My Cambridge University Story (Part II) - Living & Studying in Cambridge

I almost always need some form of push to write a blog post. Although I knew I was going to share my experience in Cambridge  particularly after sharing part 1 of how I got the full LL.M Commonwealth scholarship, for some reason I still wasn’t too inspired to write about Cambridge. Until a couple of  weekends ago. We were visiting friends, and in the middle of the conversation one of our friends pointed to anothers' teenage daughter and said, "she’s like you oh, she had 9 A* in her GSCEs".

First off, I countered the fact that that was like me - that was so much better than me. 9A* is incredible. So naturally, the conversation progressed to what university she’d love to attend and she said “Cambridge!” to study medicine. Ah, that totally pulled me out of my shell, as we got talking about life in Cambridge, the colleges, and my experience in general.  I loved reminiscing about it, and I’ll try to share in this post as much as I can!

To continue from Part 1, right after the scholarship came through, and before the visa application, I had to sort out medicals and accommodation. Medicals were pretty straight forward - weight, height and some urine tests. It was however the first time I realised that I had put on so much weight - when I saw 63kg on the report, I was almost fainted. Anyway I digress, but you can read all about my bingo wings and the easiest hack ever to get rid of them.

Ok, let's get into the real crux of this post, as I share some highlights of life and living in Cambridge. 

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1. Collegiate system / Accommodation

To understand accommodation in Cambridge, we need to take about the collegiate system. During the application process, this was a bit hard to understand. Cambridge & Oxford operate the collegiate system -  there are several semi-autonomous colleges in the university where students live and have extra curricular activities. Each student must belong to a college. Many undergraduates often take seminars in their college as well, and are interviewed and admitted to a college.

Each college is different and some like Kings, St Johns or Trinity were more prestigious than others. Some are for graduate students only and there are three only women colleges in Cambridge. Each college would have its own accommodation, recreation facilities, libraries, meeting / class rooms, sport societies and teams etc. Basically pretty much everything you’d expect to find in a university. Think of a college as a mini-university. There’d be proper student representatives and a full board of the college. One highlight of the academic year was usually the May Ball - with most colleges looking to put up a spectacular ball.

For those who know, when speaking to someone who attended Cambridge, one of the first questions they ask  is usually “what college were you in?”. And even while making job applications, or filling certain forms, each college is treated differently. You will often see a drop down box for each college - University of Cambridge - College A; University of Cambridge - College B. Some employers will also typically recruit only from certain high profile colleges.

At the time of applying, I really couldn’t care less, and so my choice of colleges were influenced by the ones that had full scholarships to offer! Unfortunately I didn’t get into any. But usually - at least at graduate level once you have been offered an admission at faculty level, a college is bound to offer you admission as well. And so, I got offered to Hughes Hall.

Hughes Hall was a relatively new college (it was founded in 1885 and the first University college was founded in 1284)  and consisted mostly of graduate students. As my scholarship letter came in rather late, I couldn’t be guaranteed college accommodation and was advised to search for non-college accommodation which just seemed like a hassle to me. Thankfully though, I eventually got offered one offsite, on Glisson Road and about 4 minutes away from the college grounds. It was a 5 bedroom house to be shared with 4 other students. I was looking forward to meeting them!

2. Arrival & First Impressions

I boarded a direct flight from Lagos to London Heathrow. My mum had been insistent that it was going to be cold, and bought me a pair of white trainers. Her good intentions not withstanding, those trainers were so not pretty - looked like what a 10 year old may wear. So I took it off on the plane and wore my sandals. Tee picked me up from the airport (noting how chubby I seemed!), to Coventry where he was at that time, as my accommodation wasn’t set to be open till the next two days.

I remember dressing up for church the next day like I was in Nigeria - wearing a 5 inch heel, because he had said the church was round the corner. Let’s just say that’s the last time that happened. Next up, we had to buy jackets as I hadn’t come with many. I literally followed his lead and he picked out a wine coat and black leather jacket. I later realised that the wine one appeared to be a maternity one and the leather one was a size 14 or so! What was he thinking? We also stopped by at Chicken Cottage for our meal and somewhat first official photo. Right after that, he bought some Nigerian food items and made some proper meal.

