I’ll admit it — I experienced a bit of a culture shock when I arrived in the United Kingdom. Everything seemed to go wrong on my first Saturday morning in my new home at the University of Cambridge. I tried to straighten my hair but only succeeded in blowing up my electrical adaptor. I attempted to get my nightly caffeine fix after dinner only to find that the coffee shops all close by 5 p.m. My new life as a posh Cambridge student didn’t seem to be going as planned.
Although after that day I began to have more success with navigating the new culture, it is more difficult than you’d think to adjust to “quid” instead of dollars. Even though we all speak English, I still sometimes feel like I am hitting a language barrier when I encounter words like “minging” and “slag” (roughly translated, “very ugly” and “slut”) in everyday conversation.
College junior Anjali Salvador described just a few cultural differences that tripped her up: encountering her first “Yorkshire pudding” — more like a turnover than what we traditionally think of as pudding — and discovering that Cambridge college dances are called “bops.”
Salvador also revealed that she arrived at her room in Corpus Christi College to discover that the name plaque above her neighbor’s door said “J. Snape.”
Indeed, as far as Cambridge’s social structure goes, Hogwarts is the closest parallel I can think of. Cambridge consists of no less than 31 colleges, and each college is a community in itself. You live in your college, you eat in your college, you participate in activities — like sports teams and musical groups — through your college and you hang out at your college bar, café or junior parlor.
In fact, you can find students at their college bar at all hours of the day, any day of the week. They might be reading the paper, drinking a beer or just hanging out.
College junior Eric Merron explained that the drinking culture at Cambridge has a lot more to do with social unity than it does at American universities. At Penn, he said, the culture is to get as drunk as you can in as little time as possible on the weekends after devoting most of your time during the week to studying.
Brown University junior Drew Harris agreed, saying that the relaxed drinking culture initially took some getting used to.
“I think it’s close to the way American universities would be if drinking were legal,” he said. “There’s a big emphasis on bringing a bottle of wine to formal hall or getting a beer at the parlor.”
Many of my American peers and I have also had to adjust academically. Cambridge operates on the tutorial system: every student has a supervisor for each course they take and works independently with that supervisor during regular meetings called “supervisions.”
Lectures are an optional addition to the coursework assigned during supervisions, so you can choose to skip that 9 a.m. lecture if you don’t think it will be relevant to the work you are doing that week or if you are just plain hungover.
Many of my peers enjoy their newfound academic freedom.
Merron, for instance, is currently taking a course on macroeconomic principles. Instead of writing papers weekly, Merron opted to write a longer dissertation on international trade law. So far, Merron said he has received no grades, but he finds his supervisions much more intense than the average class at Penn because he has to constantly be thinking critically.
And while Merron’s course at Cambridge is structured according to his individual interests, his supervisor lets him know when he needs to work harder to understand a certain subject.
“Apparently I didn’t answer well enough on his questions about the gold standard,” Merron said. His supervisor promptly told him to “go write a five page paper on why Nixon went off the gold standard” in addition to his usual workload.
Harris, who is taking a course on the history of political thought, said his supervisor assigns him one paper per week on a subject of his choice and doesn’t even ask to see the paper before the supervision.
“It’s a lot different from studying in the U.S. because you’re expected to find all the answers by yourself,” Harris said. “They will never tell you that you need to read pages X to Y in this book ... it’s up to you to search through the library.”
Daniela Passolt, from Pembroke College’s Office of International Programmes, explained that American students sometimes struggle with the idea of academic independence. At Cambridge, students have more time to explore and “develop intellectual curiosity,” she said.
The downside to this system, however, is that students need to develop a stronger sense of self-discipline and efficient daily structure, she said.
“Students will come to me in the beginning and say, ‘look, I feel like there is so much empty space in my weekly timetable, how can I fill it?’” she said, adding that she usually advises students to sit down and structure each day to make time for academic pursuit, exercise and social activities.
And after a semester full of open schedules and academic freedom, Merron said he expects “a huge culture shock” when he gets back to Penn.
“We’re going to go back to the stress of examinations and getting jobs,” he said, “whereas here it’s a huge break from reality.”
While Merron added that he probably thrives more at Penn because of the structure of the classes and the motivation that comes with constant pressure, Harris said he prefers the Cambridge academic method.
“It’s not the same kind of motivation,” he said. “I’m not thinking about my resume, I’m just trying to do things that are rewarding.”Comments powered by Disqus
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