A friendly survivor’s guide for international freshers

Hi international freshers! Welcome to Cambridge and congratulations for all the hard work that has led up to your arrival. My name is Ashling Barmes, and I’m an Irish-Australian second year who calls Switzerland home. As you can imagine, a Gaelic name, even when spelled phonetically, is not most people’s idea of fun. I have been christened Ashley by many a stranger on a night out and my accent has been most often described as an Irish person who got lost on a boat somewhere in the mid-Atlantic (I have also had people guess Cumbria, Ukraine and Belgium, which really threw a spanner in the works of my sense of identity!). Being an international student has its often hilarious oddities and downsides, but here are a few of my suggestions and words of unquestionable wisdom as to how you can make the experience fun and less daunting.

Word of warning: I cannot help with the anxiety brought on by the ‘where are you from’ question. That one never gets easier…

1. Homesickness and settling in Moving away from home is a really difficult feat – having to suddenly be responsible for your work as well as your welfare is a significant step in anyone’s university experience. It can feel especially daunting when home is far away, visits are difficult to organise (if they happen at all during term time) and there is little that is familiar to you. Cambridge can be a high-stress environment at the best of times and the calls or facetimes home don’t always cut it when you’re trying to fight feelings of homesickness. I often felt guilty that I didn’t call home enough last year but everything was so hectic and I was hellbent on proving that I could handle it. In fact, it is often when you try your hardest to ‘just get on with it’ that the emotions creep back stronger and catch you off-guard. Allow yourself to have these feelings without beating yourself up about them, and it’s always helpful to reach out. Not only will you have a college family, but talking to your friends helps. A strong network can become like a little family in your time here. Side note: End of term blues can be a real struggle. It’s stressful and lonely to pack your life in England up and put it in storage while figuring out your plane flight home, when others around you are being picked up by their parents (the end of first term was not my finest moment…). You don’t have to go through it alone. The next two terms I packed up with my friends; they helped me to take things to storage and we travelled down to London together. These small gestures can make a world of difference.

2. Societies These are an amazing part of being at Cambridge, and a great way to meet people outside of your college who share the same interests as you. When you don’t know many (or any) people from home at university, societies can help you to continue doing what you love and make connections that way. Side note: I didn’t try any of the language or nationality societies (e.g. Dutch or French society). Friends who did got to go to formals and meet people with a similar upbringing to them and speak the same language, which can be a nice connection to home. I would love to try more this year, so it’s worth a go!

3. Get the essentials in order Even though it seems redundant, I cannot stress enough how much it puts your mind at ease to have things well set up for you at Cambridge. It seems like a lot to juggle at the beginning, but being cut off from the essential services you have at home can cause a lot of stress when you’re also trying to juggle study and rest. Making sure that you have a working bank account, health insurance and phone, along with access to health services like a GP, dentist and mental health counselling are all part of making you feel more at home and secure at university.

4. Emotional geography This is one of my personal favourites. One of the things that is most precious about home is that you find little nooks and crannies that are linked to happy memories, and these spaces become ‘yours’. This is emotional geography, and one of the best ways to make a new place feel like home is to develop your own special locations within Cambridge. For that, I recommend lots of exploring in your breaks. Go on rambling walks or runs, test out coffee shops, pubs and museums, find a cycling route: whatever works for you. It will help Cambridge to feel familiar, and pretty soon you’ll have a bank of first year memories to look back on.

5. Get in touch Feel free to get in touch if things are on your mind! The JPC internationals officer, Vineet Mudupalli, is happy to help with any queries, and of course you’re free to chat to me too!

6. Be yourself Don’t worry about standing out or saying the wrong thing! I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing stories: using a passport as ID to get into Spoons and the club; not understanding half of the things my friends were talking about (Naked Attraction was a shock); and not knowing where most places in the UK are on a map, etc. Believe me, there are plenty more… I’ve accepted my unique international status, as what makes me different also makes me interesting, and I’ve made some incredible friends here at Cambridge.

Essentially, just roll with each new experience and have confidence in yourself and your exciting life experiences!