Coming to Cambridge as an International Student

In this guest post series, Luke, a History graduate from the University of Cambridge writes about his university experiences in addition to his experience as a summer mentor at Cambridge Immerse.

Many of the pupils who attend Cambridge Immerse are from far-flung parts of the globe. Most speak pretty perfect English, and many have at least some connection to the United Kingdom, but there’s still an understandable degree of apprehension about what it would be like to go to university in Britain as an international student.

Luckily, for international students as for the rest of us, university life is largely what you make of it. It’s hard at times, but there are so many networks and opportunities to take hold of, and so many great people to meet, that your main problem will be trying to do it all, rather than feeling left out.

Cambridge hosts vibrant Chinese, French, Thai, German, Russian and African-Caribbean societies, alongside dozens of others. You could quite happily fill your social calendar with the events that just one of them hosts each term: meet-ups, tastings and discussion groups; speaker events, balls and sports contests. For the international student community as a whole, there are groups and representatives who ensure that no one ever feels unwelcome or alone. Each college’s student union has an international rep; Cambridge’s university-wide union has its own international committee; and faculties and colleges have huge resources to ensure that their international students understand and immerse themselves in all aspects of study and leisure at the university.

If you ever worry about missing home comforts, it’s not too hard to find a Cambridge replacement. Because it’s such a multicultural place, Cambridge has some great shops where you can buy ingredients from anywhere in the world – check out Mill Road in the east of town for the best places.  In my first year, a Chinese student on my staircase hosted weekly dinners for his friends that never failed to make my mouth water as I stared over at them, nursing my Pot Noodle and creeping through a sea of regret back to my room.

For all the support and comfort these networks provide, they aren’t always necessary. International students are hardly a breed apart: everyone at Cambridge is from a different town, a different background, and no one feels perfectly at home right from the word ‘go’. When I set about contacting my friends who studied here from overseas, I kept remembering people whose international background had slipped my mind. We’re all reshaped by the college environment; when we arrive and messily try to make friends in freshers’ week, we create a new community which everyone shares in equally.

That was the impression I got from the couple of international friends who I did manage to get a hold of. For one Swedish student of Geography, it was hard to work out what their British college-mates thought about their foreign background. “Then I realised they weren’t thinking much at all.” The rare occasions they were really reminded of their difference mostly happened in the kitchen: their number one nugget of advice is to “look up how to make a proper cup of tea” before you arrive, in case you get told off for presenting your new friends with a thin, lukewarm mug of grey liquid.

Others were a little more open about the challenges they faced and the ways they overcame them. For one Mathematics student in my year, it was a little overwhelming to be thrust into university life that pulsed not only with the rhythms of British youth, but also with the barely penetrable traditions specific to Cambridge. Despite that, it was a big relief to realise that even the British undergrads she was living with had been a bit taken aback by Cambridge and its rituals. “The most important thing,” she says, “is to talk. If you’re feeling left out or confused, speaking to others will probably help and they’re usually really honest.”

While most people get along brilliantly, I can think of a few examples of people who have arrived from other countries and thrown themselves into their work to such an extent that they miss out a little on the university social life. If you’re worried about this happening to you, I can only stress that taking an hour or two off studying can sometimes be the best decision you can make for your own academic success. Heading down to college events, like the games nights my college hosts on Sunday evenings, or the ‘bop’ parties in the bar, meeting people and unwinding a little puts you in a great position to blow your assignments out of the water when you do decide to return to the library.

After completing several years of study here, you might not think of yourself as British, but you’ll certainly start feeling a close attachment to the republic of Cambridge University. No matter who you are or where you’re from, Cambridge won’t neglect to make its mark on your identity. If you want to see how it feels to be a Cantab before launching into the full-blown application process, I can think of no better way than two weeks at Cambridge Immerse.

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