The fresher extracurricular pressure

Violet columnist Lily Ford examines the extracurricular pressures at Cambridge

Lily Ford

Simon Lock

“So, when are you auditioning for the Footlights?”

These were pretty much the first words I heard from one of my family members upon letting them know I had received an offer from Cambridge. It’s just one of those iconic, get-your-foot-in-the-door archetypes of a Cambridge student, isn’t it? Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Sue Perkins... I won’t go on because it really is just common knowledge.

I frantically nodded my head and daydreamed of the perfect start to university: Footlights, student journalism, a first term play or two. Just imagine the speed at which my heart rate sky-rocketed after finding out Emma Thompson had been spotted in Life in June 2017. It was the hope of glamour, of open doors – the expectation of what Oxbridge could give you.

"It was the hope of glamour, of open doors – the expectation of what Oxbridge could give you"

Freshers’ Week only added to the already mouth-watering utopia that was the registered societies and clubs of the University of Cambridge. After dodging the minefield that was the Freshers’ Fair, I started to feel slightly hysterical, with all these options flaunted before me. I felt giddy with choice and was tempted by clubs that, before even finishing this sentence, force me to listen out for the sweet sound of my sister’s text tone as she’s telling me to calm the fuck down, Lil. The Gin society? Oh, go on then. Chess club? Hey, I’m a Harry Potter fan. The CU Golf Soc? Yes; I will not be deterred by the traumatic experience of trying (and failing) to leapfrog a golf club many, many years ago. Yeah, let’s move on.

In the rush that was first term – the hangovers, the fear of missing a lecture (aw!), the complete loathing I acquired for my short, stubby legs when a 15-minute cycle stood between me and central Cambridge – extracurricular opportunities flew past me. It wasn’t until the end of October that I even auditioned for anything, and I felt strangely guilty for it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do these things. I did! Anything outside your studies should be pursued out of passion – you want to love the only thing not being graded at the end of the year, right? But first term had fluttered by with the (maybe not so) gentle elegance of a butterfly, and I was yet to emerge from the comfort zone of my cocoon.

It was disappointment, I think – the realisation that I had been easily intimidated by the environment around me. This lack of confidence, as well as plain laziness, had gotten the better of me. It felt like there was so much at stake by neglecting the opportunities for social interaction outside of my college – networking, strengthening my CV, May Ball tickets (shameful) – as well as just the obvious advantage of making other friends. I was disheartened and had made a mental note to work on my shrugging for when the Christmas holidays came and I was to face the dreaded curiosity of my many relatives. It wasn’t until I started speaking to my friends that I realised I was not alone. They, too, felt like they had missed the extra-curricular boat. Plastered across Facebook, there is definitely an unavoidable expectation to get involved in the drama, music, and politics scenes at Cambridge.

This may be a little contradictory, but I feel I should state now that I am strongly in favour of any positive distraction away from the heavy workload, if only to bring an inkling of peace to the busy student life. I could not recommend extracurricular involvement highly enough – if you love political debate, please invest in a membership at the Union. If you have an interest in astronomy, Cambridge can accommodate this. If you’re addicted to the adrenaline rush of performing: audition, audition, audition! I wish I had – but the point I am trying to make is that I no longer feel ashamed for prioritising the inevitably difficult task of finding my feet in Michaelmas term.


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You worked extremely hard to get here. Cambridge is a high-pressure climate without any added assumptions of what is to be expected of you. It might be hard to find your ‘thing’ because Cambridge was your ‘thing’, and now you’re just a small fish in a big pond. It is first term, and the routine may take getting used to. Pursue immersion in clubs and societies because you want to, not because it appears as though that is what every other student is doing. And don’t feel bad if you didn’t hit the ground running – I certainly didn’t, but here I am, typing away for Violet