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On Monday, we took a National Express coach into Cambridge - about a 2 and a half hour journey and arrived at the coach station in Park Side - to locate Hughes Hall and my home for the next 9 months. The house somewhat disappointed me - the rooms were tiny (at least mine was). I couldn’t believe I had to pay £550 a month for that space. We also didn’t have a general living room like other houses although our kitchen was fairly large (by UK standards) with a dining. We also didn't have to clean, as we had the cleaners come in to clean common areas. Some colleges also had cleaners clean their rooms. If you've heard that Cambridge or Oxford students can be a bit spoilt, this is one of the reasons why.

I emptied all of my Nigerian packed food items - taking up so much space in the common freezer (perhaps to the annoyance of other residents).  After this, we went shopping for pots & cooking essentials, beddings and other basic stuff. Later that evening, I noticed a fish & chip shop and decided to get one. Probably, the last time I ever did, as I realised it was deep fried fish in batter and not the Nigerian-style open air grilled fish!

I later met my roommates, 2 of whom I think were Ph.D students. 2 were Chinese, 1 was American and the last guy was Asian-British. For some reason, we never really bonded as roommates - everyone pretty much kept to themselves. We’d say hi to each other and have a brief conversation occasionally,  but that was it. I had a bit of a relationship with the Amercian and it was the first time I knew what Autism was - as that was what her Ph.D research was centered on. I had barely settled into classes, but my learning had already begun. And I often think that it’s this sort of learning that make overseas degrees and travelling exposure valuable. She also attempted to teach me how to ride a bike, but that didn’t quite work out. 

Over the next couple of days, there were various welcome events at the College grounds, and I don’t think I had ever seen so many different kind of people in one place. We got introduced to the college, its facilities, and administrators, societies and groups etc.

3. Matriculation

As mentioned above, matriculation is done at your college. And so this took place a couple of days after I arrived. I don’t recall it being a formal ceremony - but we did take a group photo which appeared in the graduation handbook. Much later, there was a Matriculation dinner - the first of many dinners in Cambridge. I had a good time, and there I met Jill from Grenada who became my close buddy, and saved me a ton of salon money! Till today, I’ve never really met someone who could straighten my hair like she could. She was doing a masters program in Linguistics and focusing on the creole (sort of pidgin) language of Grenada.

3. Academics / School Work

School began on the 4th of October 2012. The academic calendar is divided into three - Michaelmas Term, Lent Term and Easter Term with Easter Term being exam term. The LL.M duration is quite short at only nine months September to June. We were required to take 4 modules, but could decide to write 3 examinations and 1 dissertation. I didn’t fancy a dissertation so I opted for 4 examinations.

The law faculty was a good 40 mins walk from my house. Many people often rode on their bikes to get into class. But I didn’t have a bike and couldn’t even ride one. So come rain or shine or snow, I walked!

I think we had classes four times a week. Each module was a 2 hour lecture and that was it. I opted for more corporate and commercial law modules. Personally, I think teaching wasn’t too intense. But of course we had long reading lists and resource materials we were expected to go through. It could get overwhelming and many people often spent so much time in their faculty or college libraries. We also didn’t have any tests or courseworks. There were a few optional essays every term you could write and submit to the tutors if you wished for feedback. I generally did at least one essay for each course per term, to gauge my understanding of the modules.

It was probably also the first time, I came across open-book examinations! For 3 of the four courses, we were allowed to take in our class notes, textbooks, statute books, everything! While there’s obviously an advantage to this, as you don’t have to cram a lot of unnecessary things, it’s not so much easier than a closed book exam. The expectations are much higher and time is short. No way you can start flipping through pages in the exam hall. In some cases, I barely got a chance to flip open any book. 

Unlike schooling in Nigeria, we were made to think very critically. There were often no right answers or a ‘marking scheme’. Your opinions and views were valid provided there was a line of reasoning or argument. I understood and sharpened my critical thinking and the need to be more analytical.

4. Living & Extra Curricular

If there’s one thing I wish I could change, it’s definitely the duration of my stay in Cambridge. 9 months was way too short. I often felt like I had only just settled in, and all of a sudden it was time to pack my bags and leave. Undergraduates or PHD students who spend 3 years there often have the best time! 

