Some Cambridge students remain deeply-involved with the University's activist community while the academic pressure ramps upLisha Zhong

May Week is over, I have just about unpacked, and yet somehow it’s September. To my great trepidation, a summer largely saturated by a heady mix of stifling heat and boredom has morphed into autumn overnight. What was once leisurely nonchalance is now a full-on rollercoaster hurtling towards the finish line – except that the end point is the starting blocks, and I don’t know if I’m ready to race.

As with most of my ‘back-to-school’ endeavours comes the inevitable post-mortem of the year before. New books and pens and notebooks are bought, all geared towards the single pursuit of self-betterment. This pursuit exists so much more acutely in a place like this, where it often seems like there’s pressure to answer a looming ‘what else?’. It isn’t enough to be clever, everyone is clever. What else have you to offer the table that nobody else is bringing? What else do you do?

In theory, I know this isn’t true. To exist at Cambridge is not easy, to excel is even more difficult, and your worth is not determined by how many plays you’ve been in this term as much as it isn’t determined by a rushed essay. Yet in the face of alumni who monopolised on their time here so successfully, remaining rational is a challenge.

"Excuses were frequent – I was too busy, there was reading to be done, I had woken up too late."LOUIS ASHWORTH

Hugh Laurie was a member of Footlights and rowed for the Light Blues; he’s now an award-winning actor, director and comedian. Zadie Smith’s submission to The Mays Anthology attracted a publisher’s attention and landed her a contract for a novel. Emma Thompson was the vice-President of Footlights and is the only person to have won an Academy Award for both screen-writing and acting. The list goes on.

I should at this juncture assuage any fears that I’m in the throes of an existential crisis about the likelihood of future fame based on how many clubs I did or didn’t join in first year. Rather, I reflect with a twinge of guilt, not about the late nights or questionable liaisons, but for the student that I feel I should have been.

It has often felt disingenuous to get involved without a comprehensive understanding of everything at stake

It was a recent read of Long Walk to Freedom for a piece of holiday work that prompted my own self-reflection on thoughts I had harboured all year about the power of the student voice. Mandela writes of his initial concerns joining members of the ANC for marches and meetings: he had always been a politically active student but felt out of his depth amongst new, more knowledgeable peers.

The climate in which he wrote is worlds away from mine, but the sentiment rings true. I believe in putting my money where my mouth is. And in the past year, when so many of the big campaigns dominating student life have been unfamiliar, it has often felt disingenuous to get involved without a comprehensive understanding of everything at stake.

Friends would send excited messages: “Bring pots and pans”, “Anything that makes noise!”, “Who’s coming to the march?”. Excuses were frequent – I was too busy, there was reading to be done, I had woken up too late. And while all were inevitably true, none felt like particularly valid arguments. Didn’t everybody have work to do and people to see? A student in one of my compulsory classes was juggling the end of term reading while on hunger strike. Acquaintances went straight from lectures to rallies. Therein lay the Catch-22 of it all. If they could do it, why couldn’t I?


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My lack of action wasn’t symbolic of scepticism or apathy for the causes themselves. I was certainly sympathetic, at times actively partaking. I managed the whole of Lent without crossing the picket line. But if somebody asked me at a rally why I was there, I wasn’t always confident that I would be able to explain the intricacies of the issue in detail. It would be naïve to pretend that this fact didn’t play a part in my participation.

So the question of activism sits protractedly amongst ‘packing’ and ‘reading’ on my pre-term to-do list. I’m not so foolish as to imagine I’ll turn into an eco warrior or a justice fighter overnight. Nor are these titles I currently actively aspire towards. But conscientious, considerate, informed? Those are labels I would be proud to wear. This term, I’m ready to work for them.

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