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'Life as a(n)...'
Have you wondered what it's like to be a specific type of student at Cambridge University? Our students tell you about their experiences.
Click for life as a(n)...
|... disabled student||... international student|
|... ethnic minority student||.... mature student|
|... student parent||... student coming out of care|
|... student with caring responsibilities||... LGBT+ student|
Before I got to Cambridge I had a million and one worries about coming, but along with all of the usual "am I really good enough?" that just about everyone was panicking over, I was really nervous about starting out at university with a wheelchair in tow. I had so many questions, mostly about "silly little things" that I didn't want to ask in case they seemed trivial, but as soon as I got here I realised I was worrying over nothing! From the moment I arrived there were people everywhere who were more than willing to help make my transition into university life as smooth as possible – I have been completely overwhelmed by the level of support here; one of my biggest fears was that I would be seen as a "problem" or "difficult", but it has been completely the opposite.
There is no getting away from the fact that Cambridge is a very old city, and a lot of the buildings are listed and definitely weren't designed with accessibility in mind, but in general I have found that where there is a will, there's a way, and with support from a variety of sources, we have made a variety of small changes (and a few bigger ones!) that have made my life a lot easier and will hopefully benefit future students too. I have been really impressed by how willing people are to listen to my suggestions and try to work with me to get the best possible results – it's been a learning curve for everyone involved, but some of the solutions people have come up with have been really quite ingenious!
Of course, Cambridge isn't all about the work (well, as far as I'm concerned anyway!) because a major part of going to university is about the experience as a whole - moving away from home, having more freedom and making the most of all of the wonderful opportunities that are available to you as a student – and I'm pleased to say that just about every opportunity IS available to you! I was so scared that I would get here and not be able to make any new friends or be able to join in with all of the things people were doing, but (yet again!) I shouldn't have worried – I've been able to do everything I've wanted to, from going to balls and debates at the Union, to running activity mornings for children with the Cambridge University Scout and Guide Club. I've been punting, played in orchestras, had DVD nights in with the girls – you name it, I've done it, and half the fun of a night out is discovering the (usually somewhat hidden!) step free access to whichever club or bar it is you've chosen to go to (and you get to skip the queues too…). Every person, club and society I have come across has been as accommodating as possible – I'm even hoping to try out coxing next year which I never would have thought I'd be able to do!
On a more practical note though, a few bits of advice: my number one tip is plan ahead (or at least try to anyway!). No matter how supportive people are willing to be, it is always easier to have things in place before you need them. In general, people say colleges don't vary that much, and to a certain extent that's true, but I think for students with disabilities, it is well worth doing your research as early as possible and talking to a variety of people within colleges that you are interested in to make sure that it will suit your needs and that you will be happy and comfortable living there for three (or more!) years. For me, my college is a couple of minutes away from the vast majority of my lectures which is a big benefit for me, and it's also right by the bus station too so I can get further afield very easily if I need to. Different people need different things, so I would advise you to make contact early – the staff at all of the colleges are lovely and will be more than willing to help and point you in the right direction so don't be shy, they are there to help! It is also worth making sure you apply for all of the things you are entitled to (for example the Disabled Students' Allowance) in good time so you can get any equipment before the start of term, but don't worry if the forms seem overwhelming, because the Disability Resource Centre are always on hand to help with anything, no matter how big or small! If you declare a disability at any point during the application process, you will be allocated a disability adviser who will be your point of contact while at university. They know everything about everything, and completely understand the challenges that studying with a disability can bring – and they are happy to help with all the little "niggly" things as well as the more obvious ones to make sure you can have the best possible experience while you are here.
Overall, I was fully prepared for Cambridge to be a challenge in terms of my disability. I had a vision of an out-dated place where no one was willing to make changes and my disability would be seen as an obstacle – I'm pleased to say that Cambridge has completely failed to meet my expectations!
International students comprise only a small proportion of the student population at undergraduate level, at just over 10%. But that still means there are hundreds of others like you who might never have visited the UK before, let alone Cambridge.
There is no 'typical' lifestyle for international students given the range of backgrounds they hail from, though from my experience the most well-adjusted students seem to be those who keep a healthy balance of mixing with home students and still keep in touch with people from their own cultural backgrounds. Colleges do not make a difference at all in how you live – though some colleges accept more international students. Recently, overseas students have come predominantly from Asian countries (including myself), but this doesn't and shouldn't stop anyone from mingling with others from all different backgrounds. It's such a missed opportunity to come to the UK to study if you only hang out with people from your own background!
