ADVICE FOR ALL INCOMING BLACK MINORITY ETHNIC (BME) WOMEN FRESHERS
It goes without saying that once you arrive at Cambridge you’ll have to work very hard. The women of FLY (Freedom. Love. You.), the university’s network for women of colour, think that some other advice is also in order.
If you’re a self-defining BME woman and want to hear from other FLY girls online or in meetings, join the Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/359049374186552/
If you want to keep up-to-date with events, the FLY Twitter page is open for all to follow @CambridgeFLY.
- Diamond Abdulrahim, 3rd Year AMES
- Nnenda Chinda, Classics graduate
- Elhan Ali, 2nd Year Education with Religious Studies
- Mariam Ansar, 3rd Year English
- Amanda Brown, English graduate
- Rianna Croxford, 3rd Year English
- Aoife Hayes, English graduate
- Lola Olufemi, 3rd Year English
- Hanna Stephens, Geography graduate
- Alice Davidson, History graduate
- Amy Hawkins, History graduate
- Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, History graduate
- Eva Namusoke, PhD History graduate
- Christine Pungong, 2nd Year History of Art
- Lauren Cunningham-Amos, HSPS graduate
- Richelle George, 2nd Year HSPS
- Nafis Khan, 3rd Year HSPS
- Audrey Sebatindira, Law graduate
- Samara Linton, Medicine graduate
- Jay Kaur, 2nd Year MML
- Njoki Wamai, PhD Politics and International Studies
- Husna Rizvi, 3rd Year Philosophy
Sidney Sussex College
A huge congratulations and a hearty welcome! I hope you go forth and excel from here on and contribute to the incredible legacy of women of colour at Cambridge. Freedom. Love. You!
- Give yourself ample adjustment time, things won’t be perfect right away. You will feel lonely and out of place sometimes but make sure you have a good support structure, whether that’s ringing friends or family back home, or having a chat with your tutor or college nurse. Your well-being should be your priority – never forget that.
- Books are great, but the internet trumps it in my opinion. Reading academic journals, articles, etc. can often equip you with the same knowledge, but options on the internet are up to date and often far more nuanced, too. There are gazillions of libraries in Cambridge, and instead of attempting to find a copy of everything off your reading list (that you probably won’t read) bookmark JSTOR and Google Scholar on your internet browser instead.
- Remember that you are here because you have something to offer. Your thoughts and opinions are valid and need to be heard.
- Cambridge is not limited to the impressive college buildings. No matter how pretty and awe-inspiring (most) of them are, venture out of the centre of town for a well-needed change of scenery. Mill Road is roughly a 15-20 minute walk from the city centre, which is pretty long in Camb terms, but my god is it worth it. Cambridge’s most ‘cosmopolitan’ street boasts everything from a halal meat butcher’s and shisha café to Middle Eastern, South Asian, and European specialist grocery stores where you can buy reasonably priced fruit, veg, and spices for when hall food gets painfully bland and repetitive and Sainsbury’s is just dead. Did I mention there’s also an Amnesty International charity bookshop AND a Chicken Cottage?!
- Go to the Grafton Centre. though it’s often vilified as the poorer, working class cousin of the Grand Arcade. There’s a huge Primark, loads of charity shops (which will become your best friends for all those themed bops/swaps/whatever), and a Poundland. Inside the modestly-sized shopping centre is the cheapest place to get threading done in Cambridge #browsonfleek
- College JCR BME officer 2014-15.
- I rowed for my college (I feel like everyone should tick that off their Cambridge bucket list).
- Did a bit of acting.
- Led sisters’ discussion groups with the Islamic society.
- I, of course, am a very proud FLY girl.
Your time at Cambridge is going to very memorable one way or another, and it does fly (see what I did there!) by so quickly. So make the most out of everyday.
- Perhaps before you arrive it might be a good idea to find out what the city has to offer you. Whether it’s finding where you can buy African/Caribbean/Asian food, or perhaps if it’s a type of Church (every college has a Christian Union) you are looking to be a part of.
- Sign up for things. You don’t have to commit but it’s still good to know what’s going on.
- Classics is a really small course. On the one hand you get to know other Classicists really quickly and find your way around the faculty very easily, as well as establishing good relationships with your professors. On the other, you don’t necessarily get to meet a very diverse range of people. Thus I’d say try and meet people outside your course and be inspired by what others are studying.
- ALWAYS ASK for help when you need it. Classics is demanding at the best of times, and can feel very solitary when you’re locked away reading and translating lots of texts. So don’t hesitate to ask anyone in the year above for help.
- Find ways to make your course exciting. The Fitzwilliam museum (any museum lovers??) houses so many beautiful & important works of art. Additionally taking trips to Classical sites around the country can be eye-opening and fun! And if you’re a rebel like me, find out what The Other Place (Oxford) is organising in terms of classics-related activities, talks, etc. (join their Facebook group). This can be an opportunity to network and share ideas.
- Surround yourself with people that share similar goals with you and will be there to motivate and encourage you when things get tough. Remember there is always some form of help with any issues you may have: racial, emotional, psychological, mental, sexual, etc. Don’t be afraid to ask. Even if you don’t want to go to a College official you can always seek help from friends, CUSU (the Students’ Union), a Chaplain, College Nurse, or just about anyone else you feel comfortable talking to.
- Don’t join a society or sports team to impress anyone because if you don’t enjoy it and you’re finding it demanding that could compromise your studies. Remember at Cambridge nothing is done in halves! It is more important that you do what you love and think you will commit to, as you’ll get the most out of it.
- Rowing, which I did in first year, was demanding and required lots of outings.
- I’ve found the FLY sisterhood has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my time here. I couldn’t say enough how supportive and uplifting a group it is. I think having a safe space at University is really important and I’m a very proud FLY member!
- Joining a church community has also had an extremely positive grounding effect on me, it being a community of like-minded people who share my faith and understand me from that point of view. The Cambridge University Catholic chaplaincy (Fisher House) is really a home away from home. Do check it out, even if you’re not of the faith!
I know it can feel like this place deserves everything from you, but you have to take care of yourself first and foremost.
