explained, are concerned about “potential ramifications” if they raise their concerns with the college, fearing damaging valuable academic relationships and, in the worst-case scenario, risking losing access to much-needed college accommodation if they are perceived to be in violation of the college’s interpretation of lockdown regulations.

Contacted for comment about the student’s concerns, Wolfson College stated that it is not their policy to comment on individual cases.

“We encourage any student who has concerns or complaints to follow the College’s procedures and to contact the College directly.”

Within colleges, daily life is, as might be expected, very different to how it was before.

Iphigeneia Vintzileos, a 2nd Year Classics student at Sidney Sussex, remarked that her college seems “strikingly empty”.

Students staying at Sidney Sussex were moved to accommodation equipped with en-suite bathrooms, although they are being charged only at the basic accommodation rate, despite these rooms usually costing more. Furthermore, as was also the case in other colleges, all Sidney Sussex students were provided with cleaning equipment in order to assist with the regular sanitisation of their living areas.

At many colleges, including Sidney Sussex, the provision of catered food was maintained initially, but has since ended.

Vintzileos told Varsity that she and other Sidney Sussex students were warned, prior to the introduction of formal lockdown restrictions, that “care would be limited” within the college for those that chose to remain.

While some colleges, such as Sidney Sussex, moved many of their students to rooms equipped with en-suites, others aimed to ensure that the majority of students could remain within their own rooms, although often sought to ensure individual bathroom access.

In each case, colleges have aimed to ensure social distancing may be maintained even, and especially, within their buildings, generally seeking to separate occupied student rooms.

Beyond this, despite the varying physical limitations and layouts of different colleges, the students who spoke to Varsity shared broadly similar experiences: communal areas – such as libraries, gyms and lounges, are closed – and catering provision has either been halted completely or is very limited due to low demand.

Students have been asked to remain separate, and maintain social distancing at all times, with college grounds, prior to recent adjustments to lockdown regulations, shut off to any outsiders, and even to students not resident within the college.

Wolfson has recently allowed students who live on-site to invite up to five guests to visit the gardens, under social distancing restrictions.

While the interpretation of lockdown regulations varies slightly from college to college, one Newnham student, who asked to remain anonymous, explained that, although many students may live within the same building, they are each classified as individual ‘households’, and as such must maintain their distance even when they see each other.

“It’s lonely”, she said, “because most other people are living with family and friends, they’re at least able to touch and hug one another, but we can’t even do that”.

The student added, however, that she understands and accepts this interpretation of the lockdown regulations, and believes it is nevertheless, despite the challenges, an important way of helping to combat the spread of Covid-19 and to protect the most vulnerable.

Outside of college, meanwhile, the city itself appears markedly different. “It’s sad to go to town and see everything closed”, remarked Anna Oakes. “The key word is strange. Cambridge is overwhelmingly strange and quiet”, said Beth Noble.

Likewise, noting the ongoing problem of homelessness within Cambridge, Iphigeneia Vintzileos that seeing empty college buildings on her walks around the city has been, beyond a sad reminder of missed friends, ”quite jarring”.

King’s College made one of its offsite hostels available to rough sleepers during the pandemic, but many other colleges have remained empty.

Despite the obvious challenges, the students who spoke to Varsity shared ways in which they have been finding pockets of joy over the course of the lockdown.

Beth Noble’s experience of lockdown in Cambridge has been “surprisingly tranquil”. Her college, Queens’, has supported numerous welfare initiatives, “either online or socially distanced”, including arts and crafts courses and a book club. Students living within the college have also been offered the opportunity to book out rooms equipped with large digital screens to video call friends and family members.

In her experience, there’s been “quite a lot to get involved with in Cambridge”. She cites numerous ongoing mutual aid initiatives such as those which provide free childcare for NHS workers: “Once a week, I go in for an afternoon and look after a two-year-old boy, and it’s honestly been so nice! I get a change of scene, I get to go out and see people and help out and I get to have some fun because the kid is adorable!”

“It’s nice to feel like you’re doing something worthwhile,” she says.


Mountain View

Madingley Hall used to house NHS workers during pandemic

Aside from participating in such initiatives, and in college and student-organised events, many of the students who spoke to Varsity highlighted the value of spending time in nature and exploring the “calming Cambridgeshire countryside”.

Vintzileos, for example, said she has “finally” visited Grantchester and spent a lot of time “finding new pathways along the canal”. Noble, likewise, said it has been “nice, but weird” to “finally see other parts of the area”, having rarely ventured beyond the city-centre in the past.

“We are very fortunate to have great countryside here and a variety of different routes and places to go”, said one Wolfson student.

Likewise, some students have been able to work with nature within their own colleges. “To pass the time, our house has gotten really into gardening,” said Oakes. “We filled pretty much all the pots we could get our hands on with soil and vegetable seeds.”

Noble, too, has been embracing gardening: one of her “lockdown highlights” has been having the opportunity to build a herb garden in her college with another student – “socially distanced of course!".

As lockdown measures begin to be eased, one student said that she hopes “Cambridge will start looking a bit more like Cambridge soon”.