Author Archives: Sofia in England

About Sofia in England

Hi, my name is Sofia and this summer I will be studying at Cambridge University in England. You can follow my adventures on the Gilman Global Experience Blog!

Finishing college and Cambridge

This week I finished my college degree. In the past five years I have written dozens of papers, taken countless tests and quizzes, and spent hundreds of hours in the library, but Thursday night that all concluded when I submitted my final paper. As I said before it all feels a bit odd finishing my degree at the University of Cambridge, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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A pasture near River Great Ouse.

With the completion of this study abroad program I feel well prepared to jump into my next stage of life. In college I lived in the urban city of Berkeley, the rural mountain community of Monteverde Costa Rica, and now finally the historical town of Cambridge. I never thought going to university would provide the opportunity to travel and live in so many new places and I can confidently say that living abroad has been the most educational experiences during my time in college. Powerpoints, lectures, and discussions provide for academic growth, but living in a new country allows for growth in far more important ways.

Snapshots of St. Ives, Cambridgeshire on my 23rd birthday

Having visited the UK once before and having previously studied abroad, I did not experience the same radical personal changes that are common from your first time abroad. That being said, this experience was in no way any less important. At UC Berkeley students feel an intense pressure to immediately launch into a career, which makes a high stress environment conducive to rash decisions. Being here we were all so engaged with the Cambridge community and English culture that we didn’t have the mental space to worry too much about job apps and resumes. This is not to say that career planning was put on hold, to the contrary this program has provided the time to think deeply about my career priorities and goals. I have had many discussions with the locals, my professors, and my peers about careers in medicine and science. I even perused the job openings on the local hospital’s website this week. Studying abroad at the end of my college career has provided freedom and time to deeply ponder my career direction and aspirations, a luxury I would not have had if I was back home.

Local snacks! These were the best scones I have ever tried and we couldn’t resist indulging in the wild blackberries.

 Furthermore, living in Cambridge has given me a window into a different lifestyle. In the United States I would never have the chance to live in an 800-year-old building or visit ancient Roman sites such as Bath. There is a sense of permanence here that is oddly comforting: life has persisted for thousands of years and will continue to do so while you are here, and after you are gone. Layered upon this antiquity is a vibrant modern culture. Walking through the beautiful stone buildings you see live music almost every day, food from all over the world, and the distinctive youth fashion. Life here is founded on traditions and history, but also innovative and progressive. Getting to experience life in England I can now relate better to European foreigners and better understand what influences their morals and values. I will incorporate various habits and customs that I learned here when I return home.

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Gonville & Caius College on King’s Parade

A piece of England will always remain with me in the form of the growth I experienced here. Cambridge has given me a certain steadiness and confidence that I would not have had if I chose to do summer school in Berkeley. I feel more firm in who I am, but at the same time more open to change. Studying abroad has been an exercise in assessing my strengths and weakness; I know what I am capable of and what I need to work on. As I pack my bags, melancholy washes over me: it is difficult letting go of this beautiful chapter in my life, but I can’t help but be excited for the next one. I am no longer a university student, but I know that as long as I can travel I will never stop learning.

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A day in Cambridge

It’s 6 am and the rumblings of tourist season are already drifting through my window. My room is perched above King’s Parade, a historically significant street that attracts flocks of tourists to its shops, restaurants, and colleges. Since I don’t have class until 10:15 am, I grab my ear plugs and try and doze a little longer. Eventually I am woken by either my alarm, or the humidity from this perpetual heat wave. My family would be quick to inform you that I am the antithesis of a morning person, so it’s not till I have downed my morning bowl of matcha tea that I can contemplate my day’s schedule. Classes, homework, and some sort of evening activity.

 

 

Descending the spiral staircase from my bedroom I pop in my headphones and brace myself for the crowds. After 15 minutes of deftly dodging honking cars, screeching children, and racing cyclists, I arrive at class in the Engineering building. During my final three weeks at Cambridge I am taking one class, Behavior Ecology, which means I have lecture five times a week, and seminar twice a week, for one hour and fifteen minutes each. Lectures usually consist of a standard PowerPoint presentation, whereas seminars are much smaller and we partake in demonstrations, activities, and discussions.

