by Sanaa, a second year studying veterinary medicine
My story, like all stories, is a bit different. I took a ‘Gap Year’ before coming to Cambridge, and so I had a lot of time to take a break and build up to the excitement that is starting university. As someone who comes from the London borough of Harrow, one of the most religiously diverse boroughs, it might seem daunting not only coming to Cambridge, but starting a course that is not known for being incredibly diverse- wherever you might go! However, this is where the difference starts to become more…different. Since I was becoming so used to the idea that my course may not have as many Muslims or people who identify as BME (and I had been getting used to this idea for at least one or two years after having been on open days and interviews), I had decided a long time ago that it didn’t matter and that it wasn’t going to affect me, because I have been wanting to study veterinary medicine since I was a small kid. So, after making Facebook (just for uni life) and joining group chats for my college and societies and course, I began to get excited. People, at the end of the day, are just that – people. Everyone, despite their backgrounds and ethnicities, is just looking to make friends and find true ones. So my first tip (you can take many from this post) is to keep an open mind.
When I joined Facebook, one of the first groups that I remember joining and being added to was ISoc. It was so exciting to see just how many Muslims there are in Cambridge, because you forget that it’s not just the people in your year, or just in your college or even course. But all the Muslims in all years, from all courses and all colleges! I soon found out what a huge community there is here, and began to feel more settled at once.
Fast forward to freshers’ week and moving in, and I had met my neighbours and most of my floor in my accommodation. I was blessed that they were all (mostly) lovely. Even more overwhelming was that as I was moving in, my parents bumped into some Muslim parents- right in front of my staircase’s building! I ran up to meet their daughter, who is now one of my closest college friends. We ended up having a good handful of Muslim girls in my year, which is a blessing in itself, and with kind words from other older Muslim students from my college, I was starting to feel at home.
There were a few drinking events in the week, but at the same time, just as many that weren’t. I was happily surprised by just how many non-Muslims did not drink, and so my experience, thankfully, was quite a chilled and positive one, as people respected my choices. Whilst many others bought clubbing wristbands for a full week, I decided not to and this did not leave me feeling left out. Funnily enough, I heard from many how they did not go out much, or how some hadn’t even used their wristband despite buying it. It is these little things that showed me that just because we think everyone else is doing something and we’ll miss out on so much if we don’t do one thing, often that is hardly the case and we just don’t know it because of assumptions.
I think it is so important to remember that university is a BIG place. There are so many people- too many people- for you to ever feel like you won’t have any friends. There are endless societies, sports clubs and events that you can join or go to that could leave you with people that, months later, you can call close friends. (Yes there will also be lots of stifling small talk, but that’s life, and believe me you’ll find friends where the conversation just flows). A few significant events that I went to during freshers’ and first term were hosted by societies such as ISoc, PakSoc and BanglaSoc. ISoc actually has a freshers’ fortnight, so there are meet-ups and events for two weeks. I went to a sister’s chill evening and then many more throughout the year from there, and my first ‘event’ that I went to was actually Friday Jummah prayers. This is a beautiful blessing we have here because it reminds us to come together for the sake of God, and then meet all the friends that you’ve often missed seeing or haven’t had a chance to catch up with in a while. There has always been a friendly face at ISoc, and most of my good friends have been made through there; strangers I would never have even met have become friends. Charity week was also a wonderful time to meet friends whilst raising money for worthy causes, and this all culminated in the biggest charity week formal (you’ll come to know formals) in the history of Cambridge ISoc last year, with a record amount of money raised too (!) and I was so proud and pleased to have been a part of that.
ISoc continued to be a place where I strengthened friendships, and, slowly but surely, a community was being formed-one of many and one of the most precious, because it shows that if you reach out there are more people like you than you think. I was slightly apprehensive of being judged or not good enough, but I soon realised that there is no such thing. One of the most important things we can do for each other as fellow Muslims and humans is to never judge a stranger or friend, and instead lend a listening ear and give advice. From my experience, I have found this to be true.
Settling into university life is always going to be a big step. But I encourage you on four things. The first is to reach out of your comfort zone and to go to events and societies that you love. This will increase your chances of finding true friends and communities not only in college and with your course mates, but in more places than you could have known! Secondly, throughout first year you must never compare your work ethic, work and how you appear, to anyone else. You can’t know what people do or how they work when they’re alone, and you don’t need to! Thirdly, keep your dignity and self esteem close- true friends will accept you for who you are and won’t pressure you or look down on you for not going to or doing things you don’t want to do. Finally, enjoy yourself and get involved with good causes and teams. I personally loved playing netball for my college and I rowed for two terms (before the 6am starts began to get old lol) as well as other things. Your university years are full of so many opportunities and studying is only one (okay maybe significant) part of it! Cambridge for me was quite unreal because I never digested the fact that I was there quite fully. It may not be the most diverse place, but I realised that people like you and I are the reason it will become so.
You will marvel at the old castles and buildings and revel in the gorgeous autumn leaves, winter snow, spring flowers and summer skies because it is such a gorgeous place to be. I will remember the starry Ramadhan nights I was woken up by my friends in college (which was basically every day-they saved me) and our iftaars, whether it be our small ones on the balconies of college, or the bigger ones in the ISoc prayer room. I will remember working until late with friends (because I procrastinated beforehand) and I will remember how we were all so nervous at the start, but how we steadily formed friendships so soon. And in sha Allah, you will remember all this and more too, when reflecting on your first year. (Also there are 3 Muslims on my course out of like 59 of us, and I was expecting there to be none wherever I went, so this was a big deal-never lose hope!)