Coming of age in the Cambridge bubble

Noella Chye 7 March 2017

‘The Cambridge bubble’ is a phrase that comes up over and over again, a reflection, perhaps, of how true it is. It might not be something that we consider when going through our daily routines, but insularity has long been a defining characteristic of the university. Living in colleges, for instance, instantly introduces a sense of closeness to other people; help from our lovely bedders means we can shed certain responsibilities; the fact that Cambridge is a town rather than a city means that distances are relatively short, compressing our journeys back and forth from accommodation, lecture sites, supervisions. It is an experience vastly different from other universities, particularly those situated in sprawling cities; the effect of these few formative years on students here, as opposed to others elsewhere, is thus quite distinct.

University years represent one of the most important transitory periods of our lives –still entrenched in student life, but with “adult, real world” responsibilities edging ever closer. It is unsurprising that our experiences now do go a long way in defining us, in colouring the way that we learn to perceive the world in the present and in the future.

The Cambridge experience, then, provides an interesting effect. One of the biggest things to strike me about the difference between it and other universities was the sense of community, something evident right from the beginning of fresher’s week. Living in such close quarters with the other freshers made introductions much easier, a convenience that I took for granted until I spoke to other friends attending London universities about our first-term experiences. I heard about how vast university life seemed to them, how they could walk to lectures and attend classes without interacting with anyone else, how few of them actually made friends with their neighbours in their quiet, dorm-style accommodation. London universities have many perks, of course, but an instant sense of community and kinship is not as present as it is here.

It is thus safe to say that Cambridge operates in a very compressed environment, but ‘compressed’ itself is a two-fold concept. It may make socialising that much easier, but it also introduces the idea of having to work in a high-paced, pressurised climate. With so much capable of happening at the same time within such a small space, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and exhausted, to have no time to stop and reflect before the weeks rush us on. There are highly rewarding moments, of course (every positive remark from my supervisor, I soak up like a sponge), but there are those of frustration and fear too. Not everyone can quickly establish a balance between responsibilities, but within the pressure of the Cambridge bubble, it is easy for them to go unheard. Keeping in mind the importance of university years for shaping character and endurance, neglecting or suppressing any such potential problems could have deep-rooted consequences in the long run.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember in the next few years, then, is that the Cambridge bubble, despite its prevalent use, is ultimately nothing more than a social construct. It does aptly describe the university’s environment and impact on us, but always thinking that one is susceptible to its pressure, imagining it as an almost physical presence, might only exacerbate any stresses. While it may not seem immediately possible, look beyond this intense setting to acknowledge the bigger picture, and think of it as a space that expands as you grow, rather than a bubble to hold you within.