After my morning lecture on predator-prey behavior, I have a two-hour break until my seminar. There isn’t quite enough time to return to King’s College for lunch, so I meet some friends at our favorite coffee shop across the street from the lecture hall. The cafe, Hot Numbers, always has delicious sandwiches, drinks, and salads; I cringe to think of how much of my food money has been spent here.

 After getting a snack and finishing a bit of work, I head to Pembroke College where my seminar group is meeting. Today we are exploring Coe Fen, a semi-rural meadow that adjoins the busy city center. Here hotels and pubs populate one side of the River Cam and cattle roam through wild fields on the other side. We follow our professor to various locations as he points out examples of wildlife behavior he explained in the morning lecture. Even through the heat and humidity is oppressive, it’s exciting to be outside and learning about the local flora and fauna.

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Our professor explaining how animals distribute according to the amount of food resources in the environment by feeding the mallards and Canadian geese bread chunks.

I walk back to King’s as my mind buzzes with damsel fly mating patterns and goose feeding habits. During dinner my friends and I swap stories of our day, or of our lives back home. Evenings here are almost always different. If we have exams I will head to the library, if I feel a bit antsy I will take a sunset stroll along the River Cam, or if I have time I will take part in one of the program coordinated events. Almost every night there is some sort of optional social program or lecture, but everyone’s favorite event is the formal hall.

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Dinner at King’s College

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My bedroom desk where I attempt to study

During the school year most Cambridge colleges have formal hall multiple times a week. Cocktail dresses or suits are required and the three-course meal is always delicious. The grand hall rings with laughter and the tinkling of utensils. After the beautiful candlelit affair everyone goes out to the bar or club to dance off the endless wine.

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Some of my friends before our second formal.

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My friend is also graduating from UC Berkeley when we finish our courses in two weeks.

Since there are only three formal dinners most nights are occupied elsewise. Regardless of the evening activity the best part of every day is returning to King’s College and stepping into the courtyard just beyond the gate. On the right King’s Chapel soars toward the sky, in front is the stunning Gibb’s Building, and to the left is the building where I live. A delicate silence permeates the open space, one that is almost startling after the sudden cessation of the day’s activity. The stained-glass windows of King’s Chapel twinkle from a mysterious inward light and the cool night breeze plays with my sun dress. If the weather permits, the sky alights with thousands of stars. The sweetness of these moments provides a breath of time for reflection and gratitude.

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Gibb’s Building is the first thing you see as you walk through the gates of King’s College.

Heading left to my building, I climb the spiral staircase, rinse off the day’s sunscreen, and crawl into bed. I listen to the murmuring of the late-night lovers or the random guffaw from friends walking home from the pub. These sounds lull me to sleep as think about all that occurred during the day and prepare for tomorrow’s adventure.

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Looking over the River Cam at the back of Gibb’s Building and King’s Chapel.

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Roses and Thorns

After a lovely day exploring the botanic gardens and the city, I lay in bed thinking about my last two weeks and all the ups and downs. Most of my time has been spent in class or with new friends, which has been challenging and rewarding in equal measures.

 

Back in January when I was selecting my courses, I decided to leave my biology comfort zone and try a completely new subject: world politics. I hope to one day work in the field of global health and I figured studying world politics at a foreign university would be a good place to start. As it turns out, trying to understand international relations theory in three weeks is like trying to drink from a fire hose. I am stumbling through a confusing world of Realism, non-state players, and international power balance. Every 75-minute class is a test in mental stamina, but I can already feel my understanding of the world’s political system growing and changing.

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The graduation parade with undergraduate, masters, and graduate students heading to city hall to formally complete their degree.

Before this class I didn’t quite grasp the magnitude of the United States’ influence in world politics. From World War II, to the Cold War, to modern day, the foreign and domestic policies of the US have had far greater impacts then I ever imagined. This realization has been reinforced by several conversations I have had with the locals. I was surprised to find that many of them can speak more eloquently about the US politics situation then most of my friends back home. A Cambridge PhD student even told me that it is “trendy” amongst his friends to keep up with United States’ politics. Two weeks ago I would never have guessed that learning from an Iranian professor at a British institution, surrounded by peers from around the world, would challenge my identity as an American citizen. I am realizing that to truly understand your role as a US citizen abroad, you need to first understand how America’s current and historical actions have impacted the country you are visiting. As I learn more about America’s position in world politics from class, my peers, and the Cambridge locals, I become increasingly cognizant of how I portray myself and my country.

