” I’d be very happy to [...] share what I know about this vaguely odd, but quite pleasant, place.”
These words were written to me in an email response to a request to meet with a fellow at my college at the beginning of this academic year (23/24). That college is Christ’s College Cambridge where I am studying for an MPhil* in Linguistics.
*(an unnecessary, fancy Cambridge term for a Master’s degree)
Having spent 3 months here, I believe I have to agree with the assessment stated above. Odd, for more severe reasons like the fact that I live in what is essentially a gated community (in a brand new building no less—my cohort is the first one to stay in it for a whole year) while people are sleeping rough just outside the walls and for less severe ones like biking being pretty much sown into the fabric of the student culture but the city council having still not managed to pave a single bike lane. It is odd because people here study wildly disparate things from how a specific species of fish navigate 3-dimensional space to how Thai native speakers learn grammatical future expressions in English. And because people dress up— many of them several time per week— donning long cloaks that flow after them as they walk, with an unmistakable sense of conviction, to formal hall as their heels clack intently on the tiled paths.
Cambridge and Christ’s College are also pleasant because the people here are that way. And a place like this really is its people. As a graduate student** there is no better place to experience this than at wellbeing coffee Sunday mornings and at grad hall on Tuesday nights. At wellbeing coffee, the MCR*** (Middle Combination Room) invites the graduate students at Christ’s for coffee at a new café in town every week before migrating to one of the college gardens until everyone has had their fill of social interaction after which the crowd disperses. Just last week I spent this time chatting to a PhD student about their research on the skull-formation in water- and land-fowl and how this is an interesting thing to study for evolutionary purposes because the skull is a great source of analysable features and because some of the earliest samples of bird-fossils found were actually heads!
**“graduate” meaning simply any student who has completed a bachelor’s degree—i. e. both Master’s and PhD students
***Middle Combination Room”—it is a rather complicated term that refers to several distinct but related entities but which here refers to the committee of graduate students who organise events for and works to maintain a healthy graduate student community
Grad halls are very similar to wellbeing coffee in this respect. Grad halls are formals**** which are only available to graduate students, and which take place every Tuesday evening. Grad halls also have the added feature of not requiring gowns so that people can come straight from the lab if they need to. I don’t know of many (if any?) other colleges that has a similar arrangement. At Christ’s the grad halls are even subsidised by the MCR which means that the price of attending is reduced from £12.20 to £8. Grad halls are consistently a highlight of my week. It is the perfect opportunity to catch up with friends that you don’t normally run into during the week. And while formal food is often a topic of discussion for many Cambridge students, the formal food at Christ’s is quite good compared to many other colleges. And the MCR also provides port—a Cambridge staple—at the end of each grad hall which often only serves to improve the flow and depth as well as the duration of the conversations had there.
****3-course dinners in the formal hall
There are also certain undeniable perks of studying at a Cambridge College. It never seizes to amaze me the way that the bustle of the busy towns yields to the walls that surround the college as you enter First Court through the Great Gate. The sound of the outside world simply melts away. And that is despite the fact that Christ’s is located in one of the busiest areas of the town. The silence is almost deafening now during the break, though, because most of the undergrads have left along with many of the postgrads. The weekends are now merely busy compared to term time where navigating the streets on the weekend can make you feel like a fish in a barrel. On weekdays during the break, the whole place feels like a ghost town. This however leaves us “remainers” with plenty of elbow room when going to places like the Cambridge Market Square at the center of town which is a nice place to hang out, get lunch or pick up fresh produce, dried snacks or tea, or even second-hand books. Now, the recently added festive lights bring an added sense of holiday cheer to this central hub for when you openly lament to your friends the fact that you still have to do work even though the street musician singing “Last Christmas” in the distance seems to clearly indicate that you should be doing no such thing.
Fortunately, quite a few grad students have chosen to remain at the college over the break, so the embers of the MCR are kept alive even though the town’s pace is slowed down significantly. We even have three grad halls in December, where the increase in the proportion of Christmas sweaters to non-festive attire seems, at least to me, to be statistically significant. With the reduced academic pressure, my friends and I are also taking the opportunity to do more family-style cooking which is not only a great way to hang out and a great opportunity to expand and strengthen your circle of friends, but also a great way to feel less guilty about your spending (because Cambridge prices are intense!)
Having done my undergraduate degree in the UK, at Lancaster University, my experience has certainly been that the student Christmas experience is very different in the two places. The college system in Cambridge fosters such a tight community here which was not present to nearly the same extent in Lancaster. While I had a solid handful of friends in Lancaster, my support network in Cambridge is vastly larger, and while a significant proportion of my friends here are still going home for the holidays as was the case in Lancaster, the fact that my total number of friends here is larger means that the number of people making it worthwhile to stick around during the break is that much larger too—which is ideal when I am only here for a year and appreciate having reasons to stay and make the most of my limited time here.
Marius Dreijer is a currently studying a Masters in linguistics at Cambridge University