Student life
8729 Blog: Life after Cambridge

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 Immerse Education.

The thrill of arriving at Cambridge is matched only by the intensity of emotion you feel upon graduating. It is a proud day, of course, as you don your fluffy hood and kneel at the Senate House in front of beaming parents and relatives – but not without its difficulties. Once you’ve conquered the fiddly bow tie and got used to hobbling in your smart shoes, there’s the small matter of crippling existential doubt to deal with. After kissing the Master’s hand and picking up my degree certificate, what on Earth do I do next?

The Cambridge University Life

The bustling cloisters of Cambridge University are not, of course, entirely insulated from questions about life and work and right and wrong. In many ways, spending three years debating the big questions with bright and serious young people is a good preparation for entering adult life and weighing up what exactly to do with it. The system of tuition encourages all students to think critically and independently for themselves, to trust their own ability to solve problems and to appreciate that their own judgements might be worth heeding after all.

But it still comes as something of a surprise to be thrust from a sleepy university setting into all the turmoil of that dreaded ‘real world’ that always lingered menacingly in the background. If anything, it’s the lack of turbulence and fire and brimstone which is hard to deal with: after such an action-packed and memorable few years, you might find yourself living back at home with your parents, slipping quietly back into your pre-university routine as though higher education had never happened.

Things Change

Familiar sights become a little odd. The dog in the front garden down the road doesn’t seem as fearsome as it used to. The local pub is a tad less exciting than it appeared when you first turned eighteen. And even the barely noticeable rhythms of everyday life are transformed – not in themselves, but in your head. You fit them into patterns and wonder about their origins, their purposes, their limitations; you simplify them into their constituent parts and fit them back together again, just like you were taught to do to chemical phenomena or historical events in all those supervisions back at Cambridge.

Thanks but no thanks, you might think to yourself, wondering what all that work at university really did to benefit you as a person. But while Cambridge might have dolled you up in gowns and tried to instil in you a perhaps inflated sense of entitlement to lead and to succeed, it also equipped you with the analytical tools to dismantle all that hot air and face the facts of life with a cooler head. My friends gaze upon the future with a sense that even if they might not yet know what they ought to do or how to do it, the right answer lies within their grasp, and they will not deceive themselves on their search.

They couldn’t be in a better position to try. If I had a penny for every time someone told me the world was my oyster since I graduated, I could probably afford half an oyster. Emerging from Cambridge with a good degree puts you in a great position to try your hand at anything you like: finance, medicine, law, consultancy, politics, journalism, you name it. The dedication that studying requires stands you in equally good stead for a career as a sporting hero or role-model parent.

Getting the Guidance You Need

The Careers Service is an outstanding facility that provides guidance, resources and vacancy updates to Cambridge alumni for the rest of their lives. Many of my friends who have launched into high-powered jobs found them through the careers website, and even those of us looking elsewhere have relied heavily upon their invaluable CV-writing guides and interview help.

Three years at Cambridge University can do a lot to equip you for life after graduation, and the lessons you learn there will stay with you forever. A taste of Cambridge study before applying to university can have similar, if more modest, effects. You’ll be encouraged to approach questions in a mature way appropriate to undergraduates, to explore sides to your chosen subject that you’d never see in a classroom, to understand your own styles of thinking and arguing and see how they might be improved. You’ll notice your reasoning becoming more mature, your judgements more watertight, and you’ll even start thinking about yourself and your own position in new and refreshing ways. It’s no wonder that so many Immerse Education students are inspired to apply to the university, and no wonder many of them do so well.

If they don’t end up studying there, they will still be equipped with a hearty helping of the confidence, thinking skills and life experience that my friends and I hope we have gained from Cambridge. Now it’s time to see if they come in handy out there in life after graduation.

life after Cambridge Categories: Blog Tags: , 8599 Why I Haven’t Burnt Down Formal Hall (Yet)

It is telling that we in Britain tend to refer to universities established in the Victorian era and the early twentieth century as ‘red brick’ institutions, and to those founded since the 1960s as ‘plate glass’. Regardless of the studies they provide or the way they provide them, what really distinguishes these newer faculties from the ancient universities like Cambridge, we seem to be saying, is their lack of dreaming stone spires.

