Reminiscing On my Travels

I am often asked, what do College Masters do? Some people seem to think it is similar to being Warden of a Hall of Residence (i.e. sorting out broken light bulbs or disputes between neighbouring students), but it isn’t like that at all. As one of my fellow female Masters told me, it is a case of ‘setting a tone’, but even that sounds – and is – very nebulous. It is perhaps akin to what is written in my contract with the University ‘such other duties as the Head of Department requires’, where for Head of Department read the collective Fellowship. In other words, it is what you make of it but if you fail to do it well it will be very publicly visible.

Of course part of the role involves frequent dining with alumni, senior visitors and potential donors as well as the wider College community and I am on something of a culinary tour currently in the USA, meeting up with distant alumni – of Churchill and many other colleges –and wider friends of the University plus giving talks around a variety of different subjects. The Meaning of Success event had a stimulating discussion on Saturday at the Waldorf Astoria in New York with a wide range of perspectives from senior female alumni of the University including two other heads of house (Firzwilliam’s Nicky Padfield  and Murray Edwards’ Barbara Stocking). A talk in Boston followed on Churchill and Science, along the lines of an earlier post and, I am finishing the trip off today with the original motivation for the visit, a science lecture at Harvard, in the other Cambridge of course.

So, after a gap of some 30 years I finally returned to spend some time in New York. It wasn’t that I was avoiding the place simply that it didn’t happen, except sitting in airports en route to somewhere else. I distinctly remember sitting in Newark, holed up somewhere as quiet as I could find, reading an entire thesis during a long and unanticipated layover. Five hours away from email, as that implied at the time, was very productive and good for the concentration.

Returning to New York now has felt distinctly strange. My first arrival – heading off to a postdoc position at Cornell University – was marred by the fact that I had lost my wallet at Victoria before take-off. So I turned up with no money, only travellers cheques, and by the time I got to the small airport at Ithaca had to be lent a dime or two so I could phone my husband (no mobiles back then; and I’d probably have lost that too anyhow). My return to the UK, four years later (I’d not returned once in between), was no less eventful. This time I’d managed to lose my passport. When I rang the British Embassy after I realised that this was missing and asked them what I should do they said it was absolutely no problem. I should just turn up at the Embassy with my birth and marriage certificates. Things got a bit hairier when I pointed out I had ‘lost’ these too. They weren’t lost of course. In the course of moving out of our apartment I had sorted all my belongings into careful piles and it is clear, with hindsight, that these valuable documents had got into the pile to throw away. At least, they have never been since!

I set off to New York and the Embassy just hoping that they would issue me with an emergency passport on the strength of me knowing the date and Office which had issued the lost passport to me; this was easy as the passport was dated on my marriage day since I had changed my name and travelled abroad for my honeymoon. It worked. They gave me one which enabled me to leave the USA and enter the UK. I wonder how I would fare in a similar situation today with the increased anxiety over security.

So, more than 30 years on, I returned to New York. Now operating in a very different style from the life-on-a-shoestring of a postdoc, my University and College have booked me into comfortable accommodation, including at the Waldorf Astoria where the Meaning of Success event was held. It is hard not to contrast life back then as a postdoc with limited funds and a head of house for whom cars are arranged to transport me to and from the airport and comfortable, cockroach-free rooms provided in upmarket hotels. I mention the cockroaches because my first experience of a hotel in Boston was full of them, rather disconcertingly. But then, so was our apartment in Ithaca. Tough little blighters to dispose of.

This contrast, made all the starker by the absence of intervening visits, exposes my inner impostor syndrome again. How did I get here from where I was: that incompetent person who seemed unable not to lose significant items as I travelled, that person who had no aspiration to an academic career or indeed any other sort of career. I just kind of kept muddling on, possibly gaining experience in how to avoid putting a passport in the rubbish in the meantime.

Nevertheless, the Meaning of Success event highlighted the fact that for many of us across different fields of employment aspiration does not mean a bigger office, car or salary. It is so often about nurturing the talent around one in one’s teams or staying true to one’s values. Ann Cotton of the charity CamFed gave a wonderful example of how she held her nerve for the organisation regarding the absolute sanctity of the privacy of the young people she was helping in Africa in the face of a newspaper who wanted to showcase her work – thereby gaining her much needed publicity – but for whom signing a piece of paper of the kind she required for her charity’s processes was unheard of. She didn’t blink, she stuck to her beliefs so that her internal values held firm and as a result of her steadfastness the newspaper found a workaround that suited all. Sticking to one’s core beliefs is, as the Cambridge book made clear, a key factor in the lives of many of the individuals interviewed. For them, success was not success unless this line was held.

Many of us will never be faced with the sort of stark choice Ann Cotton faced but, as a head of house, I’m sure one of my other duties may turn out to be holding some sort of line under external pressure. I haven’t had to deal with such a situation yet, but one might turn up during my tenure. In the meantime, I will continue to battle the inner voice that says ‘What are you doing swanning around in upmarket hotels when you’re so wet behind the ears you lose your passport?’ and move on to my next stimulating meeting with alumni.

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