The summer before senior year is unlike any other that precedes it. Suddenly, the intangible future seems so near as the call of higher education materializes in the form of colorful college brochures proliferating in mailboxes (both physical and digital), the launch of the common application come August 1, and the single question that every high school senior is far too familiar with: “what are you going to do next year?”
For three long years, this question could be avoided and maneuvered by the skilled tactician, but now, as we stand at the doorway between adolescence and adulthood, we must face it head on.
Somehow, this frantic search for a future led me across the ocean, to the world-renowned University of Cambridge.
A rare path for American students, but not an impossible one. As I poured over the university’s website and read the testimonials of American students there, I fell more and more in love with the idea of studying at the alma mater of geniuses such as Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin, and when we planned our trip to Europe, we made sure a trip to Cambridge was on the itinerary.
After a morning at Tate Modern, we hopped on a train at Kings Cross Station, and in an hour and a half, we were pulling into Cambridge Station.
Stepping out of the station was underwhelming as we were introduced by beeping cranes and dusts of construction, but a quick taxi ride into town revealed a quaint college town that was the epitome of timeless beauty. With its little shops, winding cobblestone streets, pristine green lawns, soaring gothic architecture, and air of academia, Cambridge took my breath away.
Unfortunately, we had arrived in the midst of May Ball Week, meaning many of the colleges were closed to visitors as they prepared for their May Balls (incredible end-of-finals parties with free-flowing champagne, fireworks, and musical entertainment all though the night and into the morning), but as a “prospective student,” I was allowed to enter the offices within the colleges and sneak a few pictures like this one.
I was quite disappointed that we couldn’t tour the colleges, as actually being able to see the the accommodation and facilities would have helped me decide which college to apply to, but alas, one can’t have everything. A very kind lady in the administration office of St. Johns College (across the street from the college itself) offered me St. Johns’ prospectus and walked me through the admissions process as an international student, but then she delivered some troubling news… due to a new government-imposed quota, each college would only be able to accept one overseas medical student maximum. Needless to say, the information was quite discouraging, as I saw my personal acceptance rate fall from the relatively high 20.8% acceptance rate (compared to the single number acceptance rates of its American equivalents) to a dismal percentage. However, the kindness and courtesy of the St. Johns lady only made me want to try even harder as well as placed St. Johns at the top of my college list. We thanked her profusely as we left the old wooden building, pamphlets in hand.
After trying and failing to enter other colleges, the academic part of the trip was over and we decided to go punting (similar to riding in the gondolas of Venice) down the River Cam. Did you know the university was named after the river? Cam + Bridge = Cambridge! Drifting down the river while our punter regaled us with stories of enjoying the live music of May Balls with a six-pack of beer and without the $300+ ticket was the very definition of serenity on a perfect summer afternoon. The views along the river were simply incredible as we caught glimpses of some of the colleges on the river, the white tents and live music of the Trinity College May Ball, Cambridge students relaxing on the riverbank with picnics and champagne, and tuxedoed boys “pre-gaming” for May Ball around spirits. Here are just a few snapshots.
After we disembarked the punt, it was time to meet up with my mother’s old friends at The Eagle pub, where Watson and Crick announced that they had “discovered the secret of life.” We sat at the same table they sat at daily to discuss their research on DNA, and it was surreal to know that I dined at the site where history was made, where our very DNA was discovered. There’s a little bit of history around every corner, and that’s another reason I love Cambridge so much.
I was surprised that there wasn’t more recognition for this momentous spot, save for a small plaque over the table, but I suppose that most diners were regulars, Cambridge being a smaller town. I ordered a steak & ale pie, but unfortunately, it wasn’t very good. The lamb chops, though, I would recommend!
After a long dinner of happy spirits and camaraderie, we walked past the famous Cavendish Laboratory, where J.J. Thompson discovered the electron with a cathode ray, on the way back to the train station. Little reminders of the amazing breakthroughs that have occurred at Cambridge cultivate the overall atmosphere of learning and discovery. Here at Cambridge, the very building blocks of matter and human life made their debut, and that mentality of contribution to science still lives today.
We were just able to catch the midnight train (going anywhere…), and as we zoomed away, I waved goodbye to Cambridge with the promise that I would be back.
Update: About two weeks after we returned from Europe, I received a large, slightly beat-up envelope, postmarked from Cambridge. Excitedly, I ripped open the package and the prospectus from Trinity College that I had signed up for while there fell in my lap. Included was a handy outline of the admissions statistics from the previous year, and I was slightly cheered to discover that only 24 overseas medical students had applied in 2014, and one was accepted. Although still a dismal 4.2% acceptance rate, it seemed much more in the realm of possibility. However, after further research, I realized that it would not be practical for me to pursue Medicine in the UK, as the curriculum is different from the States, where I wish to practice in the future. I had fallen in love with the place, but the program was not for me. It was painful to do so, but I decided not to apply to the University of Cambridge and instead focus on American universities, many of which echo Cambridge’s college system, strong research program, and gothic architecture. Wherever I end up next year, I know that I will be happy. I have yet to forget about my promise to Cambridge, and I have no intent to break it. Whether it be by a study abroad program or another vacation, I know that I will be back. Until then, I’ll remember cobbled streets and pristine lawns through my dreams.