‘Leaving Cambridge initially didn’t feel real’: Graduates of 2020 on their last term

Swapping a graduation hood for a lockdown beard, and May Balls for socially-distanced BBQs

Last week marked would-be graduation week 2020, one which usually sees daily processions of Cambridge students in their full regalia file into the Senate House in the centre of Cambridge, sun shining, with family members in tow. This year, however, has been a bit different.

Sitting finals, May Week, Grad Week and graduation are all significant rites of passage for any Cambridge student in an ordinary year, but in 2020, the year of a global pandemic, all of these had to be rethought, readjusted or postponed.

What was it like sitting finals at home, pressing submit and finishing your degree in your childhood bedroom? What was it like to realise that you’d done all your Cambridge ‘lasts’ without knowing? And, perhaps most importantly, did the ‘spraying’ tradition survive? We spoke to the 2020 cohort who, perhaps, have had the most unique finals in history:

“It’s been over three months now and I’m still processing everything”

The rapidly-developing lockdown situation in mid-March meant that within days finalists had gone from expecting to go back to Cambridge as normal after the holidays, to facing an adjusted term, to realising that there would be no term in Cambridge to go back to at all. Madeleine Southey, final-year Law student at Trinity, just could not believe that she wouldn’t be back to Cambridge: “I remember one of my friends saying that it was the end, but I didn’t really believe it, so I didn’t really say goodbye to anything – I even left my bike in the underground storage.”

Those who chose a later leaving date at the end of Lent Term, or who had originally planned to stay at university over the Easter holidays (not an uncommon decision amongst finalists), were still in Cambridge when Toope’s fateful email of a cancelled term landed in their inboxes. It was those, like Emmanuel College historian Finnian Robinson, who witnessed the ever-worsening situation first-hand. “It was the succession of increasingly final goodbyes to friends which hit me hardest. At the start of the week we would wave off a housemate thinking there was a good chance we’d see them back in Cambridge in five or six weeks. In a few days time however, and after several gloomy emails from Toope, those of us still left were fully aware we wouldn’t be returning for next term and each departure seemed to become more emotional than the last.”

Saying goodbye to friends who you expected to be living with or seeing every day again come the start of April was what many found the hardest part, as their year group would be scattered across the country over lockdown, after graduation, and beyond. Caitlin Cashmore-Roche, another History finalist, also describes commiserating with her friends: “We drank champagne and ordered pizza and sowed wildflower seeds in our garden but it was really sad knowing I wouldn’t get to live with them again when living with them had been one of the best experiences of my life.” 

Geographer Robyn Topper explains not only the sadness, but the shock of it all: “Leaving Cambridge initially didn’t feel real. From the initial low of returning home, replaced by the panic of dissertations and coursework intermingled with a steady recognition of the situation/ movement towards acceptance, to the bizarre reality of online exams. It’s been over three months now and I’m still processing everything.

The sense of sudden loss was summed up by Caitlin: “I thought we had another eight weeks together but it was just ripped away.”

Madeleine found it very difficult to think about the lost term for several weeks after leaving. She told the Tab: “Earlier on in quarantine I couldn’t think about what we’d missed out in the last term without having a bit of a cry,” but has since been able to look on it more positively, “I’ve kind of made peace with it now, and in a way its nice to have some reasons to be returning to Cambridge in the next year or two. ”

“The experience of 24-hour online exams and working from home has been a world away from the libraries and exam halls we’ve all grown used to”

A term at home has been a bizarre, but in some ways, more positive exam-term experience for finalists. Many agreed that it made revising on the whole less stressful. Due to lockdown, certain exams have either been cancelled, or made longer or open-book. This made a big difference to the finals experience, and reduced the burden of revision for some. Caitlin explains: “To be honest I think for me it was a lot less stressful than having a final term in Cambridge would have been. The safety net was comforting and having far fewer things to study for meant I could take my time over them and do them thoroughly.”

