Pembroke student Will Gayne (2013) explains what it’s like to be a Programme Assistant, or PA, on the Pembroke-King’s Programme:
In many ways being a PA is a training ground for being a celebrity. Obviously that’s not something I’ve ever been before and I doubt I’ll ever be again, so I’m enjoying the attention while it lasts. If you’re doing your job well you quickly find that most of the 350 students seem to know your name – whilst you’re scrambling to remember the few you see the most. There are drawbacks though. I spent a good two weeks with every group of Americans I sat with at dinner laughing whenever I said ‘yoghurt’.
There’s no typical day but I usually wake up at 7:30, curse that I’m in the accommodation block furthest from work, then have a mad dash on my bike dodging the poor souls who haven’t been here long enough to understand Cambridge’s fiendishly complicated one way system. Even six weeks in, work starts in a rush. We have to set up all teaching rooms for when class starts at 9am and, whilst we know what we’re doing, there’s a huge amount to get done in just half an hour. We have projectors to set up, room layouts to change plus any special requests that lecturers might have to contend with. On top of that there’s the niggly little issues with equipment –the kind of stuff that’s inevitable when you’re dealing with organisation on this scale.We’ve taken it in our stride and managed every time so far, but there’s an audible sigh of relief at 9.05am when we get back to the office.
During the start of the morning all the PAs are still around, planning their activities for the rest of the week and sorting out other admin stuff, but by 10am-ish most are out running trips and sports with the students. These range from the conventional museum trip or tennis match to the wacky, an Introduction to Old English or a Quidditch match. If anyone has any idea where I can get 14 broomsticks I’d be incredibly grateful…
It’s also probably easier to think of the role as lots of different jobs all at once, like some kind of quick scene change that you see on stage. In one sense you’ve got to be a helpful, approachable friend to everyone, happy to sort out any problems they might have no matter how small. In the past that’s included a family of (at least) three spiders that needed removing from someone’s room! There’s also another side that’s more serious, like invigilating the exams. I got a Senior Invigilator role (go me!) so was ultimately responsible for making sure firstly that no one cheated and secondly that all the exams got back to the professors. Stalking around the hall in my gown I felt pretty professional. It was going really well until the last 10 mins when I tripped up and fell on my face. Very awkward for everyone.
That’s probably a metaphor for the whole experience really. There’s a lot to be on top of, and we all take our jobs seriously, but at the end of the day we’re the same age as the students, and that can’t help but come through, particularly when we fall on our faces! I think it helps us to better connect with them, which at the end of the day is what the job is all about. They’re from all over the world and just chatting to them on a daily basis gives you an insight into what it’s like as a student in other countries.
This is usually the point at which I go off on some deep and emotionally overwrought train of thought, but I’ve been discouraged from that. Instead I’m going to go take some of the students punting. At least this time if I face plant I’ll have a soft landing.