After approximately eight weeks at Cambridge, I think I’ve finally gotten used to the idea that I’m studying in England–that I myself am an international student. In fact, I’m the only American at King’s College (one of the 31 Colleges at Cambridge) who isn’t simply an exchange student. During the first week of term, when we first-years were actively engaging in desperate attempts at awkward “getting-to-know-you” conversation, when I mentioned I was from the US, one boy even wondered what university I “actually” attend, and couldn’t understand when I insisted that I was enrolled at Cambridge.
During these first eight weeks, I’ve conversed with fellow students with accents from every imaginable part of world, sat mesmerized at lectures led by scientists who we later begged for autographs, relaxed with groups of friends and pints of cider in boats on the moonlit river, and strolled through the beautiful Grantchester Meadows immortalized by Pink Floyd. In only eight weeks, I’ve experienced formal dinners in Harry Potter style dining halls, I’ve kayaked through the early-morning autumn, and I’ve learned so much–from specialized hormonal plant defenses against both caterpillars and humans to European opinion of American politics.
Well, some things are constant no matter where you go–students complain about the work-load, the bar and the library fight for attention (especially with the low drinking age, the former often wins), the two top universities (Oxford and Cambridge) are bitter rivals in the Harvard-Yale fashion.
But I do find some considerable differences between Cambridge and American universities, such as that our grades depend almost entirely on one examination at the end of the year. As a result, I was able to wind down the last week of my first term, grateful for the lack of finals that all my American friends were moaning about. However, by the time we were all on winter break, it was their turn to mock me–while they had the chance to take those few weeks to relax and put away their textbooks, I had to comb through my notes and write essays for the classes that would not end until June. On that note, we also do not use textbooks. Instead, we attend lectures, where we get notes. Any extra information just comes from external reading–nothing required. Also, in order to make sure we have everything we need to know ingrained in our minds, we attend supervisions for each subject once a week. These are [almost] always enjoyable meetings with an expert in the field who marks our homework and quizzes us on the lectures. These tutorials are often infused with conversations about the supervisor’s own research, and may extend beyond the material we learn in class, just to interest us and show us the relevance of all we learn.
Of course, no one can get away without ever feeling stressed. But the late-night philosophical conversations, the strolls through sunlit meadows or twilight streets, and the superb support of faculty and friends will always remind us that our time at Cambridge is a wonderful experience.