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A semester in Cambridge

Each year Pembroke College accepts up to thirty students from overseas universities for a two-term semester of study in Cambridge. This year Liz Willcock (2014), from McGill University in Canada, is one of them.

Being a student at Cambridge University is bizarre, magical, and thoroughly exhausting, but I love it with an evangelical passion. I should note it’s not the first time I’ve studied at Pembroke College. In the summer of 2014 I attended the Creative Writing in Cambridge programme for 4 weeks in July. As I was leaving I distinctly remember sideling up to the front door, placing my hand tenderly on its wooden surface, and whispering ‘Goodbye Pembroke’. Although the porters were probably mildly taken aback by the strange Canadian embracing an inanimate object, it would be no exaggeration to say I felt the parting like that of losing a first love. But instead of letting go, I resolved to do a few crazy things to win Pembroke College back. (What can I say? I’m the Taylor Swift of break ups.)

When I found out about the Spring Semester Programme later that year, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. I knew that admissions were extremely selective, but I trusted blindly in my conviction that I loved Pembroke enough for it to take me back. Although at this point I’d like to advise against adopting that maxim in real relationships lest it result in a restraining order- but by some miracle it seemed to work for me. In January I found myself back in Pembroke’s hallowed halls for the second time.

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Even though it was the middle of winter and the rain was falling down in buckets, Pembroke still smelt the same. Like fresh laundry and those flowers around Q staircase that I’m pretty sure are maintained in permanent bloom by a small legion of gardeners. Although I took comfort in those little familiarities, my time at Pembroke in the summer in no way prepared me for the last four months here.

I quickly discovered the difference between visiting Cambridge and being a student at Cambridge. Firstly, there was a lot less reading books on the lawn, and a lot more reading books in the library – there were a few hours spent wandering the UL stacks in the dark before I discovered there were light switches, an occasion on which I spilled a 1.5 litre bottle of water of my supervisors sofa, and more ‘Ummmm, could you repeat the question?’ than I care to count. Suffice to say what I discovered was that being a semi-functioning student here is hard. But it’s also the most rewarding experience you will ever have. There is no feeling quite like sharing and building your knowledge with your supervisor or submitting an essay that you’re proud of (and I don’t think I say that only because I’m a huge nerd).

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But the best part is that Cambridge is not only academically rewarding. Some of my fondest memories here are basked in the glow of candlelit formal hall, laughing with friends over red wine and delicious food provided by Pembroke’s rumoured, elusive and much mythologized Michelin-starred chef. The best parts of Cambridge can just as easily be found punting down the Cam on a Sunday afternoon in spring whilst tucked into a slightly damp Scudamore’s argyle blanket, as in the libraries.

Although I fell in love with Pembroke in the summer, the Spring Semester Programme has challenged me, helped me grow, and allowed me to fully experience the life of a Cambridge student – billowing black gowns and all.

Photos from Liz’s Instagram feed.

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