If I’m being completely honest, I can’t actually remember why I ever decided that I wanted to study at Cambridge. I certainly don’t remember when exactly it was that I first became aware of the University; it just sort of found its way into my psyche of its own accord.
For the past few years of my life, studying at Cambridge has never really been much more than some abstract idea. At fourteen years old, you tell people you want to go to Cambridge almost as a brag. Clever people go to Cambridge, I’m kind of clever, ergo I must go to Cambridge. At sixteen years old, you somehow sit your GCSEs “without doing that much revision tbh” and realise that you probably have a shot at this inconceivable goal after all. You spend the next two years fitting in a surfeit of A Levels around all-too-frequent existential crises and then by eighteen you’re sending in your application just because it all seemed inevitable… and also because by this point you kind-of-just-want-to-go-to-art-school, but deep down you know that in this post-capitalist dead-end of an economy it’s unlikely that your quote-unquote artistic vision could ever sustain an agreeable standard of living without the contingency of some sort of proper qualification, so you “may as well give it a go”. (By eighteen, you’ve also discovered irony.)
At this point, life is suddenly so much bigger in every single way. Driving becomes a thing. Politics takes over your entire existence. You discover that having a social life is actually kind of rewarding. You feel like the world is yours for the taking because you’re young and that’s how you’re supposed to feel, and surely life owes you one by now.
And then summer arrives. And summer is good. And you can’t put your summer into words because it’s divine and it’s carefree and it’s yours.
And, oh yeah… you get into Cambridge.
But then September arrives. And September is strange. The first thing that separates you from everyone else as a Cambridge student is that everyone else goes off to university before you do. For those last two weeks of the month, you feel like you’re living on borrowed time. You wait and you wait and you watch and you wait. You haven’t even left home yet and already old friends have new friends and you too are wishing for something to change. You feel like the world is yours for the taking because you’re young and that’s how you’re supposed to feel, except now the race is about to start and you haven’t even made it into the stadium. Meanwhile, your hometown is boring. It’s the hometown that you’ll inevitably spend half of the next term explaining to other students when you casually drop into conversation that back home the clubs are free-entry and the shots are £1.50 and… oh yeah so it’s kind of “in the North”? Yeah, like idk maybe a hundred miles above here…? But it is still, nevertheless, crushingly dull.
And then, at nineteen, you’re moving out. Quite literally in my case, I spent my nineteenth birthday travelling “up” (but, in actual fact, “down”) to Cambridge, as I prepared to help move my twin brother into his accommodation at Queens’ College, the day before I was due to move into my own. Of the nineteen birthdays that I have had in my life so far, that one was the first I had spent separated from my brother. (For logistical reasons, we had even travelled to college in different cars.) In a sense, this was the premature beginning of my Freshers’ experience; a vital re-adjustment in the way I experienced my day-to-day life. Somehow, waving Alex off as we finally departed Queens’ wasn’t exactly a momentous occasion. It’s just Cambridge; it’s inevitable. And yet, for me, it all still felt so far away.
From my school, there are seven of us this year who made it all the way to Oxbridge: one Oxford; six Cambridge. Sending seven people to Oxbridge in one year wasn’t something that had happened in my school (I am told) “probably since the nineties” and so even now, in an environment where many people may come from schools that will regularly send thirty or fifty students from each year to Cambridge alone, this comparatively humble achievement is still something that sits very close to my heart. Nevertheless, it somehow ended up that, from these seven people, I was the very last one to actually move in to university. More so, out of all of my friends, I was the very last one. It felt significant somehow. That final day of vacation was the longest. I think it’s similar to how time slows down when you get very near to a black hole: it’s the pull and the excitement, and I guess in some ways the danger, of finally getting to Cambridge that just makes the lead up drag on for so very, very long.
And, oh yeah… it was still actually my birthday. Easy thing to forget amongst all the excitement.
The next morning, I arrived in college. I had visited Pembroke only twice before: the first time at an Open Day last year and then subsequently at interview in December. I walked into the Porters’ Lodge with all the confidence of a Cambridge student. Yeah, this could be home.
Despite the needlessly-confusing way in which staircase rooms are numbered in college, I found my own with little difficulty. I kept my door open while I unpacked and before long introduced myself to the other occupants of my floor. I filled my shelves with books, records and birthday cards. Yeah, this could be home.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about home a lot. You meet a lot of people in your first weeks at Cambridge and as a consequence spend a lot of time talking about where you’re from. It’s small talk; polite conversation. A meme. In my case, it didn’t take long to realise that very few people know where my hometown actually is. With good reason. It is unremarkable, and it is in that mysterious place The North… if only just. This is, however, also one of the most striking things about Cambridge. For someone like me who has spent the past twelve years living in a village with little more than a crossroads, even a small city such as this one is very busy and very diverse and very, very new.
“Where is home for you?” is a genuine question I was asked within my first few days of living at Pembroke and the phrasing of it stuck with me for some reason. The question is slightly different, in my opinion, to a simple “where are you from?”. It’s a question of feeling, of belonging; of roots and growth and all those other, clichéd things. At the time, I thought nothing of it and answered as I would always do: with my hometown, but with every new day here, I can feel the truer answer shifting slightly.
For the record, Freshers’ Week passed as quickly as it was always going to. Now term is beginning to pass similarly quickly and yet somehow it has only been (as of writing) three weeks. Life is intense. When first considering how best to write up my experiences of life as a fresher at Cambridge, I came up with a long list of words to make clear my many and varied thoughts on the subject. These range from vaguely universal words like enjoyment or expectation to more oblique terms, such as rushing, bubble, or evident truths. In full, the list reads almost like a poem. It’s a structure I like to use in times when I need to note down my thoughts without necessarily knowing exactly what it is that I’m trying to express. Call it a cop-out if you like, but that’s sort of how I feel about life at Cambridge so far. I’m still in a liminal period. Still settling in. Still smoothing out.
At this point, life is suddenly so much bigger in every single way. Latin becomes a thing. Societies, supervisions, studio days, and so many other activities take over your entire existence. You discover that taking time out for self-care is actually kind of rewarding. You feel like the world is yours for the taking because you’re young and that’s how you’re supposed to feel and you’ve made it to Cambridge, baby! But you’re likely exhausted, or hungover, or just woefully short on time, so it’ll have to wait for some other day.
And then, at last, autumn arrives. And autumn is the season of change. And you can’t put this change into words because it’s terrifying and it’s unpredictable, but hey… that’s Cambridge for you.
Dan Wakefield is a first year architect