Let’s face it: Cambridge can be really, really tough. Pressure from family, friends, and faculty (that awful Phys Natsci DoS’s email being an example) can contribute to the normalisation of panic and stress. The isolating nature of high stress can make it difficult to look for support in Cambridge, and, despite the fact that there are a lot of improvements that need to be made in terms of the university’s pastoral care, I wouldn’t be alone in saying that we’re extremely lucky to have someone like Jan at Pembroke. Her office in Red Buildings, with its pictures of dogs, grandchildren, and Johnny Depp, is a warm bubble in the otherwise stressful world of Cambridge. It is somewhere safe, welcoming and comfortable, where you can have a cup of tea and talk about anything - from mental health, to work, to nothing at all in particular. We went down to chat to Jan about her experiences and her inspirations (but mostly to get the good Jan advice that you never knew
How did you come to be working at Pembroke?
I trained at Westminster Hospital and my first post as a Ward Sister at Queen Mary’s Hospital, Roehampton when I was 24. I worked in medicine, surgery, orthopaedics and ophthalmics before having a family, at which point I did my teacher training and worked in a variety of colleges and ARU, followed by three years of teaching in a prison. That was interesting! I then felt I was losing touch with my nursing skills so I returned to nursing, first as a triage sister for Camdoc, and when night duty finally got the better of me I trained as a counsellor in the drug and alcohol service in Cambridge, where I worked with young people with complex mental health issues. I then had a few family issues which meant I needed to take some time out, and during that time I did exam marking and assessment, where I happened to come across an advert for the Pembroke job. I thought this would combine all the skills and experience that I had accumulated as a mother and as a nurse over the years!
What does your role involve?
I am responsible for the health and welfare of students and staff and have developed really supportive relationships with the tutorial team, other college nurses, Trumpington Street Practice and the UCS. The responsibility can sometimes be scary but the rewards are immense: I feel appreciated at every level, from staff to students. The role encompasses medical things, surgical things, nursing (you never know when somebody’s going to fall off their bike or turn up with a sports injury) as well as mental health issues, relationship issues... lots of things. I think the tutors and DoSs trust me and trust that I’m conscientious and thorough and care about the students, very deeply actually. I think they see me as a crazy aunt!
What’s changed for the students?
I think students are a bit more relaxed - they can fit in more easily and more quickly, and this year is the first year that I haven’t had a single homesick or very upset student. But I always get both funny and heartbreaking stories - I’ve heard things from students that I never could have imagined they were struggling with, experiences that they’d had at home - things that affect their psyche and their confidence. There’s an opinion that people outside of Cambridge have of our students being elitist, indulged, spoilt brats who are given every opportunity and I think that’s a false impression of what students are like. My impression is that our students come from a variety of homes - just to say that someone was privately educated and has a wealthy family doesn’t mean to say that they have a good family life - so, sometimes it is heartbreaking.
Do you have any advice for anyone struggling with their mental health?
Studying for a masters made me very aware of the pressure that students were under - I understand the feeling of being ‘inadequate’. The most important thing is to talk to anybody, somebody - it doesn’t matter who it is to start with, as long as it’s someone you trust - because once you’ve opened up about the problem you will find that you’re never the only one who’s had that problem and there is support available. If you stay in your room, keeping it all inside, problems will multiply. Quite often students will come to me with something minor to talk about, but in fact it’s a test - they’re just testing the waters to see whether you’re the kind of person they can talk to. Just as they’re leaving they’ll stop at the door and say ‘ooh, actually there is something else...’ and I know it’s a test. In an ideal world I’d love to go for a walk with a student - maybe have tea, coffee, go to the botanical gardens - because being outside, it’s much easier to talk and share things as opposed to feeling trapped, exposed, and vulnerable.
What inspires you about working here?
The variety is what inspires me, and the enthusiasm of the students. When I first arrived I was completely intimidated by the traditional hierarchy and the beauty of the buildings and the fact that it’s quite hard to change things instantly (which I was used to) - so it took a year or so for me to really fit in and get a grip of what goes on at Pembroke. I have been passionate about all of my jobs, but some have definitely been tougher than others. Working at Pembroke is a fantastic job; I have amazing variety,
and no two days are the same. Of course, there are days when I feel a bit overwhelmed by the volume of work and the responsibility, and it definitely isn’t suited to someone who wants a 9-5 job, but I would never swap my job here. I do actually feel really proud to be part of the history of Pembroke College. You start off with a list of students and they’re all just names and faces - one of hundreds - and as the years go by you see them around Pembroke, the café, when they’re poorly, when they’re vulnerable... and you end up just loving them.