Katie Wu chats with Kit about her time at Cambridge as part of the International Programmes Department’s Spring Semester Programme
Where are you from?
I’m from Boston, from Newton, Massachusetts, about 20 minutes from Harvard which is where I am doing my undergrad. At Harvard, I’m a student in the History and Literature department where I study American history and literature.
In Cambridge, I did American Literature paper last term and a North American paper this term. It’s fun studying America from over here. From the beginning, people kind of looked at me like I had two heads when I told them that was doing that but to study your own history and culture from a different perspective has been really very cool.
What made you think about applying?
Studying abroad was not on my radar because not many people study abroad at Harvard, which I think is a shame, but I have a very good friend who was at Pembroke for Spring semester two years ago. She’s in the same department as I am at Harvard and hearing about her experiences made me want to apply. Then I got in and it became one of those things, how can I say no?
It was a really scary jump to make, because even though Harvard’s a very big place, I had created this very comfortable world and I thought ‘why am I leaving that world?’ Then to come to a place that was uncomfortable in the beginning and where things felt foreign, that was scary, but it has absolutely, absolutely lived up to expectations.
What have been the best bits?
Academically, the supervision system is entirely different and scary but it’s cool to be able to sit and talk with a professor in such an intimate academic environment. I feel like I have walked into some supervisions where my supervisor would ask me a very basic question that I answered in my paper because although I had written it down, she wanted me to be able to articulate it and to defend what I’d written. That’s just not something that I’ve ever experienced before.
I think my favourite part has been being able to focus on one subject. At Harvard I feel like I’m constantly juggling millions of things because of all my extra-curriculars, which is great and as a result, I’ve had cool experiences but it’s nice to just sit with books or sit with your friends without having to be running from one thing to another. Because of that, it was a totally new experience for me to have to be in charge of my own schedule rather than being tugged around by all these different things, which meant figuring out how I was going to structure my day, something that I found challenging in the beginning.
Getting involved in Pembroke life has defied my expectations in all these cool ways. In part, I feel like I have been able to be a freshman again and that is such a gift. When do you get to start over college again? So I’ve tried new things. I got involved in the Union so that I could watch their debates and I went to some of their debating workshops last week.
I also got involved in the Graduate Parlour’s Charity Bike Ride. That was completely wonderful, and it was totally unexpected but I thought, I would love to see the English countryside and it’s a great cause. I think in many ways, that was a little bit analogous to this whole experience – someone just suggested it, I was like, why not? Before I knew it, I was on a tandem bike with a close friend here, gearing up for an 85-mile bike ride and thinking, ‘can I actually do this? Probably not but let’s do it anyways.’
Then rowing, of course, just another thing that I jumped into. I think rowing for me was a chance to be really, really bad at something and watch myself get better. I had forgotten how much I enjoy being on an athletic team with other totally committed athletic women.
It’s been great to realise that there are something things that I think would have totally knocked me down as a Freshman, for instance, I was thinking about joining the choir and I didn’t get in, that would have really bummed me out as a Freshman but me now, I was a little disappointed and then was like, okay, now I have time to try something else. I think it’s been great to get to see myself grow like that.
The major differences?
Socially, Brits, don’t introduce themselves at the first instance and that was so different for me because at Harvard you will sit down in the dining hall and say your name, where from, your course and that’s your initial conversation. Whereas here, it was cool to have really interesting conversations with people and then for them to be ‘oh by the way, my name is this’ afterwards. In the beginning that was hard, because I wasn’t sure if these Pembroke people were friendly but you guys are so friendly. There’s just a slight difference—a refreshing difference—when it comes to “American” small talk.
I also think academic conversations are really different here because everybody is so specialised that there’s the potential that some people could only talk about what they have studied for three years, but on the other hand, because they have been so immersed in this one topic, people are more inclined to talk about it. At the same time, there’s no expectation that the person on the receiving end of that conversation should know what Computer Science is, for instance, which has made me more willing to ask people to tell me about coding or physics or whatever they’re studying. That is something that I think is really different because at home I feel like you should theoretically know basic knowledge about certain things and so people are more reserved about asking questions and admitting that they might not know anything about computer science.
I’ve also noticed that British students are really good at separating work from socialising in a way that I would love to bring back to the US for myself. If I walk into a dining hall at home, at least half the people are on their laptops in the dining hall. Yet when I go into Pembroke’s dining hall, people are talking to one another and hanging out, and don’t get me wrong, you work so hard and you spent plenty of hours in the library, but it’s this different environment. When you’re working, you’re working and when you’re done working, you socialise with friends in the Junior Parlour. The Junior Parlour is another thing that I wish we had more of at home. Having that central space for students is so great and I think that’s something that Pembroke does especially well.
What would you go back and do differently?
I think, because it was hard to make my own schedule in the beginning, I found myself in the library feeling guilty for not exploring Cambridge, and when I was exploring Cambridge, I’d feel guilty for not being in the library. I think I would tell myself to allow yourself to be this freshman again, allow yourself to explore and not be afraid of where that exploration will go. I think some Americans use this experience to explore and to go to Europe and places every weekend, but some of my more memorable moments have been picnics in Grantchester. So finding the balance between exploring outside Cambridge and also digging deep in Cambridge is so important.
Even academically, I have realised that there are ways that we study in the States that isn’t necessarily in line with the methodology over here. I ended up having this internal monologue with myself about how history is taught differently here and do I not really love history because I’m not loving this other approach? I think moments like that, you should just take a breath; you’re experiencing something different and you should just let yourself be because you’re in a new place, let yourself a relax a little bit more in the beginning.
How have you found the international community?
We Americans are really close, I think there was a great initial orientation so we all got really, really close. I also, and this was a complete surprise, I really enjoyed meeting the graduate students through the fundraising bike ride. One, because they are so close, and two, because there are so many internationals that it was really fun to speak to them about their experiences of being an international over here. I was really surprised to see how well structured the international programmes office was, all their support was great.
So you never felt stranded?
No, I never did. This is something that my friend actually told me that I kept in my head this whole semester: There will be times when you are alone, but being alone and being lonely are not the same things. And I think I’ve learnt, and I think she felt it too, that I’ve got really good at being alone and not being lonely. Before I never saw that distinction at home, if I wasn’t around my friends I thought I was lonely and sad, but some of my best moments have been taking long bike rides or writing in my journal. This was especially huge for someone who really sees themselves as an extrovert, to find out that I not only love, but also need those moments of being alone. On a personal level, that was a really cool thing to experience. I think the academic nature, and the lack of classes in the same way that we have them in the US really allowed me to make that distinction.
What are you taking back?
I feel like I’ll be very much more connected to any international student at Harvard, a lot more like ‘wow, tell me about your experiences’ or ‘I can imagine x, y, or z might be really hard for you’.
I also think that this distinction between work and socialising will be very good for me, I think I’ve definitely learnt how to do that better this year. I also want to take more classes in different areas. My close friends here, one of them did sociology, someone else did politics, hearing about their essays every week I was cool and made me think I would love to do more of this.
I’ve discovered that we are very adaptable – we put ourselves in a different environment and feel uncomfortable but get to a point where you’re not only comfortable, but in a community that you will be devastated to leave. Realising that has made me even more excited to maybe travel to do my PostGraduate degree, whether it be at Pembroke again, which is definitely something at the back of my mind, or whether it be somewhere else in the US.