My Shadow and Me

JOE WHITWELL took part in CUSU’s mentoring scheme and reports back on his experience.


This year, I took part in CUSU’s Shadowing Scheme. For three days, I was followed about by a promising sixth former with little to no understanding of what university life, let alone Cambridge life, is like. To be eligible, the ‘shadows’ must come from a family where going to university isn’t the norm, and attend a state school.

When I came to collect my shadow, from a lecture theatre in Emmanuel College, I was confronted by the sight of what was to be (or perhaps not to be) the future generation of this great, if rather accessibility-challenged, university. In a scene that felt eerily like the collection of WWII evacuees, the children had been sat down, assigned numbers, and left to wait for their ‘mentor’ to pick them up. A quick scan – both visual and aural – seemed to suggest that a non-Cambridge background constitutes being either northern, from inner-city London, or from an ethnic minority. The main way to tell apart the mentors from their shadows, however, was the latter’s lack of Sidgwick-style knitwear.

Of the crowd, some looked excited, some worried, and some as if they’d just fallen down the Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole into somewhere just as bizarre, Cambridge. As I walked into the lecture hall I passed some poor shadow being led out by a student wearing a bow tie, wheeling his unicycle alongside him. Yes, a unicycle.

All aboard the Cambridge Express

My shadow was of the northern variety. First conversations were predictable – A Level choices, the journey to Cambridge, the weather… After this I faltered slightly. Luckily my shadow happily took over. She was surprised that the tables in the cafe weren’t chained to the floor. I quickly reverted back to the accent of my homeland and was pleased I could relate to her course aspirations and general outlook on life. Her heart wasn’t set on Cambridge. I told her that was a healthy attitude to have. Still, I introduced her to the lexicon of antiquated and bizarre Cambridge terms. Her ability to suss out acronyms and abbreviations was pretty impressive – better than mine had been after I’d been here for a month. Admittedly she struggled with plodge, but then again, didn’t we all?

For a glorious two and a half days, I found myself doing things that I’ve never done in my time here. I walked around the colleges in town just to appreciate their architecture, visited the UL, procrastinated without feeling guilty and, even more excitingly, watched TV. ITV2’s Magaluf Weekender is a must-see.

The more coffee I drank and the more advice I gave out, the more I thought about Cambridge – my expectations of it and the reality. You see, the thing with the Shadowing Scheme is that I am not sure what its aims were. If it intends to give shadows a taste of what being a Cambridge student is like, then I failed spectacularly, but I did so on purpose. I didn’t spend 8 hours in the library like I usually do on a Friday because I didn’t want my shadow to have an utterly shit time. Instead, I took her to a selection of lectures that I’d picked out for looking interesting, not typical. As for the fabled essay crisis? Well, I could feel the usual panic bubbling up inside me, but I joyfully forced it deep, deep down inside until said shadow was back on the train to the North. Of course, it thereafter exploded like a sort of panicky allergic reaction. But the weekend had been bliss.

Perhaps CUSU’s  goal was to show the shadows that we’re all totally down to earth, just like the kids at other universities. But this wouldn’t have washed, either. Because we’re all odd. In the bubble we might feel normal, but we’re not. And not just the bow-tie wearing, unicycle proficient type of odd, but the get-up-and-row-after-a-night-out kind of odd or the dependency-on-caffeine-simply-to-maintain-a-normal-state-of-living odd. (I’m going to stop listing oddness as I am close to breaking my hyphen key.) I didn’t want to give the impression that we’re all down to earth. Instead, I showed us to be friendly but eccentric, sarcastic yet joyfully masochistic in our work ethic. In short, I think I showed my shadow what we’re really like as people.

Video taken from the CUSU website.

If, then, the purpose of the shadowing scheme is to encourage kids from non-Cambridge backgrounds to apply here, I think I did a good job. I think, or certainly hope, it’s possible to encourage a more diverse range of students to apply here whilst not completely obscuring the oddities that define this slightly dysfunctional university experience. In retrospect, I tried to show my shadow that she could belong here, regardless of who she was or where she was from.

As I said my last goodbyes, I felt a sense of sadness that my shadow was having to return home, to the real world, where the most prevalent type of crime is far more serious than bicycle theft and meals are not guaranteed at the same time every day.

I was also filled with a slight tinge of sadness that I was returning back to my world where the interiors of other colleges were to be seen only on route to supervisions, where an essay task set one day later than usual is deeply unsettling, and where a bow-tie wearing unicyclist doesn’t raise any eyebrows, unless of course, he is cycling on the grass.