The Impact of Cambridge’s Architecture

It need hardly be said that the physical environment is not the only thing that defines Cambridge as a place to study – but you might be surprised at just how much of an impact the limestone arches and crumbling towers make on students like me. If you belong to the vast majority of people here and are not used to such impressive surroundings, they can seem rather daunting. They are not just a reminder of Cambridge’s illustrious history; they are history, standing firm across the centuries and watching without emotion as the likes of Oliver Cromwell, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin and Virginia Woolf scurry on and off stage. For those of us with no immediate plans to behead the monarch or discover the laws of thermodynamics, such connections are not just surreal. They’re a tad scary. How can we possibly be expected to live up to the expectations of a university whose centuries-old cloisters once housed the great figures of history?

Understandably, the power of Cambridge’s heritage is sometimes seen as discouraging to applicants from less privileged backgrounds. But to get rid of Cambridge’s occasionally intimidating reputation, you’d need to burn down half the city and sack most of the fellows who produce such amazing work. You’d need to stop it being Cambridge. The way to ensure Cambridge can be both historic and accessible is to make the history itself a little more welcoming.

The Power of Breaking Bread

And what better way to do that than by breaking bread with each other and enjoying the friendship and fine conversation that come with a good meal? On the face of it, formal hall is just as intimidating as Cambridge’s other traditions. It really is a bit weird. A Latin grace that we all pretend to understand; a candlelit hall with portraits of noted alumni leering down at you seductively; all kinds of rules to get used to, from the order of knives to use down to the times you have to finish a drink in one gulp. At my college, Jesus, there’s a particularly arcane and mysterious ritual associated with formal dinner. When the fellows leave, the last one out turns and bows to the hall – at which point the assembled students applaud and whistle with appreciation. If the fellow doesn’t bow, legend has it, you’re allowed to throw your fork at them in retribution, but only so long as it doesn’t hit the precious woodwork around the door frame (in other words, so long as it gets them square in the face).

Outsiders tend to be rather taken aback by all this tradition surrounding the most simple of social activities, the evening meal. But by focusing college tradition around such a common, such an enjoyable, event, we make tradition itself that little bit less exclusive. There’s something about sharing a meal that brings you closer as a group. The wine probably helps. And sharing a meal under the wing of an age-old institution like Jesus College brings you closer to the institution, too.

Dining in a Gown

The continuity of that practice of eating in hall in your gown ties to you to all the remarkable people who have studied here for the last eight hundred years. But although that pedigree might be a frightening prospect to live up to, the over-the-top and ritualistic aspects of formal hall remind you of something crucial. You might not feel worthy of it all – but neither did they. You might feel like your background doesn’t quite fit with all this traditional embellishment – but neither did they. The ceremonies are so over the top, the idea of lobbing your forks at a bearded scholar so ridiculous, that of course they were never meant to feel natural. Even two centuries ago, when that great father of economics Thomas Malthus studied here, this stuff wasn’t supposed to make sense, and he probably felt as piqued by them as we do now. Reminding ourselves that those great figures of the past were young once, and almost certainly sniggered at the same things we find inexplicable about Cambridge, ties us to them in a way that cold, stone towers never could.

That’s why it’s so important that students at Immerse Education get a taste for the same fine dining experiences that Cambridge students themselves have the privilege to enjoy. Eating in the wood-panelled and chequered-floored halls of some of the university’s oldest colleges, students on the Immerse programme aren’t just being pampered (although it is, needless to say, delicious). They’re being encouraged to think of themselves as worthy of the same kind of education as the aristocrats and elites of history who deserved it considerably less. They’re being welcomed into an otherwise daunting institution in the way that parents and neighbours have always known best: with a warm basket of bread and a splash of something refreshing; with open arms and a laid table.

formal hall Categories: Articles, Student Life Tags: , | Comments 8559 How Turnips Made the Modern World

We hear a lot about the great women, the right-thinking men, the powerful machines and liberating ideas which built the world we inhabit today. It’s a source of heated debate – not just about which individuals should be commemorated, but about the fact we limit ourselves to commemorating individuals in the first place. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of putting some certain people on a pedestal as founders of the modern age, though, you’d be hard pressed to find someone advocating that all the statues and busts be swept aside, and a small, purpley-white vegetable enshrined in their place. But the humble turnip has done more to shape the society we live in than just about any single person I can think of.