24-hour online exams have made things much easier for Finnian too, because “As someone who’s dyslexic, having a spell-checker helped catch the usual errors that slip through when I write.” Along with many stating that online lectures will make the university experience much more accessible for next year’s cohort, so, it seems, has the online exam format.

Madeleine, however, did point to some negative aspects to 24-hour exams. She said: “I don’t think any of us spent the recommended four hours on the papers, and although I don’t know anyone who took the full 24 hours, I know a lot of people who got very little sleep during those periods.”

Being at home has also meant not dealing with certain Cambridge pressures. Finnian pointed out: “Being away from Cambridge for finals certainly alleviated the pervasive mist of stress that seems to hang above college throughout May and early June. There was a sense you were working under your own steam rather than feeling forced into staying in the library till eleven every night just because you could see others doing so.”

The at-home set up undoubtedly feels much less intimidating than the cavernous halls of the university libraries, and being unable to compare your hours of Facebook scrolling to your desk-partner’s copious note-taking has got its upsides. Plus, you can snack (without hiding it under the table).

Caitlin agrees: “I’ve really suffered from anxiety and stress over my time at Cambridge and this term I’ve honestly felt much calmer.” However, she realises that she was very fortunate that home provided a peaceful sanctuary to see off her degree, unlike many others. “I recognise I’m so privileged to be in that position, and to have such a benign home life.”

“It was oddly anticlimactic!”

None of the finalists we spoke to were sorry to see the back of their undergraduate workload. Indeed, Caitlin went as far as to say that she was “relieved.”

“I was feeling really done with my subject so I was glad to see the back of it.”

The lack of celebration, and finishing her degree sat at home, meant that Madeleine felt quite flat. “I felt that the format and the fact that I was at home meant I didn’t get that sense of relief that I had hoped for, that you might get walking out of your last exam. Cambridge was at times extremely challenging for me, as I’ve written about previously, and so it was very hard to feel like I’d lost out on that feeling of crossing the finish line, and all the celebration that would have followed.”

Similarly, Finnian told the Tab: “‘It was oddly anticlimactic! It felt very strange to sign off three years of work sitting in my pyjamas, with a scraggly lockdown beard – laptop in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.”  He adds that when he submitted his very last essay, the rest of his family were asleep and there was therefore no immediate celebration. However, this was swiftly made up for. “Once they were all up though they sprayed me in the garden (in the rain!)”

100 points for accuracy (Credit: Finnian Robinson)

“We spent a good hour or so reminiscing about the last three years together”

Despite being at home, many students’ celebrations still had a strong Cambridge connection. Three out of four of our finalists did continue the spraying tradition despite being at home, and many made contact with friends from Cambridge either virtually or, if they were lucky, in person.

After the morning spraying, Finnian got to spend time with many of his Cambridge friends. “I zoomed the other Emma historians that afternoon and we spent a good hour or so reminiscing about the last three years together. I managed to see a friend at another college who lived a few miles away and we sheltered under a tree in the park to have celebratory glass or two of prosecco; so there was a sense of connection to Cambridge whilst at home which I was very grateful for.”

School friends who continued to be university friends were a feature of Robyn’s celebrations too. She said: “I’m fortunate that one of my best friends has been to both sixth form and university with me, so he and another friend from home surprised me for a socially distanced spray and BBQ. It was lovely to be able to see them in person – we’ve been staying in touch on FaceTime, but their presence was a different thing entirely.”

Madeleine was less fortunate, and was unable to see any Cambridge friends who lived locally once her exams were over. Her parents, however, did the honours of spraying her with cava and whipped cream, but she explains: “After I’d showered off and everyone went back to work it felt very quiet and not particularly celebratory – it was difficult to not see my friends in person, most of whom don’t live nearby so can’t visit until restrictions are relaxed more. ”

Extra Cambridge points for the Varsity Ski Trip tee (credit: Madeleine Southey)

Caitlin decided to have her end-of-degree celebrations later on, on the day of her would-be graduation, and she went all out. She rented a graduation hood from Ede and Ravenscroft, and had family members over for cake and scones that her mum made in the garden. One downside, though, was the heat, as she said: “The graduation outfit was boiling hot”.

