" I’ve even been guilty of small, prideful moments when I see colleges whose libraries are less extravagant or whose boat clubs less provocative on the Cam, not unlike the way I would judge girls in other sororities"Alex Parnham-Cope

My second term of undergrad, I rushed a sorority. Having long skewed more or less anti-establishment, the move struck many of my friends as off-brand. There was a certain undeniable irony in attending a university ostensibly for cultural and intellectual expansion, only to voluntarily reduce one’s experience back down into an elitist, selective bubble.

But for me, and likely for many others, exclusivity had a tantalising appeal to it. In any situation requiring geographic relocation, we quickly find the allure of the novel replaced by a need to make sense of our surroundings and the role that we fill within them. There is something inherently human in behaving clannishly. Psychologically, we get a dopamine hit from detecting patterns, which remains a strong justification for indulgence in astrology and a key point overlooked by my housemates, who are mostly Earth signs and thus way too cynical about these things. When faced with a veritably limitless range of personalities, appearances, tastes and interests, it feels comforting to categorise. Shrinking our world provides some stability, and even the most open-minded among us fall prey to the human instinct for belonging.

“I see the same tendency toward elective segregation mirrored in our collective allegiance to the college system”

Cambridge doesn’t have sororities (or fraternities, at least in the American sense – and it is all the better for this omission, lamentable lack of keg stands aside). Yet I see the same tendency toward elective segregation mirrored in our collective allegiance to the college system. We may not “rush” our colleges, but there is mutual choice involved. As staff columnist Laura Solomon noted in her recent Varsity piece, we soon find ourselves tuning into the nuances between colleges, mentally separating ourselves from Cambridge students sporting separate crests.

Not everyone likes their college. Yet I’ve found that even among those perceived as “less competitive,” or “less traditional” or, as one eyebrow-raising YouTube video from this year phrased it, “forgettable” (pain), students seem to lean into the aspects of their college that set them apart. Through a non-peer-reviewed collection of data based on weeks of independent observation (i.e., me walking around looking at people), I notice no substantial difference in the number of jackets sported by any one college. The Camfess posts routinely roast my college—snooty, full of Medics, hard to pronounce, take a guess—and yet the puffer stays on. I’ve even been guilty of small, prideful moments when I see colleges whose libraries are less extravagant or whose boat clubs less provocative on the Cam, not unlike the way I would judge girls in other sororities.

Is this cliquey-ness natural, a means of carving out an identity for ourselves amidst a peer group of over 20,000? Or does it detract from the unity that we might feel, were we to group ourselves under a single characteristic – that of a Cambridge student?

My proposed answer is yes and yes. I find the college system to be in many ways charming. Problems arise via its inequalities. Discrepancies in funding mean that a student at one college gets access to multiple parties, cheap student bars, and ample scholarship opportunities, while another has to take a bus to get into town. A student at one college lives a stone’s throw from their facilities, while another wastes hours each day trudging from library to lodging and back. Little differences perhaps, but they can add into a sum experience that is wildly dissimilar.

“Progress has, quite notably, never been served by elitism”

Yet one might argue that these little differences are what bond us as a college. Together, we revel equally in our shared profits and disadvantages. Without these smaller groups, and the accompanying hint of barely-there rivalries, we would be forced to pit our individual experience against the imposing, uniform mass of Everyone Else. 1 v. 30 hits a lot more gently than 1 v. 20,000.

If there’s one aspect to the college system that really needs changing – that would maintain our sense of group belonging while empowering a more unified Cambridge – it is to open up all of the college grounds. Many are well-known to be lenient in permitting all students entry, but the fact that some are not (*coughs in Trinity*) positions those students above the rest. They have all the access we have, plus one. The presence of a few heavily gated and guarded colleges creates a very visible and physically felt class system based entirely on exclusion. How can we argue passionately in seminars for socialism, public housing, or the inherent value of human life, and then bar our gates against fellow classmates? Limiting access to the spontaneous spaces of lawns and lounges minimizes the potential for exchanging of ideas. Progress has, quite notably, never been served by elitism. When every Cambridge student academically (and financially, through whatever means) earned their right to be here, physical segregation seems an excessive attempt at clutching to an outdated legacy of exclusivity.


Mountain View

The year abroad: a lesson in resilience

This same pointless exclusion is what drove me to eventually drop the sorority. My personality became subsumed by the reputation of a broader group with whom I honestly had very little in common, and I grew bored of always mixing with the same fraternities while failing altogether to interact with whole swaths of the student body. Exclusivity for exclusivity’s sake differs from separation that intentionally fosters community-building. The compartmentalisation of the colleges, when well-executed, can facilitate creation of a home within the large university life of Cambridge. Differentiation allows us to construct an identity amidst a setting where we might be otherwise overwhelmed. I mean, go for it. Enjoy the stereotypes and the idiosyncrasies, enjoy the puffer jackets, enjoy the “Cambridge colleges as…” Just let me do it while walking through Kings. Plaius.