But I enjoyed living in Cambridge so much. I walked everywhere, and I didn’t really mind as  I was trying to shed some weight. There were buses, but I probably only took a bus a couple of times throughout my stay. The buildings were old, the streets were cobbled and I would often spend so much time in the shops simply looking around. I registered for the gym which was super close to my house, and actually did go pretty religiously! I also got involved in volunteering and joined the Hughes Hall netball team. The catholic church was again about 5 mins walk from my house so that was convenient.

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 I cooked a lot of my own food, and so really didn’t eat much outside except I was meeting up with friends. And even with friends, we often cooked or had potluck dinners. 

Two things are worth mentioning in relation to extra curricular in Cambridge: Formals & Punting!

Formals

A formal in Cambridge is really just a dinner (but you know we have to be extra about everything). So there were often several formals held in different colleges. The very traditional ones reminded you of Harry Potter. Long halls, students in robes, and candles on the tables. Some were less formal. The idea was to simply have a good dinner and mix with people. You were also allowed to attend formals in other colleges so it was a good way to get to meet people. Some people attended formals so often! These had to be paid for, and so I only attended a few. Plus I was never really filled up after the meal, nor did I enjoy it a great deal so…. 

Punting

When you visit Cambridge, you have to go Punting. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat with a square-cut bow, designed for use in small rivers or other shallow water and punting refers to boating in a punt with the punter propelling the punt by pushing against the river bed with a pole.

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Weirdly enough I don’t recall punting in Cambridge, but when I visited the rival / sister university Oxford - my friends and I went punting!

5. Rivalry with Oxford

Oxford and Cambridge have a long history of rivalry sort of, and it’s so interesting. Both universities are however often referred to as Oxbridge and have a lot in common. They both date back over 800 years, although Oxford was founded first, and Cambridge essentially became an offshoot of Oxford founded in about 1208! There are so many notable persons who have graduated from both universities that one can understand the prestige that comes with it. They both have similar facilities such as publishing houses (you may have noticed that a lot of your textbooks are published by Cambridge University press or Oxford University Press), botanical gardens, libraries, business schools etc. They often compete in sports with the annual Boat Race being a huge highlight. Oxford is distinct in some ways. Students have to wear a formal robe during examinations and a Doctor of Philosophy degree is referred to as a D.Phil and not  Ph.D.

Fun fact: Up until the 19th century , only men were allowed to receive degrees from both institutions! 

Anyway, while in Cambridge I had to visit the sister university and quite had a good time! I think it was also the first time i met and had a conversation with a vegetarian. Right after his 'lecture', I think I stayed off meats for a week. 

6. Graduation

All good things must come to an end they say. Graduation was 28th of June 2013 for Hughes Hall LL.M students and some other colleges. I remember being slightly upset about the graduation outfit. We could only wear a white shirt on a black skirt or a black dress. Pretty boring huh? Especially after I’d seen lots of friends graduation  photos from other UK universities looking all glam in coloured clothes. I came to terms with it in the end - it’s part of the Cambridge tradition.

We were advised to wear comfy shoes as we had to walk for about half an hour or more. We started off with a light reception at the College, before finally proceeding to the Senate House for the actual ceremony where we hd to kneel to receive the certficate. Guess who lost her certificate a few hours later on the senate ground!? Thankfully we found it later that day.

In the next few weeks, I packed my suitcases, bade Cambridge farewell and finally returned to Nigeria in August per the terms of my scholarship.

In retrospect, I don’t think I totally maximised the experience in terms of really meeting people and going out of my comfort zone. It was such a new environment and I spent way too much time locked up in my tiny room. Tee & I had also been in a long distance relationship and so we’d often try to spend free time together. 

I went back to Cambridge sometime last year to represent my firm at a recruitment event. It was such a nostalgic feeling, but everywhere seemed so different. Now that I think about it, I just may organise a short weekend stay there soon - to breathe the Cambridge air once again, although it won't be like the student experience. Of course if I do, I'll let you know how that goes! 

If you have anything else you'd like to know, I'll be happy to reply in the comments! Did you have to go out of your country for school or university? What was that like? 

Love,
Kachee... Xx

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