The Hectic Life and History

As a History student, my week largely involves eating carbohydrates and watching re-runs of shows I didn’t even like the first time around. On the rare occasion that I stir from my bed, there’s a course of lectures which run from Monday to Friday each week given by some of the leading historians out there. You’ll attend lectures on up to four papers at a time, waltzing from a class on the meaning of power to a seminar on the status of women in Homeric Greece.

The main substance to the working week, however, is not the lecture course but the independent reading and writing you do outside of the History Faculty, an imposing building designed to look like an open book made of glass and brick (you be the judge). I probably read between eight and twelve items a week, whether they’re books, chapters or online articles, in preparation for writing an essay on a fairly specific topic – past examples include the witch trials of Early Modern Europe and the gender of citizenship in eighteenth-century England. The day after handing in the essay comes perhaps the best part of studying History at Cambridge: the supervision. A one-on-one session for an hour with a leading expert in the field, the supervision is an immense privilege and a really rewarding way to have your opinions challenged and knowledge broadened.

At Immerse Education, the unique flavour of the supervision system is reproduced on a more welcoming scale. Learning in very small groups, students are encouraged not to hold back with their own views, as well as thinking through the arguments of their friends. Just like undergraduates, they’re taught by Oxbridge academics who are up to date with the latest trends in scholarship. Trips to the Fitzwilliam Museum or the Botanical Gardens help the programme live up to its name and truly immerse the pupils in the experience of the Cambridge learning environment.

If there’s one thing that Immerse Education attendees are lucky to miss out on, it’s the occasional sense of relentlessness that accompanies the short but densely packed Cambridge University term. Each week, you go from being completely ignorant about your essay topic to feeling like a know-it-all capable of confidently pouring out 3000 words and taking an original stance on the issue. The next week, you do the same thing, with little time to rest in between. Usually, I relish the challenge, but sometimes the topic itself seems a little dull. In a way, though, the very experience of learning about it, and engaging with the arguments to produce your own, makes it interesting in a way you might not have considered beforehand.

The Dreaded Turnip

I remember rolling my eyes with a groan when my supervisor recommended I write an essay on the agricultural revolution last year. I knew what was coming: seed drills, crop rotations… the dreaded turnip. After a few days and countless books about eighteenth-century agriculture, I seriously considered dropping out of college and setting up a farm (albeit an antiquarian one in which the phrase ‘combine harvester’ would be mistaken for bad French). But then something miraculous happened: I found myself drawn into the magical world of the turnip. They’re superheroes.

By introducing turnips into a new crop rotation, farmers in England were able to massively increase their yields in the off-seasons, and to feed many more livestock than before. With raised agricultural output, England could support many more inhabitants, and the population rose well above anything it had reached in the millennia before. In turn, this surplus population began to head into the towns. A big pool of urban labour was created which would be crucial to Britain’s labour-intensive industrial revolution – a revolution which was to transform the globe and kick off the phenomenon of economic growth as we know it. No doubt this is a simplified narrative, but the point remains: turnips are awesome.

I’ve even started asking the catering staff at my college to start buying more turnips for our meals, in the hope that this spike in demand will kick off a second economic revolution and propel us out of the impending Eurozone crisis. Always worth a try. Regardless of whether the Chancellor will turn to the neep as an escape route from economic disaster, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned from the agricultural revolution is this: nothing is boring if you take the time to learn about it. On the surface, root vegetables might look (and taste) uninspiring. But if you apply yourself to your studies, you might find that they’re a little more special than you gave them credit for.

To discover more about the Immerse Education History programme, click here. 

Immerse Education Session 1 Dinner Photo
turnip Categories: Articles, Student Life Tags: , | Comments