- If you’re a non-drinker, Colleges are trying to improve events for you! I went to a focus group at my college JCR and spoke to them about making freshers week more inclusive and varied for those who don’t drink and those who choose not to club, too.
- FLY is there for you if you want to talk about any frustrations you have about Cambridge. It’s a great space to talk, but also, to listen.
- Don’t push yourself to the absolute limit; email that supervisor, meet your tutor, and work at your pace. Getting an extension on an essay deadline that just can’t be met that week isn’t a bad thing (!!!)
- Yeah uni doesn’t have specifications which will be really weird for a while. Sometimes you can feel like you don’t really know what you’re doing without the stringent structure that you recognise from school, but this is an opportunity for you to lead your own studies and make of them what you want! Make use of all the online resources you can find; if you’re studying Education, they literally have the most comprehensive online library ever.
- Don’t play yourself – get a bike straight away (which I ended up doing and am eternally grateful for).
- For Muslim students, there is a prayer room at Sidgwick Site which is really convenient.
- Looking back, I had such an amazing year and learnt so so so much about myself. You’ll grow more than you think and you will absolutely get through it all.
- Islamic Society Events Officer 2016-17
- College JCR BME Rep 2015-16
- African and Caribbean Society
- Somali Society
- Pakistan Society
- Bangladesh Society
- Homerton Boat Club Novice
- Homerton Singers
- The Black Cantabs Society
Murray Edwards College
When it comes to stress, this is a place where people act like sleeping at 4am or not sleeping at all to finish an essay is commendable and kinda impressive but, actually, don’t feel like you have to live up to any weird standard. You know how you work.
- Making friendships isn’t limited to Freshers Week: you’ll be making friends and deciding who are your people from the beginning right to the end, so don’t worry if you can’t empathise with others doing your subject or in college.
- Go to relevant cultural/religious societies’ ice-breakers. Just seeing people who look like you can be a huge comfort.
- There will be people who will see the fact that you’re not white or you wear this cloth on your head and make assumptions about you. They’ll think you couldn’t possibly be into said music or said TV show, but you know what? You do you. It’ll be annoying but it’s not your fault.
- You will hate your subject some days. You will love it some other days. The inconsistencies will add up to a very confused you.
- Anyone who claims they’re not finding it difficult, or never did, is a complete liar. Don’t listen to them.
- When it comes to lectures, go to ones you will find useful. It is also cool to go to ones you find interesting but, as I found out, it won’t help you to be in a 10am lecture on The Philosophy Of The Eye when your Milton essay is due tomorrow. Be picky and try to make clear notes. Sometimes it’s hard to stay awake so I’d say find a lecture buddy? Which is a totally primary school concept but I found it was nice to have a friend you could moan to and you guys could go gallivanting in town later and relax a little.
- Pace yourself. There is always goodness and strength in calling people out when they’re being right-wing racists or ridiculously ignorant white liberals but who will become the most exhausted at the end of that debate? Most likely, you.
- This is a new environment and, in a sense, you’ll become a new person – a ‘Cambridge Student’ – but try to retain your gender, racial, religious, or sexual identity, or anything that you feel distinguishes you as a person. Critique things as much as you like but also know that you can use your uniqueness to your advantage.
- Halal meat can be found at Nasreen Dar, which is a shop a little way next to Murray Edwards and the other hill colleges.
- If you wear the hijab, stock up on those hijab pins. I lost a billion.
- FLY – the best group of amazing ladies and amazing conversations, great listening skills, empathy times one trillion.
- CUSU BME Campaign – Secretary, attempting to improve the lives of BME students and hopefully making small differences soon.
- CU Islamic Society – Secretary, Cambridge’s little Muslim community which is super friendly, unified, and very non-judgmental. Friday prayers are my favourite.
- Varsity and The Cambridge Student (TCS) (student newspapers) – writing random things, online and print publications.
- CU Pakistan Society – Pakistani or literally just brown people, eat food at events, play games, be social.
Be unapologetically you!
- I’m more of a *let’s-watch-LOTR-and-have-Domino’s-kind-of-a-gal*, but I’ve had my fair share of sweaty, uncomfortable nights out at Cindies. As many others will tell you, the clubbing scene at Cambridge is not phenomenal (pssst I actually like the Lion King Remix they play).
- Sports clubs are a great way to open up your group of friends, and the swaps are hilarious.
- If you’re into the theatre scene, you’re in luck! The ADC is the place to be, not to mention college-run productions. Be an angry tree, break a leg, and act away!
- Theatre reviewing is also a good shout. It’s free, it’s fun, and you’ll develop your skills as a critic and add another line to that already illustrious-looking CV!
- Cambridge RAG is jokes. Go on a blind date for charity. Escape Cambridge for 36 hours for charity. It’s awesome. Give it a go!
- Don’t fall victim to the inferiority complex. You are not here because someone needed to fill a quota system (once suggested to me by an ignorant High School teacher). You are here because you are bright, self-driven, and brimming with the potential to achieve great things.
- Sometimes, you may feel a little disgruntled if you are an English student. You may feel as if you are paying for a very, very expensive library card and that you’re not getting much ‘bang for your buck’. In a sense this is true. In comparison to STEM subjects, you don’t get a lot of contact time and it may feel even more limited if you don’t learn well by attending many lectures (no, it’s not laziness). BUT. Your resources are limitless. The world really is your oyster, and your access to the best academics, journals, and online resources really does make this the best place to be.
- It’s not worth compromising a healthy mental state for your academic pursuits. Remember to take the time to de-stress and find things to do other than your work!
- You know that time in ‘Clueless’ when Cher attempts to solve Haiti’s immigration crisis by using her Dad’s dinner party? No? You should watch Clueless. But anyway, this is how tenuous your links will be in supervisions. Embrace it. Don’t beat yourself up over one essay, or one supervision that didn’t go to plan. It’s okay, there will be many (many) more for you to improve upon.
- Exercise. Yass girl. You go for a run. You go for a swim (despite the threat to the fleekness of your edges). Give your body those endorphins!