It can be daunting, even terrifying to come to Cambridge for the first time. I arrived a week before Freshers' Week to recover from jet-lag (having flown in from Singapore), and was worried after having arrived in my room with just a suitcase and a couple of bags. However, the university's International Office provides orientation right before Freshers' Week, and CUSU International (iCUSU) holds its own Freshers' Week for newcomers every year, so it'll be a matter of easing yourself in, rather than being thrown into the deep end. The extra week also allows you to meet other international freshers before the home students arrive. The iCUSU Fresher's Guide contains useful pieces of information on matters ranging from the weather to travel directions.
Admittedly, it takes a while to get to the British way of life, especially the weather if you come from warmer climes. Some people don't appreciate British cuisine – which, by the way, is not as bad as people make it out to be. However, if you are ever feeling homesick for home cuisine, there's no dearth of restaurants or supermarkets providing special ingredients, especially on Mill Road, just outside of the city centre.
There's a diverse range of cultural societies, ranging from religious ones, national ones to regional ones, which host events all-year round. Membership is often free or very cheap, and many people join societies representing cultures that are not their own.
Even if English isn't your first language, once you get to Cambridge, it shouldn't be a problem: Cambridge has accepted you on the basis that you are good enough to read the degree in English. But if you're not sure or unconfident, language lessons have historically been provided by the Language Centre, as well as by iCUSU, and colleges may be able provide additional support – both academic and pastoral.
All in all, there's no need to feel intimidated if you are coming as an international student. International students tend to do well in exams, and contribute a lot to the university's diversity, so the best way to enjoy the time here is to appreciate that and be active in the wider university community.
Finally, a word of caution: if you need to apply for a student visa, do it quickly and leave plenty of time. The university's International Office gets extremely busy over the summer as it deals with thousands of visa applications, and may not be able to deal with you quickly if a problem occurs.
I went to a very multicultural school, in a very multicultural city-nothing like what I thought Cambridge would be like. I had no idea what to expect when I came, but after 4 years here I can honestly say that I've never had a problem while I've been here.
All of my friends are from entirely different backgrounds-and for some, I am the first Indian friend they've had. People here to be very open minded, we're able to laugh, make jokes and rip on each other over our differences. I can't say I've found any difference to my student experience because of my ethnic minority than to anyone I know. Everyone here is from such a wide range of countries and backgrounds, that it doesn't seem to get noticed.
There are religious and cultural societies, to offer support to people who want to find something particular, give them a community from a similar background or a group to worship with. They hold events throughout the year for people to socialise at. As well, there is the Black and Minority Ethnic Campaign, which is a student-run organisation, part of the Students' Union, supporting students and running events. This can cover everything from finding specialist foods, holding events for festivals or making networks between students.
I was mixed in with all sorts of people from from different backgrounds from day one, and I loved it. In the first few weeks, I celebrated Diwali with the people I lived with on my corridor. Part of what has made my university experience so great has been mixing with people from so many different cultures and backgrounds.
Coming to university as a mature student might be quite scary since in the public mindset 'the right time' to be a university student is immediately after school, i.e. when you're 18 years old. However, once you come here you realise that there is no such thing as a universally right time. As a member of a mature students' college I have met many outstanding people. Every one of us has very different life experiences but we are all united by our passion towards the subjects we study. We can all testify that the years spent between school and university allowed us to appreciate our time here more and possibly benefit more from the whole experience.
You are probably worried about being the odd one out in the midst of an overwhelmingly younger student population. These were some of my worries too when I first came to Cambridge but I quickly realised that everybody was equally eager to make friends and not be left out. I easily made friends with mature students from my College and with undergraduates and graduates from non-mature colleges. Age difference was never an obstacle, but if you are still worried, don't despair. Being a member of a mature students' college means that it is easier to make new friends with people who are in the same boat as you.
There are ample opportunities to have a blooming social life during your time here whatever your interests. Cambridge Graduate Union (a student body) organises many events for mature and graduate students throughout the year plus there are also many University and College clubs and societies which you can join to meet new people and enjoy yourself. Hence, rather than pondering over what to do you will more likely be dwelling over which activities to exclude from the massive list of things you would like to get involved with.
As a mature student, you are likely to have a significant other and you might be thinking how your relationship is going to work during the university years. As somebody in a long term relationship, I had the same question on my mind. The important thing to realise is that Colleges are not isolated institutions – you are free to have guests and your partner can definitely come over. Many of the University social events are also open to non-University members so you can go out and have fun together just as you did before coming to Cambridge. Introduce your partner to your university friends, make them part of the circle so that they do not feel excluded from your life. Your university years can be a great experience for both of you.
