A short walk

   Dec 7, 2020     7 min read

St John's Great Gate

These walls find themselves haunted.

Being at university during a pandemic has been incredibly tough. It’s been a constant struggle not just to handle the work, but even to pull yourself together. With formal halls closed and the buttery being takeaway-only, all semblance of normal university functioning has ceased. Plus, with the lockdown, it’s become next to impossible to meet friends at all (most of them are outside my household). Put simply, life has become entirely dysfunctional.

So, for eight weeks, I would either sit in my room or lie in bed, trying my best to keep up with the unrelenting workload. Like with everyone, not being able to focus due to the lack of in-person teaching was a a severe detriment. But, above all, not being able to see people took its toll. Ordinarily, Cambridge is an extremely stressful place to be, but the one thing that made it enjoyable was spending time with the friends I had made: sharing stories with them and cheering them up when they were down. Making us return to Cambridge with the expectation of a lockdown was akin to expecting to us face all of the stresses of Cambridge with none of what makes it enjoyable.

And yet Cambridge continues to insist that it’s business as usual. At the moment, exams are due to be held as normal, with normal grading and no safety net. This is disappointing but doesn’t surprise me in the slightest: Oxford and Cambridge are notoriously traditional universities. They have previously been slow in getting rid of class lists, and have previously refused to remove the requirement to “keep term” (or stay in residence within the university precinct). Needless to say, there have been rent strikes and calls to reduce tuition fees, but I’m curious to see if the University will budge on the exam arrangements. Everyone’s been affected by this calamity of a year, and pretending people haven’t is the University’s biggest vice.

It’s affected my social relationships as well. A few times, I messaged friends asking to go on a walk, but they were either too busy or too depressed to do so. (I did get to go on a few walks with people, but they were few and far between. And besides, there’s only so much you can get from walks.) Over time, the gravity of the situation sank deeper and I began to break down too. Being able to see my Tutor and Director of Studies helped a bit, but what helped the most was living together with my roommate, Cameron. He was always there to talk to; even if I didn’t have anything in particular on my mind, just being able to talk to him was a huge help. (He was such a good roommate - if you ever read this, know that I’m extremely grateful and I’ll always appreciate your help ❤️)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sadness did not stop when term ended. It took a few days to get out of the toxic mindset of work combined with being unable to socialise with people. When I did, one of my friends invited me on a walk around Cambridge. We hadn’t seen each other much that term, although the term had definitely strengthened our friendship, and it would be nice to see her and catch up before we went our separate ways.

When going on walks, I often climb Castle Hill. It’s a small hill where a motte-and-bailey castle once stood. Originally build in the 11th century, it no longer remains - although the mound still exists and, while it’s a protected monument, it’s free to climb. It’s become one of my recurring visits in Cambridge, and its view over Cambridge makes it a wonderful place to reflect. Sure enough, we decided to go there.

It offers a spectacular elevation from which you can see King’s, Trinity, St John’s, and many other colleges, and realise just how fortunate you are to be here.

View of Cambridge from Castle Hill

Cambridge as viewed from Castle Hill.

When we got there, we spoke about how we came about choosing our college. We had different stories about how we came to apply to St John’s, but one thing which we had in common was that we had both originally considered applying to Trinity. Trinity is renowned among Cambridge students as an academically elite college, the king of kings when it comes to academic performance. However, both of us were put off by the impression it gave us at the open day as an unfriendly, elitist college.

And, sure enough, we were right (to an extent). Trinity’s had an abysmal track record at helping students during the pandemic. They’ve made it compulsory to wear a mask exemption card (or else students would be denied entry) and they took until after term ended to clarify how the lockdown would affect students. They’ve also point-blank refused everything the TCSU (their student union) have asked to try to make student life just a little bit better and, to top it all off, following news of the third lockdown, Trinity would then go on to kick out all students (international or otherwise) who are able to return home. Not cool, Trinity.

Come to think of it, the University of Cambridge has been completely apathic to its students’ concerns. There are some things I can’t blame them for. For example, if they were to reduce tuition fees for the disruption, many colleges would go bankrupt. However, other things have little rationale. Among other things,

  • The University required us all to move into residence in Michaelmas term 2020 (some colleges made exemptions, but many colleges did not), irresponsibly giving colleges the right to kick students out at no notice and send sick students all across the globe
  • Despite the Departments’ own admission that the quality of work has gone down across the board, the University continues to insist on the usual format of exams, without any safety net
  • University-wide emails from Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope and Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor Graham Virgo continue to present the message that students have a continued responsibility for their own learning, ignoring how difficult it can be to study this term

Compare this last point to many tech companies (including the beloved company where I work, Arm*), where the message is that it’s okay to be feeling less productive than usual, and that the number one priority is to look out for our own wellbeing. Being both a student and an employee has shown me a stark disparity in how much those who represent us – and who we represent – care about us as people.

As we went back down to continue exploring Cambridge, we discussed the implications the pandemic would have on the rest of the year. It was difficult to tell the extent of the toll Covid’s taken upon our lives, or even whether we would return next term. The extent of the disruption we’ve faced (and would continue to face) was massive, and we were under no illusion that it would be months before things returned to normal.

But there we were, students at one of the world’s most famous and prestigious universities. Although much of it was now online, Cambridge still had a lot to offer. We could still access key speakers, language courses and the college’s generous bursaries. We could still speak to world-leading academics, finding ways to contribute to the cutting-edge of human knowledge. And programmes like Hackbridge were still looking for people to contribute, and for ways to help those who had been affected by Covid.

But, most of all, we’d adapted as students. Throughout the pandemic, we looked for for new ways to connect and look after one another. While our friendships were greatly strained by the lockdown, our friends were out there, still thinking about us, and when everything’s over, there’d be huge celebration, our bonds stronger than ever before. We’d be able to look back on our experiences and see how resilient we’d been. We’d be the proud soldiers who’d fought the pandemic and won.

I just hope the cost wasn’t too great.

Fluffy animals in the St John's snow

* Following from my internship, I was granted a return offer to work as a Part-Time Undergraduate employee. The opinions expressed are my own views and not those of my employer.