- Enjoy Cambridge. Take time during the day to appreciate how blessed you are to be living and studying in such a beautiful town.
- If you went to church at home. Find a church here! Your spirituality is something that will keep you whole.
- Plan your hairstyles in advance. If you weave, braid, faux loc, crochet braid or anything else we’ve managed to come up with, find a hairdresser and schedule time to get your hair done. Having my hair in check is one of the many things that gives me confidence, and it might help you too!*ALTHOUGH* one of the more comedic aspects about being in Cambridge is that when your weave is literally halfway down your head and your tracks are presenting themselves like trophies, white people will still say ‘but your hair looks fine!
- Don’t feel pressured to drink if you don’t want to. I don’t drink. But my life is crayyy. ❤
- Cambridge Theatre Review Publicity Officer
- Cambridge University Adventist Society (VP)
- Girton Hockey (captain 14-15)
- GADS (Girton Amateur Dramatics Society)
- GCU (Girton Christian Union)
Trinity Hall College
Don’t bother trying to be anything other than yourself. Embrace yourself and your uniqueness. You’re great as you start now, and you’ll be even greater by the time you leave.
- The best dance night by far is Fez on a Sunday for Reggae, R&B, Hip-Hop, etc. Some casual pubs are The Maypole, The Eagle and The Mill. Also, if you can, do try and go to the Junction (some fab gigs) or see a show at the ADC.
- On the whole, there aren’t many BME English students. Be prepared to accept that you’ll most likely be the only one in your college and then don’t give it a second thought – hard, but necessary.
- Really make the most of the UL and English Faculty – get out those secondary texts asap! Amazon is great for the cheap, next-day delivery of primary texts.
- Only go to lectures that are relevant or of interest. ‘This is the one degree that avidly encourages you to form your own ideas and not to regurgitate other people’s!’ I say while still in bed at 11am Monday-Friday.
- I was a mess when I first started: I suffered from perfectionism, had ‘I-took-a-gap-year-and-now-I-can’t-spell’ syndrome and was crap at working to deadlines. No one starts their degree here perfect. If you find yourself stressing out, you’ll soon realise everyone else is too – it doesn’t make you any less capable, but it does encourage you to adapt for your own peace of mind.
- Don’t even think of competing against other people – if you’re going to challenge someone – challenge yourself! And make sure it’s a SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound) target.
- If you miss a deadline or feel very stressed, just email your supervisors – from my experience, they’ve been really supportive.
- For basic self-care I usually go for long walks/runs in the evening (a nice way to explore), do breathing exercises and remember that there is a bigger, more relevant and more diverse world outside of the Cambridge bubble!
- Since starting at Cambridge I’ve been introduced to, and have embraced, a whole new political and social perspective. I’ve gained a greater awareness of feminism, intersectionality, white privilege, micro-aggressions etc. (thanks mainly to FLY), to name but a few of the concepts you’ll most likely encounter in conversations – feelings and thoughts I couldn’t previously identify – and it’s really helped in navigating through this cobbled jungle.
- Cambridge is extremely limited with regard to ethnic haircare. With the exception of Boots in Market Square which supplies a few suitable products and brands (ORS, etc.), I’d say you’re better off stocking up before you arrive – or ordering products off Amazon (a lifesaver)! Also, if you get braids for the start of term, go on YouTube and learn how to do them yourself if you didn’t know how to before (guilty) so can maintain them yourself (if you can be bothered).
- If your college is in town and you want to shop in Sainsbury’s, go towards the end of the day when perfectly good food is reduced. If you’re based on the outskirts of town, shop in Aldi on Histon Road!
- TCS and The Tit Bit (college-newspaper) – casual contributor to both.
- Worked for Cam FM.
- Helped out at the Cambridge Union and attend talks/debates.
- President of Cambridge University Television Society.
- I also play college netball.
Sidney Sussex College
English is basically self-taught so don’t be afraid to do your own thing or work to your own deadlines (within reason) because you are now a critic and your supervisors are your academic peers.
- It’s not your fault if you don’t enjoy listening to Disney songs in a club (Cindies) or find that hipsters are colonising the dance floor in Fez. NEVER go to Life (Kuda). Find some BME people and hold on to them! Friday night Cindies is Hip Hop and RnB, find the Anglia Ruskin nights, go out on Saturdays contrary to the Sunday-night-Fez rule because you may actually meet some non-Cambridge people! And they might actually be of colour!
- Be as confident with your ideas as your white/public school/male peers are with theirs. Just because they’re speaking with confidence and a posh accent doesn’t necessarily mean what they’re saying is any good.
- Stretch the syllabus: find topics/authors that you’re interested in and pursue them. Just because the dead white guys are compulsory primary reading doesn’t mean you can’t add in some bell hooks/queer theory/postcolonial/feminist criticism.
- Put motivational/self-care/empowering quotes and messages on post-it notes and decorate your mirrors/desks with them.
- Don’t feel like you’re ‘doing uni wrong’ if you’re not going to certain parties, you’ll soon find out they’re boring and full of gross people. Find a couple of cool people and you’ll be fine!
- Replying to microagressions with a smug smile is very satisfying (and unnerving for the receiver).
- Talk to women of colour! They are a great source of solidarity. Go to FLY meetings, post on the group, you are not alone! Remember how radical your presence in Cambridge is and how fly you are!
- There’s a black hair shop in the Grafton.
- I was involved with the Palestinian Society, which hosts events with Palestinian speakers and organises university-wide activism.
- CUSU Women’s Campaign – the university’s feminist group providing a safe space with fortnightly discussion groups as well as a platform for activism.
- African Caribbean Society (ACS) – provides opportunities and events to socialise with other People of Colour (PoC, synonymous with BME people).
- CUSU BME campaign – another group providing solidarity and activisty opportunities for PoC.
- LGBT soc – provides solidarity/ socialising.
WHAT AOIFE IS DOING NOW:
[At the time of writing was] applying for internships (mostly publishing/media-based work) and staying fly.
