The University of Closed Doors

Catherine Pushnaya 20 October 2021
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

I had dreamed of Cambridge since high school. I knew I would apply over and over again until I succeeded, and to my surprise, I was accepted – both times. I still remember the precious conditional offer for the undergraduate program – the offer which I had to turn down because of lack of funding. However, when it came to my experiences as a fully supported Master’s student four years later, no leap of imagination could bridge the gap between my expectations and reality.

We all know the story. Trouble with international flights, long queues at the borders, no agreement on vaccinations, colleges closed to everyone and everything in a social apocalypse. The first time I tried to fly to Great Britain from the US, my flight was cancelled without prior notice. The second time I flew from Russia, and I got stuck for the whole night in a connection in Vienna, only to find myself studying from my room upon my return. For many students, as for me, the whole year has been nothing quite like the quintessential Cambridge experience, but I think there is more than bitterness to it; there is much to be learnt from the circumstances we found ourselves in.

Some programmes in mathematics remained at least partly in person, with Trinity students enjoying supervisions in their majestic court. However, most of the subjects I took were taught completely online. The first time I visited the faculty was during exam period. Yet despite the feeling of isolation with which it is often associated, I see online learning as a great advance. While the in-person element is surely important in supervisions, or, in other places, seminars, I do not see why lectures cannot stay in the realm of online learning forever; it saves everyone time, especially if the content does not change year by year.

Last year, it would not matter much if I had stayed in my home country or in Cambridge – many of the friends I made during Michaelmas I never met again. Almost everyone in my life had transformed into a tamagotchi in my phone to be fed with stories, stories about how nothing happens in the Great Foggy Country of Closed Doors. Do you know what happens to a motivated Cambridge student when they have nothing to do? For my part, I have found time to develop my interest in neural networks and probability.

Having no Cambridge experience is better than what most people had to deal with, though. A friend of mine whose family lives in Cambridge had to combine helping her parents keep their business afloat while also preparing for examinations. Everyone says Cambridge is intense; imagine the madmen who also have life outside of university! The pandemic is a reminder of how brittle the benefits of civilisation actually are. Even when you are a student at a nice university and you have everything coming for you, who knows what might happen and what you might suddenly have to deal with? We have to be prepared, but not in the sense of frantically buying out toilet paper or acquiring the unique skill of grooming our whining enough for it to be published in Camfess (or, in my case, TCS) – we have to be smart about building our civilisation. Would you trust people who run the Union to run a country?

The new academic year has brought some awakening. I have signed up for all the freshers’ events, and will certainly attend more formals than the three I had last year. I sincerely discourage all other bitter pandemic freshers (preshers?) from following suit; do not take my place! I am joking, of course; let us meet there and become friends.

I still remember how I first came to this wonderful place with my mother, back in 2015. I sat in front of King’s College Chapel – yes, because I craved the most unoriginal Cambridge experience – and ate a pink chocolate from Hotel Chocolat. It was the sweetest thing ever, the pinnacle of creation, and everything was full of sun and bliss. I imagined how I would come there again and sit on the lawn while reading a book under the cold but welcoming sun.

I could not do that, alas, because I wound up in Lucy Cavendish, and not in the place that welcomed me initially. King’s College remained close in theory, but very far in practice – the metal door in the Backs always slammed shut before my face, and Downing porters being somewhat incensed when I accidentally found myself locked inside the college. I still think that the sweet chocolate dream is out there – but I never got close to it, as if I made a deal with the devil to study here (like some people would suspect), and, as devils usually do, it decided to give me a misshaped version of my wish in place of the real thing.

But… it is still there. I encourage all other students who had the same incomplete experience not to be bitter about it. Whenever you choose to return, even as a tourist, Cambridge will welcome you back; most societies welcome alumni, too, and the Cambridge Union is offering a unique membership discount for those who had started their studies last year, and I know I just attacked them a few paragraphs past, but whatever. When life gives you virtual lemons, you make virtual lemonade – even on a lockdown, Cambridge has proven more precious and dear to me than any other academic institution I know.