When I am not grappling with political theory, I am meeting scores of new people every day. My program is comprised of 350 students representing many countries. Over our traditional English breakfast, I learn about life in Canada, Singapore, and China. Back home I don’t normally talk to groups of complete strangers, but here I find myself speaking up without hesitation. Walking home from class on Friday I came across a group of three recently graduated Cambridge University students who were circled around a baby bird in distress. After thirty minutes of discussion we finally decided to move the little fluff ball from the busy road to the safer shrubbery nearby. We left the bird with water and sardines and I left with a promise to see my bird-rescuing compatriots again. It’s not always all roses though, being removed from your family and friends can be disorienting, stressful, and sometimes awkward. Last week I was toughly embarrassed to have mistaken a girl in my class for another girl whom I had eaten dinner with the night before. Tactless moments aside, fitting into a whole new social network is a difficult and wonderful experience.

 

My program’s rigorous course load, and vibrant social life, has made these last two weeks feel like two days. With each new experience and conversation my sense of self, and conception of our global community, shifts a little bit more. There are many moments where I have been uncomfortable or anxious, but from each of these moments of difficulty, I grow a little bit more as a person. I believe someone once said the you cannot have the rose without the thorns, and I couldn’t agree more.

 

 

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Arriving in Cambridge

I arrived at King’s Cross with an owl tucked under my arm and my Hogwarts invitation in hand. Okay, so it was actually an enormous backpack and my acceptance letter to Cambridge University in England, but Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross was indeed mobbed with tourists pretending to be the newest Gryffindor students. Boarding a train at the adjacent platform 9, I sat down near a kind British couple and spent the next hour discussing with them the differences and similarities between England and America. I was surprised to learn that English citizens have up to four weeks of vacation time per year, where American citizens only have two weeks. The woman worked as a software developer and it was a dream of hers to work in the Silicon Valley to see how the California corporate environment differed from her male-dominated team. Having just lived in the heart of the Bay Area tech industry for five years, I described the fast paced and innovative startup culture of America. Finally reaching Cambridge, we said goodbye and exchanged contact information.

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These two images were taken at the farmer’s market in the center of town. Vendors were selling locally grown gooseberries and currents, which are a rare find at my farmer’s market in California.

Stepping out of the train station I was greeted with jubilant cheers and song. It wasn’t my imaginary fanfare rejoicing my arrival, but rather the locals celebrating the English football team’s pivotal World Cup win and their advancement to the semi-finals. As a life-long soccer player I immediately felt at home. While I am here I hope to play with the locals and plan to watch the final games of the World Cup at the pub across the street from my room (which happens to be where Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA).

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The Eagle is the pub where Watson and Crick announced their discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. As a biology major it is a true treat to see this pub from my window every day.

As the taxi shuttled me to my dorm, anxieties about my living accommodations bubbled to the surface. My program only provided a single picture and sentence about each room type, so before I left America I did some serious Google sleuthing. But there was no need to worry, as the driver left I was completely stunned by the grandeur of my living accommodations. When I walk out of my room I see the King’s College Chapel, a massive gothic structure that often has beautiful choir music drifting from its stained-glass windows and I take my meals in a dining hall that has soaring ceilings and walls adorn with portraits of past headmasters. I am continually awed by the beauty and traditions of Kings College and Cambridge University.

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The King’s College Chapel and the entrance gate to King’s college. I see this every morning when I leave for class.

Living and studying in Cambridge feels unreal. I have spent the last five years studying molecular, cellular biology at the University of California Berkeley and will be finishing my undergraduate degree with this six week program. Concluding my degree in a foreign country might be untraditional, but it feels like the perfect stepping stone from college into the “real world”. I may be handing my acceptance letter to a boarder control official instead of Hagrid, but Cambridge is permeated with a different sort of magic, one that is powered by choirs in ancient chapels and friendly strangers on trains.

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Me taking photos in Paris one day before leaving for England.

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