As I write this I am a grumpy second -almost to be third- year, with a mind full of dissertation and pre-reading and oh-my-god-the-Future-is-approaching stress and an ability to consume caffeine that both impresses and concerns a lot of people. And yet I can still remember exactly how it felt to be sitting on my bedroom floor almost three years ago, in a state of shock and disbelief, having just checked UCAS and realising that my place at Cambridge had been confirmed.
It’s a weird feeling, achieving your life’s ambition at age 18. The purpose that defined and shaped my life up to that point, the driving force fuelling me to do better and do more and try harder, dissipated a little bit, and I vividly remember a distinct feeling of emptiness.
I felt guilty on the evening of Results Day that I wasn’t able to finally, after an entire year of A- Level stress, relax and enjoy and celebrate like the rest of my classmates. It felt like I was cheating myself of the euphoria I had vowed to revel in if I actually managed to get into Cambridge. Looking back, and after talking to some of my friends who are also at Cambridge from underrepresented backgrounds, it’s completely understandable that I felt this way. When the actual act of getting to Cambridge feels like an insurmountable obstacle, especially for people who have no idea what Going to Cambridge or Being at Cambridge looks or feels like, it’s entirely possible to develop a bit of tunnel vision. There’s so much focus on getting here, and so much fear that you will never really get here, that you forget to stop and think about what will happen after results day. I’d been motivated through the last year of sixth form by an underlying fear that I would never be truly good enough – that I’d been offered a place here through a bizarre fluke, that Cambridge just wasn’t meant to be a space open to me, and that I would stumble at this last hurdle and miss my offer because it was all too good to be true. I’d been plagued by self-doubt and a heartbreaking longing for something I truly believed I would never ever achieve. To have this incredibly self-deprecating attitude entirely obliterated by a quick glance at UCAS Track, replaced by the expectation that I should now be instantly and entirely euphoric was, to be perfectly honest, quite a lot for my 18 year old self to handle.
So I stood in a very sweaty nightclub on Results Day, bobbing very awkwardly to music I didn’t like and knowing full well I should have been either very drunk or buzzing purely on the energy of my own accomplishments or preferably both. Instead, my mind was worrying about what would fill the space left by the fulfilment of my biggest aspiration. I was concerned that now I had no overarching Goal or Big Plan or Impressive Life Objective, I would fall apart.
As is the case a lot of the time, I was guilty of being both melodramatic and quite wrong.
Because the great thing about this slightly empty feeling is that it offers you the opportunity to fill your time with anything of your choosing. Once you’re here, you can shape your life in accordance with the purposes and pursuits of your choice. The aimlessness I was terrified I would fall into, devoid of an all-consuming sense of purpose that would push me into my next life stage, was very quickly exposed as a huge, anxiety-fuelled myth. So if you, too, have just received your A-Level results and are feeling, like I was, this strange what now feeling, let me put your mind at ease. Your life can and will be as full and as structured or as free as you want it to be.
It can be filled by essay or problem sheet or example question crises that will challenge your sanity and require every bit of your mental strength to overcome. Keep going, though, because you will get through it, and be unfalteringly kind to yourself throughout. It can be filled with an extensive knowledge of the best coffee shops and libraries to work in (you’ll develop a personal hierarchy and you will defend your chosen workspace potentially to the death). It can be filled with people, friends who are there to ply you with love and advice and care and solidarity (and baked goods that somehow satisfy EVERYONE’S very complicated dietary requirements, no mean feat) as you navigate this strange new world that will become your home. You’ll start to learn shortcuts through castle-like buildings that can get you autopiloting to your lectures and supervisions and your favourite restaurants, and you’ll build up a bank of Cambridge-specific knowledge that will have you actually using words like plodge on a regular basis. You can channel your energies into theatre, or music, or art, or activism, or cooking or watching Netflix, or napping, and you will thrive because your time will truly become your own. It might be a little scary and alienating and overwhelming when you first arrive, and that’s okay. It will be okay and you will be okay.
You can (and hopefully you will) find FLY! We are here to listen to you, to celebrate your successes and provide a sympathetic ear to any rants, and provide some of the most unfaltering and heartwarming solidarity and cheerleading I have ever encountered in my life. We are here to be a space that exists entirely and only for women and non-binary poc here, a safe haven of solidarity and love. You can construct networks and surround yourself with people who inspire you creatively and academically, who make you want to be a better activist, or friend, or advocate, because they are so passionate and engaged and giving. FLY will be there to applaud your successes and to remind you that you are wanted and meant to be at Cambridge, and that you are part of such an important community, when you most need it.
If you’re reading this because you’ve just received your A-Level results, congratulations. To get to Cambridge from an underrepresented background – whether you’re BAME, or working class, or both – is nothing short of incredible and you should most definitely take some time to let that sink in. You have absolutely smashed it, and you deserve to be here more than I can ever say, and you are going to thrive here. And if you’re feeling a little lost, or if that niggling what now thought keeps popping into your head, I can only offer the reassurance that I wish my younger self had been given. It will only get better and more exciting from here.
See you all in October. We can’t wait to meet you.