By: Carrie Spencer, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
First comes Induction…
Google was founded in the year that I first matriculated at Cambridge as an undergraduate. We were looking forward to the Millennium, still a couple of years into the future. When I arrived, my stereo was my only electronic equipment (I bought my first mobile phone after I’d graduated); and induction meant heading to the College bar to find second- and third-years to assure you that you didn’t need to go to all your lectures (you don’t). Homerton, where I am now, wasn’t yet a Cambridge College.
Arriving as a grad student has been an entirely different experience – and for the better. There was no intimidating interview in an ancient Fellow’s office. I was interviewed over Skype (invented 6 years after my first Cambridge interview) from the comfort of my sofa. Students routinely carry tablets and laptops (but no chargers!), as well as coffee cups, to sessions. The University card is incredible – one card that gains access to libraries, pays for formal hall and can even be used on the bus. But as someone who heard about the invention of Facebook at my desk in the office where I worked, it’s sometimes overwhelming to navigate the online choices now. Hermes – OK. E-journals – sounds helpful. Moodle – WTF? As well as the now-familiar questions at any induction session of “Who has studied in the UK before?” and “Who has studied at Cambridge before?” perhaps they should add “Who’s been a student this century before?”.
By now, I have attended many hours of induction, introduction and orientation and, for those not already aware, the point is repeatedly made that Cambridge terms are intense, stressful, demanding and, most of all, short. Others who have completed a Masters programme are labelled as “survivors”. But emphasising the gruelling challenge of research at Cambridge misses the point. We are already here and no one applies to Cambridge because they want to cruise. Research can lead to isolation, self-doubt and emotional flagellation that “everyone else works harder than me” and “everyone else is cleverer than me” and now it’s easier to confirm these doubts on social media than emerge from your studies to seek support from other humans. Still, studying at Cambridge is nothing if not humbling. Perhaps the unique thing about Cambridge is its power to intimidate even the people who study here. But I am hopeful because it isn’t anxiety or desperate ambition that unites us. It’s that, in a hugely diverse group of individuals of different ages, nationalities, experiences, family situations and more, we all have something important in common. We are all here because there is something that we want to be the ones to discover – something that is meaningful to us. Cambridge gives us the chance to focus our own small spotlight on something previously unknown. And that’s the exhilarating task that brings us all together.
Carrie Spencer is an MPhil student in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge. She has spent the previous two decades working mostly as an environmental economist in the UK and the US. You can also reach Carrier on Twitter: @carrie_sp