A fish out of water’, ‘a square peg in a round hole’ and ‘a northerner at Cambridge University’: are these things really equivalent? The answer is yes… but also no
|Being a northern boy from a state-comp education in Manchester, there were a lot of reasons why I felt like I might be a fish out of water at Cambridge. I had heard all of the myths: everyone at Cambridge is rich, privately educated and southern; they’re all a bunch of arrogant rah-rahs that think too much of their intelligence and socio-economic position; they’re going to be nothing like me.|
Now, let me get this straight, I didn’t necessarily believe all these myths. No sane person really would, because – ultimately – the other students applying to Cambridge had to be somewhat like me in order to want to go there. Still, I knew that the rumours must have started somewhere, and I was genuinely fearful that I might be a complete outsider once I arrived.
At first, when I did arrive, I felt like all my fears had been realised. After a few days of meeting new people and looking around, I seemed to have only met about two other northerners – that is, people who live in the UK and are from Manchester and above. The rest of the people I had met seemed to come almost exclusively from London or its nearby counterparts such as Reading. It felt like a bit of a culture shock, particularly because – for the first time in my life – everyone around me was consistently pointing out how I pronounced certain words differently to them. However, I quickly came to realise two important things:
Firstly, I realised that although these people spoke differently to me, they were still just students that I had a lot in common with. I rarely met a posh arrogant Eton boy (i.e. the Cambridge stereotype), and I certainly didn’t meet anyone who looked down on or even cared about the nature of my past education. In fact, once I could look past our different voices, I could see that we were all just the same nervous freshers hoping to make friends on our first day. Secondly, I noticed that there were actually a few more northerners in Cambridge than I had realised, they can just be quite hard to spot when they don’t have a really strong accent. In fact, I only just found out that one of my housemates comes from Newcastle (after two years) because her accent is so similar to that of a Londoner.
Effectively, I have learnt since first year that my worries about being one of the only northerners in Cambridge was actually just my own special version of the ‘imposter syndrome’. The ‘imposter syndrome’ is something that every single person at Cambridge University has experienced at some point, in which they find a reason to believe that they are worse than everyone else there and do not belong. Unfortunately, this feeling can sometimes be so strong that it wreaks havoc on mental health and can even cause people to drop out of the university entirely. If you have felt this way before you applied, or equally if you feel this way once you arrive, then I will give you one piece of advice: talk to someone else about it. Chances are, they’re feeling the same way too.
Having said all this, it is still important to remember that – if you are northern or from a state-comp background – you are definitively under-represented at Cambridge University. People with your background just tend to not be as easy to find. Whilst THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT YOU WILL NOT FIT IN once you reach Cambridge (I cannot stress that enough), it does mean that the Oxbridge system is currently structured in such a way that it is less likely to create access for people like you. This fact might seem like a deterrent, but actually it is a huge reason why – if you have the opportunity – you must put your fears aside and apply to Cambridge. Only when you apply and get in can you one day return to the good ol’ north and help out younger students, who are just like you, to get into Cambridge or Oxford. You can use your experiences in the Oxbridge system to guide other students to success in their personal statements and interviews in a way that no one else can. It’s only by doing this that you can fight the strange northerner statistic that currently plagues Cambridge.
In summary, the reality of Cambridge is that most people honestly don’t care where you’re from or how you speak. They don’t care how you got to Cambridge, and they know that you deserve to be there just as much as they do. In fact, all they care about is who you are in the moment and whether you’re a decent human being that is just as scared as them. The only difference between you and them – aside from the voice – is that you can use your Oxbridge opportunity to one day make a difference for the students at your old school. Don’t waste your chance.