After a year in the Bay Area, I left the US, went across the pond to England to go to grad school at Cambridge. Living amongst centuries-old gothic architecture feels like a reverie that’s in sharp contrast to the modern buildings that inhabit my new home, Cambridge, MA.
It’s been a few months since I’ve returned stateside. Since coming back, I've often been asked questions like, "How was Cambridge?", "How are the US and England different?", "What was your program like?, etc. These questions prompted answers that largely categorize into two buckets 1) The academic experience and 2) Social and cultural differences.
The Academic Experience
Compare to my undergrad years, my time at Cambridge felt a lot more self-driven. There were only three grades (two 6,500-word essays and a 20,000-word dissertation) for my program. Classes are meant to supplement your knowledge, but there wasn’t any direct assessment of content learned in my classes. There was also a supervision system, where I had an advisor who supported me throughout the assignments. Each supervisor is different, but this system is conducive to a more student-driven academic experience. I enjoyed this system because it allowed me to get real-time feedback on my writing from an expert in my field of interest. Another one of the reasons why I wanted to come to the UK for postgraduate work was to get stronger theoretical training in my field. I studied international education, and I felt that my curriculum was much more theory-oriented compared to the more practitioner bent of comparable programs in the US.
Another key difference relates to the Cambridge’s long history. Being in an institution centuries older than my own country was fascinating to reflect upon. Another difference was the university’s organization. Cambridge has a constituent college system. Each student is a member of a college, which has its own unique culture, tradition, and history. Each college is meant to have a mix of students from all different subject areas. The college primarily functions as a site for students' pastoral care. Colleges usually have chapels and formal halls for dining with multi-course meals.
My college, St. John's, was founded by Lady Margaret Beaufort (King Henry VIII's grandmother) in 1511. Being one of the older colleges, John’s ad much pomp and circumstance. For example, during formal hall, members of my college have to wear black gowns (think Harry Potter) to dinner. Before the meal begins and after the meal concludes, a prayer is read in Latin. You are then served a three-course meal over 2 hours. Although students don't attend formal halls every night, these dinners occur almost every night during school term. It’s also fun to attend formals at different colleges.
During the second, or Easter term, there was a strike that happened all across universities in the UK in response to proposed pension cuts for university staff. Many of my classes were canceled and my grading structure was affected. Coming into my program I only had three assignments devoted to my entire program grade. Because of the strike, the second essay no longer counted towards my final grade (no dissertation grade pressure!). Witnessing the strike shed some insight into socio-political differences between the UK and the US. Sure, there have been protests back during my undergrad, but they were largely student-driven and I can’t imagine class being canceled, much less assignments not being factored into the final grade of an entire degree, because of protests.
One of the cultural divergences that struck me the most involve racial dynamics. During the matriculation photo at my college, which includes both undergraduate and graduate students, I looked around to see only a few people of color. Yet, discussions seem to center on class divisions as opposed to racial ones. This feels very different from the U.S., where race is central to discourse related to identity.
Something else that was fascinating to see was feeling like my "Americanness" was magnified before my eyes. Compared to most Brits I met, who aired on the side of being reserved and subded reactions, I felt that my everyday statements were hyperboles in England. It also was tough to feel so far away from what was happening in the U.S. Growing up in Texas and as a daughter of immigrants, the family separations at the border especially hit home for me.
I’m glad to be back in the US, close to my family and good friends. Sometimes I do get nostalgic and think back—Cambridge feels like a dream, of castles, Harry Potter gowns, and formal halls. Funny enough, one of the things I miss the most is a coffee shop called Bould Brothers. I’m not a regular coffee drinker, but Bould Brothers got me hooked. I’ve since gone back to my non-coffee drinking ways, but every now and then I’ll really crave a latte. Who would’ve thought the land of tea would produce the best coffee I’ve ever had!