From Cornfields to Castles
A letter to PKP students from someone who’s been there
Written by Paul Jeffries
In your first few conversations in the dining halls of Pembroke or Kings College, the standard small-talk with your fellow PKPers includes a lot of what you might expect: “Where are you from? Where do you go to school? How cool is this place?” While I anticipated finding people from all around the world studying with me during my time with the Pembroke-Kings Programme, the diversity of the student populace at Cambridge will never cease to amaze me. Your time at Cambridge will doubtlessly be marked by your own background, and I was no exception.
I grew up in a small town called Zionsville in Indiana, right in the heart of the Midwest. Coming to Cambridge for me could thus veritably be described as going from cornfields to castles. While I arrived as a student representing American University, my heart will always be in the Midwest, and for those of you coming to Cambridge from regions that don’t typically feed into the upper echelons of academia, know that you will be no less accepted than anyone else. Having traveled a great deal and worked abroad for different institutions, there have been instances where my admission of being from the Midwest was met with laughter and comments akin to: “oh I’m so sorry for you;” at Cambridge, a diversity of backgrounds is more than accepted, it is embraced with open arms, so know that whoever you are and wherever you’re coming from, Cambridge will look to learn from you as much as you from it.
Now here is a section that one could rightly think doesn’t even merit writing. Cambridge’s position atop the international hierarchy of top universities, its rich history, the top faculty, the renown of the programme… when it comes to reasons for studying at Cambridge, and specifically via PKP, one could go on and on. That said, there’s a lot more to consider that you won’t find on any university rankings website. In my mind, these various other PKP-specific boons can be filed under two categories: people and programme.
The people that you will meet at Cambridge will doubtlessly form the predominant part of the memories with which you will leave, from the professors to your fellow PKPers. The aforementioned diversity of thought and background that constitute each PKP class means that in your International Law class you will discuss the legal definition of statehood with people who have come to Cambridge from regions embroiled in violent struggle over precisely such questions, and in your class on entrepreneurship, you may well be in the minority if you have not managed a small start-up yourself! If such a prospect is awe-inspiring, then know that it only gets better, as the same richness of background is equally, if not more so, present amongst the faculty. To provide but one of many examples, my class on the law of war was co-taught by someone who had drafted the ban on cluster bomb munitions herself. Don’t take my word for it; however, discover it for yourself! You may, unlike me, care very little for International Law; the point is that whatever your interest—whatever subject has kept you up at night not out of necessity but out of wonder and excitement—you will find kindred spirits at Cambridge.
When it comes to the programme, there is far too much to be said about the intricacies that set PKP apart than could be contained here. That said, a few of my favorite PKP elements merit mentioning. The enamoring magic of the formal dinners will stay with you for a while, but if I had to point to one element of the programme that surpassed every expectation the most, it is the independent supervision. That opportunity to pursue independent research under the tutelage of someone at the top of their respective field is unmatched, but I was blown away by how rewarding the experience truly was. In my first 1 on 1 meeting with my supervisor, I expected that I would be met with lukewarm assistance from someone who had graciously allotted some time to an undergrad student taking his first steps in serious research, but what I found was a professor who wanted the supervision to be as fruitful for me as possible. With the independent supervision, everything is geared towards your leaving Cambridge having learned as much as possible about what you alone are interested in. Intrigued by a new type of research method you’ve never utilized before? Want to explore a regional focus you’ve never had the chance to broach directly? Curious about taking a risk with something you don’t feel qualified for but have always wondered about? Each of those questions adequately summarize my mindset prior to my supervision. I arrived at Cambridge as someone who enjoyed economics and politics, and left with a serious research interest in international political economy. That experience was replicated for many PKPers who I knew were also taking independent studies, and I couldn’t recommend it more.
How I Found It, and Some Honest Advice for Future PKPers
PKP was holistically an amazing experience, but hindsight is always 20/20, and, as such, there is much that I would do differently if I could go back again, as well as much that I wouldn’t change. Hopefully these final comments will help you get just a little bit more out of the incredible experience that PKP can be.
First of all (cliché incoming), know yourself, and plan accordingly. What I mean here is that when studying abroad, it is vital to know what matters most to you. If you know that having a gym to work out in is a big part of your weekly routine, look for one in the area nearby, or take advantage of the incredible variety of events (many of which are sport-related) put on by PKP staff and jump in right away! Don’t think that just because a direct copy of something you had at home isn’t available at Cambridge that all of the sudden you have to write off something that you enjoy (example from my own life: if you’re a baseball-loving American, turn in your glove for a cricket bat)! Similarly, if you have an interest you’d like to explore during your time at Cambridge, but are having a hard time finding how to navigate it, ask the staff; the students and staff that facilitate PKP are very knowledgeable, and will help Cambridge feel like home almost immediately—you need only ask!
Second, challenge yourself. The course load, depending on how you schedule it, may not be as exhausting as what you are used to at your home university, but what you get out of the work is directly correlated to what you put into it. Realize that you are at one of the premier knowledge institutions in the world, and that means so much more than a ranking or a line on your resume; if there is a question you’ve always wanted to explore or a project that always incited you but felt slightly out of your reach, PKP is your opportunity to take that risk. Speaking from experience, it will pay off.
Last, let Cambridge stay with you. I do not mean here that you should purchase as much memorabilia as possible to the detriment of baggage fees, but am focusing more here on your courses, your experiences, and your professors. Don’t be surprised if you leave Cambridge feeling as though what you have left to do far outweighs that which you have accomplished. Far from a drawback, this is a sign that you discovered a passion that may well lead to a career. As someone who will soon be commencing a Cambridge MPhil application, I can attest that Cambridge is a powerful, magnetic, inspiring locale—one whose call you may well hear again shortly after leaving. So keep up with your friends, take that risk you’ve always felt hovering right beyond the orbit of your capacity, and oh… don’t forget to try to tea!