Cambridge is infuriating and wonderful, I’ve never lived anywhere so beautiful. You will learn to love it or at least to speak about it like an annoying Uncle that you know will give you lots of money in future if you exploit him correctly.
- Depending on how many other ethnic minorities there are in your college, there might be times when you feel a little isolated – people asking stupid questions about your hair or making assumptions based on the colour of your skin – small things that can build up and really hurt if you let them. If you ever feel like this (you might not) reach out to FLY Girls or people from similar backgrounds and rant, vent – if you can’t talk to someone, write it all down or throw yourself into extra-curricular things. That is how I made it through first year and I met some really great people because of it.
- BME English students, prepare yourself for a degree consisting of dead old white men. I think most of us have come to terms with this before we get here (I mean dead white guys have written some pretty great stuff) but the Eurocentric curriculum has a tendency to slap you in the face if you don’t re-prepare yourself. Learn to laugh at it. Sometimes, you will feel like you’re studying the most pointless and obscure works (18th century landscape poetry?????) while real things are happening in the world (famine, war, floods, racism, the list is endless). Remember that your degree is important, your existence is this ivory tower is radical.
- Don’t listen to engineers when they tell you that you don’t do “that” much work.
- Don’t let Cambridge steal your love of reading, the world won’t end if you pick up a book for pleasure.
- Don’t be put off if you’re not well versed in the classics or sometimes feel like the way you write or communicate isn’t as sophisticated as your privately educated peers. Write and speak in ways that are familiar, clarity is key.
- EAT WELL. I cannot stress this enough. You need to have the energy to do all the work that you’ll get so make sure you try and get enough sleep (tell me if this actually happens) and eat good food. Good food doesn’t have to be expensive so don’t worry if money is an issue.
- I came here as a political person with strong opinions about race, gender, sexuality, class and those got me into interesting and frustrating conversations with people blinded by privilege. You are under no obligation to educate anyone – that is not your job. Don’t feel guilty if you find it easier to navigate Cambridge by letting the odd comment slide or not passionately defending your point in every argument. You are here to learn and have fun, meet new interesting people and try things you’ve never done before. Protect your happiness and your well-being fiercely – you will find people who agree with your politics, who will grab lunch with you and laugh with you at silly posh boys, do not despair.
- President of Selwyn College’s Gender and Feminism Society.
- I’m the BME Women’s Rep on the Women’s Campaign, so I’ll be holding FLY meetings!
- Selwyn’s BME Officer.
- I wrote some stuff for student newspapers (Writing a column for Varsity this year).
- Did a little bit of acting so I’m a member of the Cambridge University Amateur Dramatics Society.
Going for a cycle to somewhere open and green and drawing or listening to music in my room helped me a lot; it’s important to make some time for yourself.
- I volunteer for FoodCycle (a charity that cooks meals for homeless people out of surplus food). It isn’t too closely associated with the university so you get to meet a wide range of interesting people which takes you out of ‘the Cambridge bubble’, and also puts your work stress into perspective.
- There are a lot of societies and interesting things going on, so I would say explore your options but don’t get deeply involved in too many and spread yourself too thin.
- Geography is amazing!
- If there are whole books on the reading list, don’t read the whole book! Just read the introduction and another chapter that might sound relevant and maybe look up a book review online.
- I like going to Seoul Plaza, which stocks Korean and Japanese food, and Arjuna Wholefoods, which is slightly pricey but sells organic and some locally sourced things.
- I was part of our college’s allotment society where we grew things in the college greenhouse and planted them in a patch of allotment space we have near college.
- I illustrated the Cambridge University International Development Society’s magazine and was able to go for dinner with some of the speakers we invited.
- With FoodCycle I set up a ‘student night’ which aimed to bring students and homeless/elderly people together by sitting everyone down for a meal together.
- I also regularly attend FLY meetings where we discuss racial issues both in real life and events in the media, and it has been a hugely educational and empowering space to be a part of!
I think the most important thing is to not expect too much of yourself, particularly in first term. You meet so many people so quickly and freshers’ week can feel like a whirlwind – terms are so short and so intense that it’s completely normal to feel like you haven’t properly settled even by Christmas.
- With no group labs or seminars, you have to put yourself out there to meet History people from other colleges. On a more positive note, History is a really interesting subject and there are so many different papers to choose from! It can be helpful to choose papers which overlap in some way to make your life easier when it comes to revision, but most importantly pick topics which you enjoy reading about. This is also important for supervisions – I once had a supervisor who started the term with ‘I only do politics, war and religion’, but it’s important to be assertive in which areas of the paper you want to study!
- Have perspective in that it’s not always useful to compare your uni experience with those from home at different unis!
- Utilise subject contacts and college families for support, and also connect with groups such as FLY – I regretfully didn’t become a member until second year, and even if you’re not super political it really helps to know people from similar backgrounds and cultures who can empathise with any struggles you’re having.
- With Cambridge being a ‘catered’ uni, I assumed I would be eating in the buttery all the time, and so brought almost no cooking equipment/utensils/etc. The buttery can be expensive and repetitive (depending on college), so make sure you’ve got the basics to do a bit of cooking yourself.
- Queens’ College History Society.
- I’m a member of the Trampolining Society – there are so many different sports to choose from in Cambridge, but trampolining is fun, casual and you don’t have to have any previous experience. You can be a complete beginner and still have the opportunity to compete at events at different unis across the country, and membership is relatively good value if you commit to the whole year. The society also run taster sessions if you’re not convinced.
When I first arrived, I thought I would never have time to do anything ever, because I was so overwhelmed by the work. Everyone else seemed to have more than me yet I still found my workload so difficult. THIS IS OKAY, IT GETS EASIER.
- Join FLY!! I only joined in my third year, what a waste of the first two.
- History is unbelievably Eurocentric and Anglocentric. There are some great papers on offer, but there are also loads of really boring ones and sometimes they’re compulsory. Cambridge is supposed to be the home of World History, but there’s something like a grand total of 4 non-European papers in Part I, out of a total of 24 (I think). Do what you can, and throw yourself into the stuff you find you love. Both emotionally and strategically for the exams, I really think it’s best to just focus on 3 or 4 interesting topics per paper, and not worry about all the other boring stuff you have to do for supervision essays. Also seek out the new-ish fields. Gender History etc. is pretty common now, but it can still be a struggle to wade through all the dead old white men stuff. But also, if you love that stuff then great! Don’t feel obliged to study anything because of the colour of your skin.
