Nilufa Ahmed is a second-year Geographer at Girton. Please contact her if you have any more questions about Geography, Girton or anything else!
As the first Saturday of October soon arrives, another tradition is about to commence yet again amongst the century old colleges of Cambridge. Freshers from across the country and globe will be pouring in. Each and every one of them so different from each other, but united in the well-known common feelings of curiosity, eagerness and anxiety. As colleges mow the lawn and prepare for the early 7am matriculation photo, JCRs are endlessly working away for what some may find a hectic freshers week. A year on I decide to look back and reflect on my journey made throughout first year and take on ‘Cambridge while Muslim’.
October 3rd 2015: it was moving day. The big day had finally arrived, when I move out of my cosy two-up two-down home in East London to the daunting new world that awaited in Cambridge. As the car pulled up in front of the 146 year old building (more so a castle) of Girton, I pondered to myself: did I make the right choice? For this city lover, the transition from having the convenience of a London lifestyle, to a much more rural lifestyle at Girton, certainly came with its challenges but was nonetheless worth it. Like many this was my first time living on my own, having a room to myself and having complete responsibility (and thus accountability) for myself and my surroundings. Naturally I was scared, even more frightened at the concept of being lonely and not making any friends. And unlike so many, being a BME and Muslim student presented itself with another layer of complications.
From trying to participate in Freshers’ Week activities despite not drinking, to grappling with the concepts of formal halls, and the new attire of wearing a gown, pretty much everything at first seemed alien to me. The first weeks were definitely an eye-opener to how different I was. You immediately notice how things around you are different from the upbringing you had. From trying to escape awkward situations where you refuse a glass of wine at a formal to then having to answer several questions as to why on earth would you turn down free wine! Or painstakingly requesting the vegetarian option, knowing eventually you’ll end up ordering a takeaway with Halal options in order to go to bed on a full stomach. It was these trivial things for some that caused hurdles for many Muslims students. Despite this, like so many of us Muslim students here, you’ll eventually pick up, if not create your own hacks to deal with these crazy but unique traditions.
It’s easy to cycle into central Cambridge and notice how you may stand out. Like me you may be the only Muslim or even minority in your course. You may occasionally find yourself stuck in an uncomfortable discussion, and the range of conversations, debates, discussions, whatever you consider them to be, at an institution like Cambridge can vary drastically. Some memories of my first year include both before and after a lecture being asked my opinion on 9/11 (for those wondering how this came up, the module at the time was Geopolitics) to having to deal with people repeatedly asking me where I’m from, and not being satisfied with the answer of East London – Newham to be precise. At times it is some of these encounters that I wish I was better equipped for. But of course, they are not constant occurrences. If anything I realised coming to Cambridge, having spent the vast majority of my life in an ethnically diverse borough, the people here aren’t necessarily ignorant as often perceived, few are just culturally naive – something which can be erased through friendship. Importantly, going to Cambridge is a learning experience for oneself too – you too get the chance to learn about other cultures. One of my closest Geography friends came from a rural corner of Scotland. I was surprised (and disappointed) by my own lack of knowledge of the unique Scottish heritage. But through many hours of tea and oatcakes (freshly made by her mum) a beautiful friendship blossomed that involved the exchange of our differing cultures and religious beliefs.
So far, I’ve depicted Cambridge to seem pretty negative but rest assured it’s actually not. Beside the difference in skin colour, you eventually realise that you do fit in, into whatever this endless debate of the ‘ideal Cambridge student’ is. I realised very quickly into my Cambridge experience that so many are going through the exact same thought process as I was: ‘Do I fit in? Would anyone want to be my friend?’ Furthermore, be you brown or non-brown, Muslim or not, everyone inevitably felt homesick at one point. So the saying that ‘everyone is in the same boat’ is true. As cliché as it may sound, you’re not alone. And on days when I did feel alone, I always had a friend to talk to at Girton. What made Cambridge so much better was the friends that I made through societies such as ISoc, BanglaSoc and PakSoc. The point to take from here I guess is to not feel excluded or that you can’t relate to anyone because you’re different. You’ve gotten into Cambridge, and the first stage of that was proving in your interview that you not only have the desired grades, but the keenness to learn. Everyone that gets in here has demonstrated the same, thus despite our differences everyone will find someone of like-minded interest. So if anything lead by example; embrace your differences, flourish with your differences and others will soon follow pursuit.
Living at Girton placed me in a situation where I got the best of both worlds. I was able to have friendship circles both in Girton and in town. Girton, being so far out, meant I had a very tight-knit friendship with my Girtonians. What made it better was the ability to have another group of friends that I met through ISoc and other societies. And I totally believe it is possible to balance and maintain friendship circles within college and outside. Sometimes if you’re lucky like I was, maintaining a balance isn’t always needed, if both your friendship circles are also friends with one another.
Now a year on I wish I was more prepared; I wish I did more research into Cambridge before I came. But at the same time I think being unprepared for what uni life holds is the very essence of what the ‘uni experience’ is meant to be. It’s okay to struggle with the course. It’s okay to not know what the difference between a tutor and a DoS (Director of Studies, Cambridge love their abbreviations) is. It’s absolutely acceptable to be confused on that first lecture. It’s fine if you still struggle with note taking (I still do) or have no clue how to use the library system. It’s also okay if you make mistakes, we all do along the way; the key is to learn from them. And it’s absolutely 100 percent normal to be different. So expect to struggle waking up to those 9 a.m.’s, cycling in the rain, hail and wind, expect to be questioning your course choice, feeling out of place or unsure about who you are and who you’re friends are (even a year on too). Expect that you will notice that you are the only brown, black, ginger, blonde or any other x, y and z at your college. Expect all of the above and more, except don’t expect that you’re alone (now that’s a tongue twister!).
If there’s one thing first year has taught me, it’s that I’ve learnt to be very comfortable in my own skin, accepting the fact that each day I evolve and improve. So be comfortable being different at Cambridge. Being different is good. Because in reality at Cambridge you can be different and the same at the same time, likewise you can be Cambridge while Muslim too.