The first time I was away from home overnight, I was nine. It was a four-day-long school trip to an outdoor centre in West Wales and I loved it. Being a fairly adventurous child obsessed with the outdoors, a few days of high ropes climbing, muddy assault courses and swimming in the sea was a dream. As someone who rarely went on extracurricular trips, the next time I went away was at the ripe old age of 14. This time, it was a touristy three-day trip to London with the school music department, consisting of visits to Madame Tussauds, the London Eye and West End shows. I was, and still am, in love with London as a city, and, being at the height of my mid-teen’s musical theatre obsession, the trip was one of the most exciting things I had done.
At 17, I ventured off on a two-week trip around Italy with my two best friends from school. It was a fairly typical post-A-level trip, but entailed a number of first-time experiences for me: the first time leaving the UK, the first time travelling by plane, the first time going away with friends, and even silly things like the first time dealing with a foreign currency. All three of us were completely responsible for ourselves. Parts of it were incredible – people watching in cafes around the beautiful Florence, proper Italian gelato, coastal bike rides through the picturesque Cinque Terre landscape – but I was riddled with anxiety about all the things that could go wrong. I spent most of the two weeks convinced that one of us would be mugged or lose our passports at any moment, trapping us in this foreign land for eternity.
Accompanied by a bout of food poisoning for one friend and sunstroke for the other within the first few days, I was completely overwhelmed. As my Gran told me when I returned home, I coped. I hadn’t reveled in my first proper taste of freedom as most others my age would have; but more that I survived some sort of ordeal.
So, when I set off for Cambridge having only been away from home a handful of (successful) times, I was nothing short of petrified. The four-hour car journey up was a bit of a farce, characterised by my Mum continually having to skip past songs she thought would remind me of home (what were we expecting when it was our family playlist?), me sitting in the backseat with a relentless trickle of tears running down my face, and my Dad becoming quietly, but progressively, more agitated by my unwavering displays of emotion. By the time we had arrived at Churchill and were in the midst of unpacking my lovely new room, my Dad had become so fed up with my turning on the waterworks every three minutes that he took himself off for a solo 30 minute exploration of the College. I don’t blame him in the slightest.
Inarguably, the nature of the university application process does not lend itself to anxious fledglings like myself. The fact that applicants are left in the dark about whether or not they have met their offers until mid-August leaves a mere few weeks to prepare both mentally and practically for some of the most important and formative years of your life.
It is not just a case of being away from family. I was lucky enough to have a brother, sister and cousin all studying in the city at the same time, and I was still overwhelmed by the hordes of new faces that filled this alien place.
What’s more, I was about to spend three years studying a completely new subject whilst having to be completely responsible for myself, my time and my money. Everything about it was just so unfamiliar.
Of course, some find this far easier than others. I arrived in Cambridge as a fresher only a few weeks after turning 18, and I realise that I quite possibly found the transition more difficult than some of my peers. Having said that, I would be hard pushed to find anyone else who finds the whole moving-to-uni situation a complete breeze. I strongly believe that anyone who presents themselves to find it as such is putting on a complete, albeit convincing, front.
What is also true, though, is that people react to this same nerve-racking situation in different ways upon arrival. One school friend of mine attempted to recreate the exact room she had at her family house, in an attempt to make university feel as homely and familiar as possible. Another just brought a small number of creature comforts with her, namely a vast collection of photos, the same washing powder her family always used, and all the Harry Potter books, despite having no intention of reading them.
My attempt to settle in was less about what I brought with me, but more about what I did once I arrived. I, somewhat unintentionally, created a ‘routine’ that was not dissimilar to my days at home, and stuck to it for the first few months. I would eat the same cereal for breakfast (Balance, Sainsbury’s rip off of Special K – would recommend), I rang my parents at the same times during the week, I stumbled to Cindies every Wednesday night, I went to Mexican night in hall every Saturday, and ended every day, regardless of whether it was 11pm or 5am, with an episode of Friends. This may seem silly to some, and by second year I had completely let this ‘routine’ slide, actually finding myself a lot happier for it, but it was what worked for me at the time. Then, as the terms went on, I started to truly enjoy the freedom of uni life, and as much as I loved returning home during the holidays, I found myself missing the independence that being at Cambridge afforded.
Embarking now into the territory of a Cambridge finalist (*internal panic rising*), I can safely say a number of things. Firstly, Churchill really does feel like a second home. I’m not going to pretend that the short eight-week terms are always rosy and full of laughter, gaiety and the joys of spring, but I truly do feel settled and happy. That is not something that 18-year-old fresher Bridget, who was away from everything she knew and, as a result, a little more than a pile of nerves, would ever have thought possible.
Secondly, I have become more and more aware that being as anxious and homesick as I was during the first few weeks at Cambridge only highlights how happy, safe and comfortable my life at home was. So really, how lucky am I?
Finally, despite all being in the same boat, every single fresh-faced first year arrives at Cambridge feeling slightly different, and every single one reacts to the strange new university environment in quite a profoundly different way. More importantly, none of these ways of adjusting is the ‘right’ way. They say comparison achieves nothing for a good reason. It may take some one week to settle in, others the whole of Michaelmas term, and others the entire first year or longer. And that is more than okay.