From Houston to Cambridge
International Programmes Student Riley Smith talks about her time at Pembroke, meeting her favourite playwright, and the things that she’s learnt about herself since coming to Cambridge for the Lent and Easter terms.
Which university do you come from?
Rice University in Houston, Texas
Why did you decide to apply to the Pembroke International Programme?
Well, I knew that I always wanted to go abroad and it’s easier to do in College than it probably is later. I study English so it was an easy choice to decide that I should probably go to England.
What have been the major differences in the course in Cambridge and your one in the States?
Just how self-directed it is, I get specific assignments to read this, do this, but here it’s been very cool to just be basically consistently reading and to be able to decide when that is and what that is. When I describe the course to my friends back home it blows their mind. Obviously in Supervisions I’ll get assigned reading but then whatever I do beyond the book or however much poetry, that’s on me and that’s pretty cool.
The supervision system is just great. I’ve never just talked with somebody that knowledgeable about the subject that I’m working on for an hour every week and to have them to talk to me like I’m a peer. That is a really cool thing.
Best bits of your time at Cambridge?
One of my favourite things that I’ve done here actually is the Impronauts, which is the Improv Troupe here. I knew I wanted to do comedy when I got here and I have done. I did a sketch show, I’ve done a couple of stand up gigs, and I was in a farce earlier on. But my favourite thing that I’ve done here, and my favourite people that I’ve met, have definitely been the Cambridge Impronauts. It’s funny because with the Americans we’ve talked about this, we kind of assumed that we were going to come to Cambridge and people were going to be stuck up and we were going to have to deal with that but people have just been really nice and been so welcoming. The Impronauts are super sweet and they’re very good so that was cool to just get to work with them. We do shows and stuff like that, and getting to do that much Improv has just been really, really fun. My life has just been comedy and reading which is exactly how I would organise it.
For the city itself I really like all the old buildings. In Houston, nothing that anyone lives in is old. The oldest building on my campus is from 1913. People here laugh at me when I say that because they’re like no, no, that’s not old, that’s new construction. So I really like that, I like being able to walk around here and you can feel that there’s history. I’m doing the Chaucer paper this term and my supervisor was like staring out of a window and was like ‘Chaucer could have walked by that building’ – the first Pembroke building which is very cool.
Also my supervisor was really nice and he invited me to a book launch. My favourite playwright is Tom Stoppard and he was actually there and I got to go and talk to him. I managed to say one smart thing about stage directions and performances which was great. It was really cool, just to see him as a real person.
How have you found the College system?
I’ve heard a couple of people complain that it’s too segmented, but I think it’s probably valuable as it gives everyone that I’ve talked to a clear sense of identity with their college which I think is really cool. All the different colleges have a different culture and perception and I don’t think it keeps people from making friends outside, at least the people I’ve talked to seem to have friends all over, but they’re going to have a core group that’s from their college.
I also really like the college family thing, my college family was super nice and it was just so nice that one of the first things that I did was go and watch a movie and eat pizza with a group of people here. I like being able to say that I’m at Pembroke and it’s obvious that Pembroke has a good rep because people will be like ‘oh cool’.
If you could go back and tell past self you anything what would it be?
Adapters for plugs! But correct ones. We bought me these universal travel adapters. But only one was actually US to UK so I had all these other ones that can help me out in China and I’m like ‘none of these are what I needed’. But I needed about 15 of the UK ones so that’s probably the biggest thing. Oh and you probably don’t need to spend a ton on your UK phone. The smartest thing is just to unlock your phone, I would not have needed to buy a new phone if I had just unlocked mine back home and then got here and got a new sim card.
How do you feel the year has changed you?
I’m going to go back a lot more academically confident. I’m going back and I’m doing a senior thesis and I know I have the skills to do that, I know I’m going to be able to go back and find my own sources and paths.
I think one thing I’ve learned here is just focus on what you love. Because back home I was always very much like ‘take every opportunity ever’ but sometimes you end up in things that you don’t like or actually want. So when I’m going back I’m taking just English classes, and also business classes that I need to complete my minor desperately in my last year, but when I was picking classes I was thinking, okay, do what you love, don’t take something just because you feel like you should. The extra curriculars that I’m going to continue with are very much what do I actually love and care about? Then I’m just going to find a way to focus on those and keep those. I’ve been so happy here and I think that’s because I’ve been reading and doing comedy. It’s been an opportunity here to focus up on the things that I’m really passionate about and it’s the first time that I’ve done that. So I’m going to go back and try to keep doing that and focus on all the things that really matter to me.
Obviously I feel different now than I did when I started, and if I had to sum it up, I would just say enjoy it. Go for the walks, go on the trips, see things, meet people, sign up for things that you like, kind of like you would coming into uni in general. But you have such a short amount of time, just don’t spend it doing things that you don’t enjoy.