- Take time to do nice things and find out what you love – easier said than done, I know, but if there’s one thing I wish I’d done differently at Cambridge it’s that I should have worked less hard in my first two years (and harder in my third).
- People’s questions about “where you’re from” (especially if you’re mixed race) are normally just innocent curiosity. It’s still tiring, of course, and don’t feel you have to give them the time of day. But also don’t necessarily assume they’re xenophobic bigots (only some are).
- There are so many great dumpling places in Cambridge. My personal favourites are North China dumplings (next to Emmanuel College) or Market Square for cheapness and convenience. Café Oriental at the Grafton Centre is also pretty good and cheap.
- Some college sport.
- Varsity student newspaper – editor.
- JCR Access Officer – EVERYONE DO MORE ACCESS STUFF, IT’S SO IMPORTANT, OTHERWISE CAMBRIDGE WILL BE RICH AND WHITE FOREVER.
WHAT AMY IS DOING NOW:
[At the time of writing was] working for a think-tank in London. Don’t know what I want to do next!!!
As a black or brown girl you may sometimes feel alone in crowded rooms; you are part of the change and you being here today may mean that one day others won’t feel that way.
- You do not have to drink. You do not have to get drunk. You do not even have to go out. There is a student stereotype everyone will try to fit into at first; you might think you’ll miss out if you don’t join in but have a terrible time if you do – if you feel that way, don’t worry. Other people are feeling that way, too. You can have fun and go out without drinking. You can stay in and have fun without drinking. It is also okay if you do not want to have fun tonight, or if your idea of fun is not other people’s idea of fun.
- Go to a FLY meeting. Go soon. Go even if you’re scared of socialising. You don’t even have to talk but I promise it will make you feel better even if you didn’t think you needed to feel better.
- Do as many extra-curriculars as you can to start with. Drop some later. First year is the time to try.
- You do not have to work all day every day. Work in short bursts and productively, don’t run your battery down early on.
- Cambridge weeks and supervisions work out in such a way that Saturday and Sunday may no longer mean rest, but still give yourself a weekend. You need time off.
- The first few essays are overwhelming, here’s my secret essay procedure: start the week with Wikipedia and YouTube – that will give you the best overview with which to start reading dense academic texts. Reading will get easier, and if you are bad at note-taking don’t worry, you will get better.
- Make thorough notes – you won’t remember what you were alluding to at the end of two years when you’re examined on it.
- Remember you have made a big jump, you’ve moved out maybe for the first time, are living alone in a new place with no one that you know – be kind to yourself and don’t expect too much.
- Fresh fruit in the market is cheaper and nicer than from the supermarket.
- Avoid rush-hour shopping for groceries by going before 4/5pm.
- CUSU Women’s Campaign – exciting, radical, and everyone is much friendlier than you’d imagine.
- BME officer on college JCR – provide welfare as well as hosting discussions and workshops on issues of race, privilege, awareness, and contemporary debates.
- Islamic Society – a place for Muslim students; more casual than I had imagined, wish I had gotten involved earlier.
- FLY – a place to share experiences, chat, socialise and be empathetic with other women of colour.
- Speakeasy – fortnightly spoken word event at ADC bar, very casual, fun to watch and easy to get involved in.
Gonville & Caius College
Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you are struggling. You may feel like you should just be grateful to have gotten into Cambridge, but university shouldn’t break you.
- If you’re into dating, try dating people outside your own college. Avoid anyone who starts sentences with ‘I’m not normally attracted to black women but…’
- Don’t get boxed in by your department. I was an Africanist in the History faculty and had to work hard to find workshops and seminars that were more closely aligned with my academic interests. But it was totally worth it when I found Africanists lurking in all sorts of departments who were just as eager to reach out and connect. You realise just how big and diverse Cambridge academia is when you think outside the departmental box!
- Sign up for a bunch of mailing lists to get a feel for different lectures and seminars happening. You might even stumble across the odd reception with canapés – success.
- Be creative with your secondary reading and essays if you’re an undergrad. If you’re a grad, stick to your guns and know that your contributions are changing the game bit by bit.
- Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. Make sure you know about the support network in place early on. Some colleges have Peer2Peer counsellors who are other students with basic counselling training. Get to know your college tutor so they can be your ally, make sure you know who the college nurse is (doubly handy if you ever have to get travel vaccinations or want some help with matters of sexual health) and college chaplains can be great. And the University Counselling Service can be really helpful if you need more professional help. They can also refer you to appropriate NHS services and some colleges can help you get private healthcare.
- You will likely find yourself in many rooms where no one else looks like you. Know that there is a chance someone like you has been in that very room in the past. And besides that, know that your presence paves the way for the next woman like you, and the next.
- Two words: Mill Road. If you ever want a proper watermelon, game-changing bibimbap or to simply remember what life is like outside the Cambridge bubble, head down there.
- Hair in Cambridge is tricky. There are a couple of black hair salons I know of. One on Mill Road and one on Norfolk Street near the new West African restaurant Eko Kitchen (which is great! Eat there!). Both salons are pricey I think but can get the job done if you are desperate for a simple wash and blow-dry. In general I would suggest getting hair done in London or learning the magic of YouTube hair tutorials. Also the Boots black hair section is tiny but growing.
- International students: if you’re opening a UK bank account for the first time, email your college before you get to Cambridge and ask them to prepare a letter for you to take to the bank. That will save you time and fuss.
- Africa Together committee.
- African Society of Cambridge University.
- The Black Cantabs Project.
- Caius MCR.
- I rowed for a hot second and bowed out when it got too cold. But it was really good fun until then.
Remember that your experiences are unique and that, whether it feels like it or not, everything you have to say is something special.
ON YOUR SOCIAL LIFE:
- If you can’t find a club night that plays the music that you want to hear, put one on yourself – it’s not as hard as you would think to organise a night at King’s Bunker.
