I was sitting along a canal in Amsterdam a few weeks ago when a message slid into my DMs – sitting at the top of my Hermes inbox was an email from my Director of Studies, detailing the workload of the coming term.
From feeling that all was at peace with the world – a feeling inevitably evoked by the piping hot churros in my hand and the unhurried, comfortable thriving of the city around me – I was suddenly overwhelmed by flashbacks of first-year anxiety.
Three months away from Cambridge had dimmed most memories of academic and social stress alike, of frantic essay-writing until six am, and of rushing to supervisions trying to recall what I had even written during said six am essay sessions. Surviving first year had felt like an achievement to me, enough to warrant shelving away thoughts of the upcoming academic year in my mind so as to enjoy lazy summer days instead. But now, with phrases like “start of term DoS meetings” and “important information about Michaelmas teaching arrangements” lurking in my inbox, I was suffused again with the same feelings of unpreparedness and inadequacy.
Watching new first years roam my college, as curious and unfamiliar as I had been myself a year ago, made me acutely aware of how uncertain I myself still feel. It seemed incomprehensible that there could already be new students even as I felt that first year could not be over yet.
Being a second year feels like I should be armed with greater knowledge and confidence this time around, but the nearer the start of term looms, the more I remember there is still a long way to go. The paths through our colleges and the walks to our lecture sites may have become familiar to us, but Cambridge life is still, in many ways, as shiny and unknown as it was when we started out as apprehensive freshers. How many new people will we meet this year, and what more will we come to learn in the next few terms? What challenges will the year bring to us, and how changed will we emerge at the end of it? The term "returning student" might not have the same novel connotations as "fresher", but the start of second year can be as much of a new beginning as the start of first was.
A summer of leisurely wading through the reading list will probably make the forthcoming academic pace a bit of a shock, but there is so much more here too that will keep us going through all of it. As I mournfully consoled myself with my churros, memories of poring over old texts and consecutive essay crises began to be replaced by those of incredible friends and warm comfort. The latter moments had characterised my first year at Cambridge just as much as, and perhaps even more than, the workload and course had themselves.
Freshers are often given advice on starting university at their own pace, of looking after themselves even as they navigate a new landscape and find a place within it. This advice does not become any less true or valuable for the rest of us returning to university. This is both a familiar return and an exciting new start, so embrace the apprehension, uncertainty, exhilaration and anticipation all at once.
A friend recently said that although they had resolved to become more organised and hardworking this year, they were also sure they would fail to keep to these resolutions – perhaps there really is nothing wrong with this after all.
And even as I write this in my half-unpacked room back in college, the sun is setting over the lawns and trees outside my window, and the sky is steeped in shades of blue and pink (made all the more romantic by Spotify’s “Your Favourite Coffeehouse” playlist) – if this doesn’t feel like a promising beginning, then I don’t know what does.