Why there’s no need to feel pressure to go to a May Ball

There’s more than one way to enjoy May Week

Somehow, it is standard procedure for Cambridge students to spend between a hundred and two hundred pounds on a ticket to a single party at the end of the year during May Week. Some might purchase several of these tickets, leading them to spend up to £700 on May Week.

I do not wish to criticise May Ball aficionados, and nor do I wish to get on the moral high ground. Last year, I attended Downing May Ball, and I had a lovely night. May Balls are a great way to celebrate and let loose after emerging from the intense pressure cooker that is Easter Term.

But I was left feeling that my night just wasn’t quite worth the amount I spent. My ticket cost me well over a hundred pounds, and I also bought a dress and a new pair of shoes; I probably spent around two hundred in total. I feel that I could have had just as good a night at a smaller, more intimate party, or even hanging out one-on-one with my best friend. Maybe I’m just not very materialistic.

I am quite a strong-minded individual and an independent thinker, which I guess is why I am writing this article. Essentially, I found myself resisting the whole idea that going to an extravagant, lavish party centred around alcohol consumption and aesthetic photos at the end of term is the done thing, a norm.

I imagine I am not the only one who has picked up on the cultural normalisation of May Balls. These balls are simply not everyone’s cup of tea, especially non-drinkers and introverts – which leads me to think that some people probably do feel under pressure, even if it is only subconsciously.

But increasingly, students are finding new ways to celebrate the end of exams, perhaps spending the money on a short holiday – or giving it to charity.

I recently came across May Week Alternative (MWA), an initiative which tries to harness the positive atmosphere of May Week in a new way by offering a non-judgemental alternative. In two years, MWA has seen over 500 students choose to celebrate May Week through giving, regardless of whether or not they are going to May Balls. I spoke to George Rosenfeld, its founder, to learn a bit more about the concept and their aims.

“I was a first year and May Week was obviously something everyone was talking about. I remember thinking to myself: what if we could take this old tradition of May Week and take it in a new direction? What if we could put giving and charity right at the heart of May Week? That would be such a special way of celebrating the end of exams – recognising the opportunities we have studying here and asking how we can use those opportunities to make the world around us a better place.”

He explained to me that MWA’s message isn’t intended to criticise May Balls or discourage students from going to them. He told me that many students who donate through MWA also go to a May Ball.

“I think that one of the reasons we’ve grown so quickly is because we’ve managed to create a space which is welcoming to all sorts of people. Some people have found MWA to be the perfect complement to the ball(s) they are attending, other people didn’t want to go to a ball and have now found somewhere they feel more comfortable.”

“We’re here to offer another way for people to celebrate,” he told me, “and one which will have a huge impact on the lives of hundreds around the world. And it’s inspiring to see just how many people have joined us.”

MWA encourages students to donate the approximate cost of a ball ticket (recommended £150) to the Against Malaria Foundation, though students can choose a different charity if they prefer. George explained to me that students who can’t afford or don’t feel comfortable donating the cost of a May Ball ticket are welcome to join for any amount which they consider significant.

“What we’re trying to do is change the way people think about charity. We’re not trying to guilt people into doing something, we’re not trying to make some kind of moralistic argument about what they should or shouldn’t be spending their money on, we’re trying to frame significant giving as a really positive thing, something which people can take forward into their future lives.”

May Week Alternative has grown rapidly and is attracting more and more students every year. In the first fortnight of this year’s donations period, 300 students have already joined. MWA has now raised more than £140,000 since it was set up two years ago, enough to protect more than 160,000 people from malaria – the entire population of Cambridge is only 125,000.

If you choose to join MWA, there is also an opportunity to gather with other students at their Summer Party, described as a ‘celebration of giving’, which is funded entirely by external sponsorship.

“It’s an opportunity for people to come together and reflect on the collective impact of all these donations and celebrate May Week as well.”

My aim here was to encourage you to think about May Week in a different way. By no means do I wish to launch a moralistic critique of May Balls, but just to suggest that there are other ways to celebrate May Week which may be more up your street.

And if you were inspired by George’s passion for charity and giving, the link to sign up to May Week Alternative can be found here.

Cover image credit: Wikipedia Commons