- Emmanuel and St John’s have the cheapest college bars.
- Go to FLY meetings!!!
ON YOUR ACADEMIC LIFE:
- History of Art is possibly one of the most hideously middle class, elitist, racist departments in the entire university. To make it worse, people will always assume you must have so little work/it must be so easy/you’re not as academic as others because you’re an art historian – this is a lie.
- The Part I tripos is so horribly boring and white-washed and dull but it does cover most of the essentials and give you a good grounding for the rest of the course.
- Even though your weekly essays won’t provide much room for rebelling against the system, you can use your dissertation to write about something that actually interests you.
- Lectures can be boring and unengaging and very often aren’t necessary but seminars and objects classes will prove indispensible when it comes to exams – try to go to all of them.
- Try to photograph or note down the name of every image you’re shown to make notes on it later.
- Form an alliance with the older art historians as well as ones in your year, and ask for their notes if you ever find yourself behind – it’s not as competitive as other subjects can be so usually people are happy to help out.
- You are going into an institution that was not built to include you much less to cater to your needs, and this can feel horribly lonely sometimes. Remember that there is a whole network of ~amazing~ BME women who have gone through and are still going through the exact same experience as you and you can always seek solace in them.
- Don’t be afraid to tell DoS’s, tutors, supervisors etc. exactly what it is you need from them (in fact, rinse them for all they’re worth) – you are paying way too much, both physically and emotionally, to be at this university, you deserve help should you decide you want it.
- Your very existence in Cambridge is radical, and it’s okay if you feel you don’t always have the emotional energy to fight the system, and don’t ever put an essay or revision before your emotional or physical well-being ❤ ❤ ❤
ON EVERYTHING ELSE:
- There’s a shop on Mill Road that sells plantain (roughly 3 for £1) – do with this information what you will.
- Order online from ASDA – it is much cheaper than Sainsbury’s and will deliver literally to the door of your room for £1.
- ACS – fun, friendly, a good way to get in touch with organisations/recruitment agencies like SEO and Rare.
- College JCR BME officer – looking after the well-being of BME students at Newnham, being able to do small intra-college things that make life a little more comfortable for BME students.
Likeminded people are easier to find than expected (as this guide shows).
- Don’t worry/feel like there’s something you’ve missed if you settle in really quickly and love it. I personally count my first/second terms of first year as my best ones so far, and I settled in within a week, so don’t feel like you’ve let down home or have a rose-tinted view (even though things may change which is equally cool) if you do love it!
- Definitely work on time management but also remember (this took me until my second year to realise) each essay is only an essay, so does not correlate with your self-worth or any sense of respect you or anybody else should or does have for you. If you write an essay that is not your best, nothing bad happens at all and not every essay is going to be amazing (or even many essays). Remember you are here for a reason and, intellectually, are on equal footing with everyone else here. It’s really easy to forget that sometimes!
- For me, it helped to call home every day, even just for a small chat, to keep a piece of home with me at all times. I also always just went to my room and watched some TV if I needed to, and always had a person at home and at uni (I was really lucky to have both) to vent to if I needed it.
- I’m BME officer for my college, which means I head am a person for students in my college to go to with minority related issues and I head campaigns and discussions on minority issues (a campaign for BME alumni portraits in formal, a talk on white privilege and one next year on cultural appropriation).
- I play college netball (and, on rare occasions, lacrosse).
- I’m on the college welfare committee.
- I’m a club rep (it does NOT pay well as a warning).
Fresher’s year will most likely be different from any experience you’ve lived before – allow yourself time to adjust.
- University is all about learning and evolving – don’t beat yourself up for any ‘mistakes’ (see: lessons) you make along the way.
- Afternoon Tease has the best coffee and brunch!
- Going to formal hall at other colleges or inviting people to your formal hall is a fun way to keep in touch and see other colleges at the same time.
- People will say problematic things; it’s not your job to educate anyone unless you want to. Being held up as a spokesperson for your entire gender or race can become very tiring, always remember that your mental and emotional health come first. Chatting about it with someone who understands can be a huge help; that’s where FLY comes in.
- Definitely don’t be intimidated by the UL (like I was) and only discover it in the late-crisis-stage of Exam Term. The Reading Room is actually a really nice place to work, and you can request almost any text on your reading list to be reserved for you there.
- HSPS reading lists can be overwhelmingly long and broad; it’s the nature of the subject. Use your lecture notes and supervisor’s direction to help you decide which texts might be most useful to you, but don’t be afraid to stray outside of these guidelines to suit your interests (e.g. in an attempt to read more female and BME authors.)
- First year exams are far away, and (despite how nervous you may feel now) not actually that important – for HSPS, focus more on deciding which of your four papers you enjoy and engage with most. That way you’ll have a clear idea of which direction you want to go in once the time comes in Easter term to specialise for second year.
- HSPS is a bit of an odd subject, consisting of multiple departments with multiple libraries across Cambridge – to save yourself time, try looking for your reading list in your college library or the University Library (UL) instead of trekking around to each department’s library (most books are available on camtools or online as PDFs too.)
- A room you’ve decorated yourself can be a huge comfort in a new place; Heffers sells huge prints of famous art for only £3.
- BME Officer of the College Feminist Society
- BME Officer College JCR
- Features Editor for Varsity
- Ents Officer at Trinity May Ball
Murray Edwards College
The main thing I’d tell myself to remember is the fact that Cambridge as an institution was not created for me and people like me and yeah sometimes this becomes painfully obvious. But what it also means that our presence here is powerful + revolutionary.
- Take some time to check out a few different nights and figure out what suits you. Also trust me when I say if you feel like you aren’t going to enjoy yourself on a night out then chances are you actually won’t so just don’t go. It’s perfectly fine to say no.
- I think my main advice would be to start off with following reading lists but once you’ve got the hang of it definitely read things that interest you + don’t be afraid to put your ideas into your essays. I ended up doing well whenever I was the most creative + passionate.
