By Zahra Seyyad
A ‘bubble’. A ‘whirlwind’. These words are commonly used to refer to Cambridge as a university environment. ‘Home’ eventually becomes a popular choice too. Those first two words, however, are what strike me the most: they serve to characterise the Cambridge experience. You’re closed off from the outside world and you’re constantly rushed off your feet during the eight-week terms, pressured into thinking you must always be busy. After all, having shorter terms means having six-week vacation periods in which to recover and reflect.
But there is a curious narrative surrounding ‘holidays’ in the Cambridge context. For starters, we don’t even get to refer them as that. ‘Vacation’ is a choice of word justified by the fact students are asked to physically ‘vacate’ their rooms at the end of term. It soon becomes clear, however, that the concept of a break does not extend much further than this process of physically ‘vacating’ Cambridge. During these six-week periods away, the expectation is that academic focus must transcend a student’s location.
The opportunity cost of having short terms is allegedly that, during them, all our energy be devoted to ‘all things Tripos’. It would appear that we all missed the fine print, though. The fine print that details how Cambridge will ultimately pervade every aspect of your life, how giving it your all for eight weeks is not actually enough. Yet, home cannot truly be healing if I am dragging myself there, shackled to reading lists or essays.
However, for some, returning home is a reminder of what being ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place’ actually means. The assumption is that going home is the opportunity to escape to an environment where you can rest, a place where familiarity breeds happiness. This mentality is such a reductive vision of the vacation that spreads dangerously amongst students. As Cambridge risks contaminating my time at home, I no longer wish to be there. The university is naturally a hostile environment for women of colour. When that hostility overflows into my home, I realise there is little reprieve.
When I try to address how difficult the environment can be, immediate rebuttals follow, playing down my lived experiences. The weird thing about the time we ought to spend celebrating with our families is that it’s impossible to prepare for. It’s impossible to prepare for callous comments that invalidate my feelings, or side-glances that cast me a stranger. So, for as much as Cambridge may give me little chance to rest, it’s something I can roughly prepare for, something I can read for: almost anything can be done. For home, not so much.
As I realise that I run the risk of spending a lifetime either living through those experiences or recounting them, it dawns on me that only I can give myself a break. It suddenly occurs to me that all concepts of the holidays or the vacations are mere formalities. A truly restful break is something that we must learn to allow ourselves, term time or not.