4 Lessons I Learned While Living Abroad at Cambridge University

Maybe it’s the effects of retrospect, but when I reflect on my time at Cambridge University, it seems that every day was tinted a dewy gold and filled with an endless sense of possibility. On the sunny days, I walked to class and marvelled at the light that filtered in between the old buildings, through the cobblestone alleys and made the River Cam sparkle. On the rainy days, I sat in the library and ran my hand along the spines of original manuscripts older than our country. Even on the gloomy-hailstorm-life-sucks kind of days there was always something new to be enchanted by. Don’t get me wrong, I’m far from an outrageously happy person who can see the beauty in everything (I actually think I’m made of like¦ half water, half sarcasm), it’s just that Cambridge had a way of rendering life inevitably magical. You couldn’t escape its charms.

Last year, by some miracle of god, but more likely by some clerical error, I was accepted into an exchange program at Cambridge University. For the most part I spent six months prancing through Cambridge as if I were in a spell. I was Carrie Bradshaw and Cambridge was my New York, and every morning was a new chapter in my coming-of-age story. But like every good novel of formation my time in Cambridge was punctuated by various challenges. Even though everything was lovely, magical, and old, studying abroad at one of the worlds most prestigious (and notoriously difficult) universities forced me to face my fair share of obstacles. I was away from home, without my circle of friends, the comfort of the McGill campus Pizza Pizza and thrown into an entirely new academic system. What I learned”aside from how to do a terrible British accent and attend fancy dinner parties without looking like a spastic oaf who doesn’t know how to use cutlery”were a few valuable lessons that have provided me with the skills to be a successful real-life semi-functioning adult.


You get what you give

This lesson came in the form of a good old academic ass-whipping. I had spent the majority of my undergraduate degree at McGill getting by on Sparknotes and pizza-fuelled all-nighters, but I quickly learned that this would not fly at Cambridge. In the second week of school my professor sat me down across from my abysmal paper on Middle Eastern oil politics, and said something along the lines of “despite its institutional elitism, Cambridge is ironically egalitarian in its marking scheme”you will get an A-plus for an A-plus amount of work. That’s why I gave you a B minus.” Although I was disappointed, secretly hated his guts and vowed to discover his address so I could egg his house, he was the best professor I’ve ever had and taught me that good grades take work, good essays require structure, good ideas need research, and no one cares how naturally gifted or interesting you are unless you can prove it. You get what you give.

If a guy asks to show you around the gardens of his college this is code for making out

Unless he’s a botanist, in which case you should still proceed with caution, he might bore you to death.


You are the sum of your time management

My biggest shock at Cambridge was learning that lectures were optional. I mean you can go if you want, one of the students in my college informed me, but you don’t need to. Some people just read books for their whole degree and barely ever see professors¦ I stared at her slack-jawed. I soon discovered that the only mandatory class was a one-on-one supervision with a professor once a week where they quizzed you on your knowledge of the syllabus content. So naturally, I spent the entire first week lazing around, going to dinner parties and watching New Girl. I had deluded myself into peaceful oblivion until I was grilled to shreds in my first one-on-one supervision. That day I left my professors study with a planner he had personally devised when he had deduced how little of the readings I had done. Treat this as your job, he told me from across his desk, and I watched in horror as he highlighted the hours of 9 to 5 as study time. Begrudgingly, I divided my day into chunks of work and kept to my schedule. Even though it took me longer to get through the third season of New Girl, at the end of the day I felt more accomplished and confident in my work. If I were a real Cambridge student I would conclude this paragraph with something like “Schedules rule!”


There is no such thing as cool

By virtue of being at Cambridge, everyone there is a nerd. The hot guy from rowing? Nerd. The girl from your history lecture with great style? Nerd. The guys in the Pitt Club? Mega nerds. Don’t get me wrong, some of them put on a great act. They wear John Lennon sunglasses, Barbour jackets and host awesome exclusive parties, but deep down inside you know that they probably wear contacts, have anxiety and spent grades 11 through 12 having their mom bring them snacks in their basement as they poured over textbooks. Once I realized that coolness was not inherent and that the cool kids were just really good actors or had a prescription for Xanax, I felt so much more confident. All the world’s a stage and all the women and men are merely players. Sorry I felt like I had to throw a Shakespeare quote in here to prove that I actually went to Cambridge.

Tags: cambridge, cambridge university, living abroad

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