- FLY is one of my favourite things about Cambridge- the solidarity + warmth you get at the meetings is so so important and I cannot emphasise how good it feels to be around people who get it.
- It is okay to feel stressed and tired and it doesn’t necessarily even have to be about work.
- I was the President of the BME Campaign- it’s a CUSU-affiliated liberation campaign focused on addressing the concerns of BME students in Cambridge. Last year we organised a series of events for Black History Month. We opened up conversations about race + racial oppression in Cambridge + helped focus on access + supported individual BME officers across colleges.
- I’m also currently Vice President of Cambridge University Bangla Society- the society was formally one that focused on social events but this year we are thinking of moving it in a different direction. We are currently setting up links with some Bangladeshi charities with the intention of fundraising for them and are also going to be focusing on access.
Trinity Hall College
Despite what you might have seen/been told, there is no one Cambridge experience you’ll have to assimilate into. If you look for your niche, you’ll find it.
- Always pre-drink with Sainsbury’s Chenin Blanc: it tastes like paint thinner but at £5 with 10.1 units of alcohol it’s the best deal you’ll get if you want to get drunk for cheap.
- Be aware that you’ll need to start planning for May Week as early as Lent Term.
- There will rarely come a point with Law where you’ll have done all the work you can possibly do in preparation for your supervision. Accept that as early as possible so that when you do go out with friends you don’t ruin your fun by feeling guilty.
- You should try to find at least one or two other lawyers in your year and form a mutual alliance for weeks when you just haven’t managed to get all the notes done, etc. Look outside of your college if need be.
- Lecture notes are often just as good as the textbook (usually because it’s your lecturer who wrote it). Save time and go to lectures.
- Read the model exam answers in Per Curiam and on Moodle. What you’ll notice is that the best essays are very assertively written and knowledge of law isn’t simply regurgitated. I personally wasn’t a fan of how aggressive answers needed to be, so decide for yourself what approach you want to take.
- College tutors can be a great help (mine was bae), but you should also know about the Students’ Unions’ Advice Service, which complements the tutorial system. Their Advice Officers can offer support on academic work, mental health, and all the general vicissitudes of life.
- For those still considering applying: if you don’t know which college to apply to, one of the things to consider is the quality of welfare provision that each college provides. The Students’ Union has produced a Welfare Grid that allows you to compare colleges alongside each other.
- The cheapest train tickets between London and Cambridge go to Liverpool Street station. Some returns come in at under £10 (with a rail card).
- International students:
- college storage is v. limited, so when the end of term comes around pack your stuff in there as early as possible before other people fill it up.
- UK immigration policy is constantly changing, which is annoying, but you can use the International Student Team to keep yourself up-to-date.
- be aware that English employers can be hesitant to hire non-EU graduates due to visa sponsorship etc., so if you want to work here after your degree you’ll need to do things to make you stand out from the get-go (Rare and SEO are v. helpful).
- CUSU Women’s Campaign
- CUSU BME Campaign
- Cambridge University Student Advocates International (CUSAI) – they run workshops for people interested in going into human rights advocacy.
- The Cambridge Student – columns editor, great fun.
- College JCR BME Rep.
- Cambridge University Television (CU-TV) – Treasurer.
- Trinity Hall Chapel Council – Junior Treasurer, college chapel services are brill, I got to be friends with the Dean.
WHAT AUDREY IS DOING NOW:
I’m the current full-time Women’s Officer for the Student’s Union. This means I’ll be running the Women’s Campaign alongside my lovely Exec. This is definitely the year for you to get involved!
St. Catherine’s College
Community is extremely important. Good friends in your college are invaluable and, for me, church provided mentors, a home away from home, and an escape from the Cambridge bubble.
- Do try to make the most of the incredible events on at Cambridge. There are always great student plays on, fantastic talks and debates, musical performances etc. Cambridge is more than lectures and exams!
- Medicine can be really demanding and it is not unusual to feel out of your depth. Having friends a year or two years above you is a massive help! Chances are they have had the same supervisors as you, written the same essays and, of course, have sat the exams you will have to. Make the most of their experiences and then be that same resource to the freshers that come after you.
- There are many resources available to those who may be having a rough time. If you don’t find your tutor to be helpful, then try college welfare, the University Counselling Service, see your GP or simply ask your friends for help! I think one of the most dangerous things we can do is deny ourself the help that is available to us.
- If you are willing to cycle (10mins from city centre) Tesco on Newmarket Road has an ethnic food section where you can buy callaloo, ackee, noodles etc.
- College netball.
- College welfare team – BME Rep.
- African Caribbean Society (ACS) – President in my second year.
- Cambridge Inter-collegiate Christian Union (CICCU).
- Polygeia – a global health policy writing student organisation.
WHAT SAMARA IS DOING NOW:
Medicine – 2012-2015, now doing clinical Medicine at UCL (you’ll all have to stay at Cambridge for clinical school). I am also a contributor / writer at Black Ballad (blackballad.co.uk), editor at Polygeia (polygeia.com) and mental health editor at Dream Nation (dreamnation.co.uk).
Remember that your identity isn’t a novelty, it is what has got you here today and you’ll prosper.
- College butteries and bars are great social spaces, don’t eat alone in your room every night!
- Each college tends to have their own typical “nights”, e.g. in Clare we have Clare Ents on a Friday night, so Life on a Friday is the usual motive. Some people can handle going out 4 or 5 times a week, but some can’t, so do whatever you feel like doing, the most important thing is only do things because you enjoy them, otherwise you’ll end up feeling burnt out very quickly.
- One of the things I found hardest was going from a state school where grammar was not taught in technical detail, to a class of students who seem to have had a head start in this area. Don’t be afraid to ask your teacher if you’re struggling with some grammatical terminology, as the classes are very fast-paced and it’s so important to keep up. The MML department is generally great though, and supervisors are very understanding, approachable and willing to help.
- Finding friends on your course is important, as they’ll be back with you in your fourth year after the year abroad.
- The year abroad is honestly one of the best things about my degree, start thinking about what you might want to do early, as it will give you something to look forward to!