Finally, some inspirational advice – do not let any fears get in the way between you and the opportunity to explore the subject that you are passionate about. You live only once so take the chance when you get it.
Coming to university as a student parent means you have a fundamentally different experience to your peers. However, that doesn't mean it isn't an enjoyable and life changing experience like it is for almost everyone else.
There are a number of things that I was worried about when I started my first year here including:
- Making friends
- Finding somewhere to live
- Work load
- My son adapting to a new life
Starting university as a student parent means that you are probably used to the whole multi-tasking, juggling a million things at once, being ridiculously organised thing. The work load here is huge, there really is no denying it. As a Natural Scientist, I had between 20-30 hours contact time this year and did pretty much all of my work in the evenings after my son went to sleep. Having less time than a lot of my friends meant in order to have any sort of social life, I had to be incredibly disciplined but being so allowed me to go out as well as being a mum.
The financial support at university is fantastic. Cambridge University offers people on low incomes a generous non repayable bursary each year. I receive the full amount of this, and the other financial support provided by Student Finance means I have more than enough money to live on and it's definitely one less thing to worry about.
My college didn't own any flats suitable for me so I decided to live in housing owned by the University of Cambridge. This helped massively in building a good support network around me which I knew would be really important living by myself. It has worked out really well - me and my neighbour get on pretty well and often swap babysitting so the other one can go out. And all of my friends know about my son and love it when he is around - we often go to college for events such as brunch and pancakes. People tend to be amazed if a little scared at the juggling that goes on but have genuinely been incredibly supportive and open. There aren't many undergraduate student parents at Cambridge but the support is still available - you just have to ask!
One of the main challenges of being a parent at Cambridge is the time. There is only so much juggling you can do. I often feel like I hardly see my son during term time- I get back around six and need him in bed by around eight so I can work and then there are Saturday lectures too. There's no easy solution to this and it's definitely a balancing act but I have found that making sure I spend a lot of time with him during the holidays (which are incredibly long) and having that occasional late night, especially in the summer, has helped a lot.
Trying to balance a degree, having a child and friends is far from easy but I most definitely do not regret coming here. I have had the most amazing year, met some great people, massively enjoy living independently and I love my course and my college.
For more from Megan, check out her blog.
Being a gay woman in Cambridge has not been a problem for me. In fact, the amount of LGBT+ people and things that exist in Cambridge has far exceeded anything I would have expected to find in university. When I applied here I hoped that the place would be liberal enough so that I wouldn't have to feel singled out. Not only was that true for me, but there are also so many other out people that I could never feel like 'the only one'.
Cambridge isn't in as big a vacuum as you might have heard it being described. LGBT+ people can face prejudice in everyday life, and sometimes prejudice is brought into Cambridge. For example, someone that I know was really scared of opening up to his friendship group when he thought he was bisexual. Nothing bad would have happened to him, but he may not have felt quite as comfortable with them after he disclosed this secret. Luckily, there were plenty of other people around to whom he could eventually feel comfortable coming out.
But, usually, I think that Cambridge is quite a haven for its LGBT+ students. I am out to everybody in Cambridge, whereas I'm only out to a few of my family members at home. It's nice to be in a place where you can walk hand-in-hand with your same-sex partner on the street and not feel too self-conscious.
It's also really easy to meet other LGBT+ people in Cambridge, too. CUSU LGBT is the official campaign/network for LGBT+ students, which is part of the Students' Union. They have hundreds of members, and you can join a tonne of mailing lists, including one for self-defining women, one for grads, one for trans people and a big one that tells everyone all of the LGBT+-related events happening that week. When you're a fresher you can also sign up to get an 'LGBT parent', who is another LGBT+ student in Cambridge with whom you can make friends, and who will help you to ingratiate yourself into the large and diverse community here.
There are lots of things organised for LGBT+ students, like talks, socials and club nights. It's probably not enough to pack your calendar, but I don't think you need to restrict yourself to just LGBT+ events anyway. I come from London and, in comparison... well, they're incomparable. There is a weekly LGBT+ club night run by the Students' Union, but there are no dedicated gay venues in the venue as the city is quite small. But if you're from a very small or rural area, Cambridge probably won't disappoint, and London is an hour away by train anyway. Cambridge University has made it high into Stonewall's Workplace Equality Index and their Gay By Degree reviews of universities. It's a great place to be if you're a gay, lesbian or bisexual and you want to feel comfortable away from home.
- Taz, Politics, Psychology and Sociology, Selwyn College