International Cambridge

6 December 2012

Coming to university can be unnerving – so can moving to a new country. Hilary Samuels finds out what it’s like to do both by talking to Cambridge’s international freshers…

Being a fresher in Cambridge is undeniably quite a scary experience. On top of the usual university worries about living alone, making friends as quickly as possible, and learning to cook, the intimidation factor of the work at Cambridge presents a unique challenge in itself. Everyone here has been at least slightly anxious about a lecture that went completely over their head, or an essay that simply won’t get off the ground.

For the 1,200 international students currently studying at Cambridge these troubles are amplified by the ever-present knowledge that they can’t escape ‘the bubble’ for the weekend whenever they choose. If anything goes wrong, a Skype conference with mum (carefully scheduled to work around the time difference) is the only option, complete with pixelated images and often a poor internet connection.

While everyone else is going to Cindies, international students are in meetings with banks, dealing with visas and shopping for climate-appropriate clothing. On top of the tribulations of settling in at university, international students have to deal with the additional hassle of settling into a new country.

On the other hand, perhaps being an international student has its advantages. There is arguably a sense of solidarity within the international student community (which makes up 7% of our total student population), which certainly helped me; allowed me to properly enjoy fresher’s week!

I am British and a ‘home student’ but have lived overseas in the Asia-Pacific region for almost my entire life. I’ve had an amazing time as a freshers so far, and having an interesting back-story does at least provide a good conversation starter.

However, there have undeniably been a few culture shocks: to someone used to temperatures in excess of 30 degrees who has never owned a decent coat, finding myself facing the blasting winds of Kings Parade was a genuine challenge! I am still confused as to how a public school is actually entirely the opposite of its name and I missed out on all the British kids’ TV shows which everyone seems to spend so much time reminiscing about. Even something as simple as buying a coffee is a strangely jarring experience, when you’re confronted with a completely alien set of coins. However, having been to a British school and with family in the UK, I wasn’t completely new to the British way of life, so I spoke to some ‘real’ international students.

The first question I wanted to ask an international student is ‘Why Cambridge?’ Looking at some university league tables gives one obvious answer, but more often than not, there is more to it than that. An international student has had the opportunity to apply to any university in the world and has narrowed it down to the UK, and then to Cambridge. We know it isn’t the weather that attracted them here, but Cambridge’s reputation, mythos, and proximity to London certainly helps.

Interestingly enough, however, most international students mention summer camps or trips to Cambridge where they attended taster lectures as the reason why they decided to apply. For these students this may have involved a long-haul flight and gives an indication of the commitment and level of thought that goes into the decision. “I actually attended a summer school in Oxford, and fell in love with it,” said one student from Switzerland, studying History, “but in the end I chose Cambridge because I wanted to be taught by the professors here. It was a decision based equally on my heart and my head.”

One of the main problems that came up frequently when speaking to international students was the administration and bureaucracy they have to contend with. Colleges do a great deal to help international freshers wade through the paperwork of visas and finance, but Pia Salter from Puerto Rico, studying Classics, even said that the banks ‘made me jump through hoops like a trained tiger to get a bank account!’

To add to this, mobile phone companies require your bank statements to set up a contract! Many end up in the awkward situation of asking their new acquaintances to shell out to text them on their foreign mobile – oddly enough, this proves not to be the best way of making friends! Understandably, banks require adequate proof of residence in the UK, but sorting all of this out during freshers week can be a nightmare.

In addition, Patricia Perez-Simpson, an English student from Belgium, told me how meeting students during international freshers week meant she bonded with international students before everyone else, and hence found it more difficult to make friends with the home students. Of course, it is not necessarily a bad thing to make good friends who understand your experiences, but there is the danger that home students will be apprehensive about going up to an already close-knit group of friends to introduce themselves. This can be especially problematic for students whose first language is not English; the temptation to stick with those speaking their own language is very strong.

Even foreign language speakers whose impressive grasp of English allows them to express themselves fluently can occasionally find themselves puzzled. A lot of British slang is fairly bizarre, and can come across as completely illogical at times. This was supported by the students I spoke to; Pia mentioned that the use of the word ‘pants’ to mean underwear has been confusing, as in America it means trousers! Another student told me she had been caught out by the phrase ‘whack it to me’; rather than understanding it to mean ‘throw it to me’, she took it to mean ‘hit me with it’, with obvious results.

In addition to this, the difference between words like ‘wreath’ and ‘wrath’ can be confusing, and it must be slightly unnerving to come to a new country and hear phrases like ‘don’t get your knickers in a twist’, and explaining the word ‘chav’ to an international student can be very entertaining. Even the word ‘uni’ is unusual for some international students, whose understanding of ‘university’ as opposed to ‘college’ is informed by American English.

However, the overall impressions international students have of Cambridge from their first two weeks has been positive. The inclusive nature of Cambridge appears to have ensured that most have enjoyed their first experiences of this university. Although one student described the English accents as ‘weird’, this did not stop her from having a good time.

Ironically, Patricia Perez-Simpson said that she did not miss her family more for their being in another country, showing how the issue of homesickness is oftentimes more personal than geographical. That said, there is clearly a significant difference between having family a train ride away and plane flight away, and this does give rise to some anxiety about emergency situations. According to one international student, “the most worrying moment is when you first arrive and don’t know where to go – standing in front of those imposing college gates, my instinct was to run back to Heathrow and fly home! Things become easier as you settle in.”

To conclude, it appears to me that the experience of being an international fresher in Cambridge is difficult – the traditional anxieties of beginning university are compounded by the additional hindrances of distance, language, and cultural difference. However, this does not mean the experience is any less fun than being a home student. There are obvious obstacles to overcome, but in most cases these do not seem to impact on international students’ ability to enjoy Cambridge life.