- Check your college and department for travel grants, I got £300 from Clare for a departmental trip to Florence – make the most of the time and money you have to travel, it’s the best part about MML!
- Before I got to Cambridge, I was prepared for the lack of cultural and social sensitivity I expected to find, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how much it would get to me. Coming from a single-parent, low-income household, I started to feel a bit isolated when I realised I was surrounded by people who went on three holidays a year, who had gone to top-ranked grammar and private schools, people whose parents had university degrees – some even from Oxbridge. Also, the amount of times I’ve been asked “No, where are you REALLY from?”, or had people surprised at the fact that I’m not getting an arranged marriage, is quite tiring, as well as people trying to explain their gap years in India and their love of bindis to me. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to prove yourself to anyone – as long as YOU are proud of what you’ve achieved and where you’ve come from (as you should be) you can take all of these things with a pinch of salt, hold your head high and remember that your identity isn’t a novelty, it is what has got you here today and you’ll prosper despite these challenges.
- My contribution to this guide is based on my own personal experiences, you’ll have a different Cambridge experience to me and may not find some of the things I’ve said helpful. The main thing to know is that you’re never on your own, and that there’s always someone who feels the same way. My college nurse and my friends were paramount in helping me through the harder times, so always seek help and talk to people when you feel the need.
- ENTS officer for the UNICEF committee, which aims to promote and raise understanding/funding for UNICEF’s work around the world.
- On the Pink Week committee, which runs a fundraising week in February to raise awareness of breast cancer.
Hang out with people who appreciate you and look for solidarity among women and men who share similar values and who match your level of consciousness.
- A few African events are run monthly like the African band that plays at the Emmanuel Church, opposite Pembroke College every last Friday of the month.
- Lazara, a cocktail bar, has African Nights on every first Thursday of the month but confirm on their website.
- The Freddie Hall band plays Motown classics around Cambridge most weekends.
- If you like dancing salsa, check out the salsa nights in Cambridge. I like the salsa nights at Wolfson College most.
- Don’t feel bad if you meet someone over a drink in one of those freshers orientation events and they pretend they have never seen you when you meet them next on Kings Parade. They most likely know you but choose not to acknowledge you. You will be told that people are just awkward because they are geeky. You are just as geeky (that’s why you are in Cambridge) and your parents taught you good manners, and you should expect the same level of decorum from others who wish to engage with you. LOL.
- It takes time to meet people who are not pretentious for the sake of PR in competitive spaces. Genuine friendships with genuine people take time so don’t stress yourself when you find no one affirms you in conversations.
- Generally in the social sciences be confident about your ideas and thoughts. There is really no wrong answer in this field, so feel confident about your ideas. Read widely beyond the recommended reading for a better grounding of the main debates in a topic and write essays of those issues that concern you most. You are likely to find it easier because you are passionate.
- Join yoga, rowing (we need more women of colour on the boats) and the many other sporting societies to relax.
- There is an African food shop and restaurant called Eko kitchen on 8 Norfolk St, Cambridge CB1 2LD.
- The annual Cambridge African Film Festival (CAFF) featuring African films is a weeklong event at the Arts Picturehouse in early December.
- I co-founded a number of societies:
- the African Students Society (ASCU).
- the Black Cantabs Project – a student-led research society that is interested in documenting the early black scholars at Cambridge.
- the East African society.
- Marxist discussion groups.
- Planning to join rowing at Queens’ this term.
- Mature student groups exist, especially for those living with children, which are normally coordinated by the Graduate Union.
- The Cambridge African Network.
Half of succeeding in this place means putting in the hours and the other half is practicing radical self-love.
- Never, never, never go to Cindies or Life or anything besides Fez. Unless it is hosted by Turf or Fever. I mean that. The “fun” there is not “ironic”, it is moronic, and you will cry when you think abt the amount of dolla you wasted on those foul institutions. If you like techno/house, disco, decent DJs, throwback R&B stuff with people at least somewhat motivated by the music pls stick to Fez or the above.
- Go to a Fly meeting or two – it is v. casual and you will find people there that wholeheartedly GET IT and empathize with you on another level. Ur more likely to find ppl that look like you at these places. This is actually so important in not feeling alienated or weirded out.
- If there’s a gap w/ societies etc, fill it. Seriously, there are no limits with that. It doesn’t even have to be an “official” thing.
- Know that what you’re going to is an academic institution that systemically favours “writing like a man” (in all sorts of ways that are all quite insidious and implicit and far too vast to list here) and hasn’t really critically looked at its own curriculums by way of Eurocentricism, Post-imperialistic superiority, and, of course, the ancient legacy of sexism. Some examples are the miniscule lip service that is paid to “world history”, i.e. non-white history, in the History tripos. This royally sucks! But it’s okay. Do not be afraid to bring this up in a supervision if it’s relevant. Just because a supervisor says things it doesn’t necessarily mean they have a monopoly over knowledge on this stuff. In fact, do not be afraid to bring this up whenever you feel it is important. The only way that institutions can better themselves is if they have a second order understanding of how they perpetuate certain oppressions. You are instrumental in this service. On the note of self-care: You won’t always have the vitality to take on that battle, FORGIVE YOURSELF for this fact and wait until you are.
- Philosophy is the crustiest whitest tripos out there, seriously. It’s okay to not enjoy every part. Because, from the outset, we revere institutions like Cambridge so much it’s difficult to even consider that academics could ever design an imperfect tripos. Rest assured, they are all pretty much lacking in some way or another. Things aren’t always going to be given their proper context, and this is annoying. If you feel that you have something to add to the conversation that someone may have missed, even an academic –dare I say it—add it!
- FLY!!!! – BME Women’s network, v. informal, in a coffee shop most of the time, super friendly, and a place to make friends.
- Varsity – Online & Print Student Publication, mostly everyone reads it.
- Poetry Club – an informal female poetry reading & discussion group (an excuse to get drunk with friends).
- JCR Ethnic Minorities Officer – A good way to turn your frustrations about inequality into active small tasks which contribute to the deconstruction of such inequalities (in very very small but fulfilling ways) e.g. organising BME speakers and dinners.