Freshers are pouring in to their new universities, finding their way around strange cities, unfamiliar halls of residence, learning the vocabulary of their new alma mater, drinking endless amounts of coffee/tea/beer/wine/shots as they attempt to work out who will be their new best mates and who their rivals. Challenging, scary and exhilarating times. It is a very long time since I was in that position but, cycling early one morning to the railway station recently in mellow, misty sunshine I was taken back to those heady days. Taken back because, for once, being so earlyTrinity Street was almost empty of cars and pedestrians alike. It was easier to remember my younger self, her hopes and fears of Freshers’ Week, when not dodging tourists walking backwards in the street to take selfies or white van drivers trying to beat the 10am curfew on traffic in town.
The feeling I most strongly associate with that former bike ride along Trinity Street was the sense that out there were all those brilliant people – by which I suppose I meant ‘dons’ although I doubt I articulated who I was talking about and maybe it was my fellow students I had in mind – and the people who were going to be my soul mates for life. I didn’t know how I was going to find them but, compared with feeling like an oddball at school, I felt sure that suddenly I would fit in. Needless to say this was a vain hope. The cross-section of students I encountered probably weren’t that different from those at my girls’ grammar school, even if their A level grades were on average a notch or two higher. Of course, all those Nobel Prize winners I imagined walking along the Cambridge streets may have been there. How would I have known – they don’t wear labels identifying them as such?
Then there are the fears, to go along with the hopes. The fear I remember most clearly, or perhaps I mean the social gaffe I most wished to avoid, was the weighty question of whether one was allowed to wear trousers for formal hall (this was a long time ago when dress codes were better defined). In retrospect this seems such a stupid question. But, just like the social anxiety induced by attending a formal dinner and being uncertain about the mass of cutlery and glasses in front of one’s place, this question felt deeply serious. I did not want to behave inappropriately or stand out from the masses because of my ineptitude. The reality was I never got an answer from anyone but in practice no one – at Girton in my day at least – cared a jot. Nightwear under a gown might have been frowned upon but, beyond that, I think people really were indifferent to attire on a typical night.
A third issue I remember, which stood out because I was excited about it, was my room. My own room to personalise as I wished. With little sense of the aesthetics of internal décor and less money, there wasn’t a great deal I could do, but I hawked around the Cambridge market finding plates and mugs, and I also acquired fabric remnants to cover surfaces, notably the ubiquitous trunk of those days. The trunk was an important object in many a student’s room: one could pay to have it brought up by road when the family – like mine – had no car and it felt impossible to lug all that seemed necessary to survive a term on the train. The trunk served as table, sofa – plus the place to stash everything over the Vacation when the College required the room to be emptied. Finally, the pièce de resistance was the poster collection. This was the heady days of peak Athena posters, but I acquired something more remarkable during the year, a copy of an Audrey Beardsley drawing inked personally by a friend over the Christmas vacation. I still own this, rolled up (I believe) in that very same trunk which sits uncared for in my attic.
Like just about every other Fresher I went up to Cambridge full of optimism and fear. The social optimism I soon decided was overegged – though I made good friends I didn’t sit up discussing God, Physics or Tolkien all night as I had fondly imagined – and the Physics, particularly the practicals, left me in a perpetual fog. Perhaps in those first few weeks the worst disappointment was failing my audition for the CUMS (Cambridge University Music Society) choir, which left my musical aspirations devastated. Of course Cambridge music is second to none and I was spoilt for choice amongst college choirs: with no mixed colleges (one year too soon) every men’s college wanted to entice women along to sing. I could choose amongst what was being performed and migrate from one college to another each term. That first term I had good fun singing the Monteverdi Vespers in Christs. But it wasn’t what I’d set my heart on and I felt the failure at least as acutely as I felt the fog of the States of Matter lectures in Physics, or trying to get my head round stereographic projections in triclinic crystals, as demanded by my ‘Crystalline State’ lectures.
As is obvious, I survived. But for me the first year was infinitely the toughest of my three years as an undergraduate. Now I am at the other end of the spectrum. As I welcome freshers to Churchill College over the next 10 days or so (graduate students are already arriving, the undergraduates very soon), my job is to ally their fears (or, more strictly, to support those who do the real work on that front). My matriculation dinner speech needs writing – I try not simply to recycle previous years’ speeches as it bores the Fellowship – and needs to combine exhortations to work hard along with encouragement not to feel a failure when the first thing goes wrong. Impostor syndrome will make a brief appearance as will a mention of the support systems the College proudly offers. We are very cognizant of the stresses university imposes on our students and the consequent rise in mental health problems identified across the sector, so we fund a part-time counsellor to assist students in college and to complement the University Counselling Service, as well as have a committed team of tutors and Directors of Studies – not to mention the less official pastoral care of porters and other staff – who typically can spot struggling students early on.
The first few weeks are critical in building confidence, friendship groups and good habits, such as attending lectures! Every year the new intake arrives with fear and trepidation. Every year our graduating students leave with stellar results and, one hopes, more confidence, good habits – and friends for life. These are the friendships we will be celebrating this weekend as Alumni return from all round the world to see how the College has transformed and how grey/bald their friends have become after all these years.