You can see how an all-black outfit with fur may not have been the optimal outfit choice for a heatwave (credit: Juliet Roche)


“Given this ‘new normal’, I think if graduation were to suddenly be happening it would feel very surreal”

Graduation has been a source of uncertainty for many of this year’s finalists, as the university has given students the option to graduate in absentia (to receive their degree immediately, but with no ceremony) or to hold out until the next in-person ceremony is possible. The university, and different colleges, initially gave conflicting advice, which made the decision all the more difficult for students. On graduation, Finnian said: “We received conflicting advice from College and from the University in successive days, with the former advising to hold off graduating in absentia whilst the latter highly recommended it.

“Several people in our year were worried that if we opted to graduate in absentia, the promised ceremony would be rescinded or minimised at a later date, especially as the stated reason for the push for us to graduate in absentia was because having the full ceremony would put a strain on the university’s logistics next year.”

There has since been some clarification from the university, which has guaranteed that every graduate would be able to attend some form of ceremony as soon as that is made possible. However, when this will take place is still up in the air.

Finnian decided to delay graduation, however Caitlin decided to graduate in absentia, saying: “At first I was going to postpone my graduation because we were told there would be no ceremony if we graduated in absence but the university seems to have u-turned on that and strongly recommended we graduate in absence.”

She has mixed feelings about her decision: “I’m mostly disappointed that I don’t get to graduate with my friends, it’s such a big achievement for us all that it would have been a fitting end to the degree to do it together.

“But obviously, having never graduated before, I don’t know what I’m missing out on. I kind of imagine it’s like school prize-giving or matriculation i.e. really boring. Since we get this mysterious ceremony at some point and we can all reunite for our M.A. graduation if all else fails, it really could be worse.”

Madeleine felt, too, that she wanted to graduate this summer, saying: “I decided that I’d rather do it sooner so I could properly say I’m a Cambridge graduate.” She felt reassured that she would receive a ceremony at a later date, but nonetheless was a little disappointed.

“Obviously it does feel sad to me. Most of why I applied to Cambridge was for the tradition and the experience, not the name or the prestige, so in a way the process of graduating was almost more important to me than ending up with the degree.”

Robyn also decided to graduate this June, and felt that it was the right thing to do given the bizarre circumstances of lockdown. She pointed out: “Given this ‘new normal’, I think if graduation were to suddenly be happening it would feel very surreal. I’m slightly gutted we aren’t even going to have a nice piece of paper, let alone the hoods, procession and sunshine, but still feel hopeful that my college won’t let us down and we will be back!”

Future plans

For some finalists, this is not the last time they will be living and studying in Cambridge. Finnian has secured an MPhil to study Modern British History at his undergraduate college (Emmanuel), and Caitlin has opted for a teaching course in Cambridge. The lost term, in fact, has made her even keener to get started: “I was originally planning on doing my PGCE in my hometown so I could save rent money but now I am so glad I get some extra time in Cambridge.”

She does, however, admit: Obviously it won’t be the same as almost all my friends will have graduated, and they have really been what’s made Cambridge such a lovely experience for me. They have promised they’ll visit so much it’ll be like they never left and I hope that comes true.”

Even for those who are moving on after their undergraduate degree, Cambridge will remain a big part of their lives going forward. Robyn will start a graduate programme in transport consultancy in October, but maintains: “I’ll definitely be coming back to Cambridge as much as I’m allowed to as a lot of my friends are staying for another year.”

In spite of the major disappointment of losing their last term at Cambridge, the closure of in-person finals and a graduation, these students look back in the most part fondly at their time at university. The promise of future celebrations with the rest of their cohort, friends who remain in Cambridge and even further study means that these students have not seen the back of Cambridge forever. When asked for any final words to Cambridge, Madeleine joked: “There’s a lot of nice quotes that sum this up well but luckily Cambridge hasn’t made me that pretentious (I hope), so I’ll just say see you soon.” 

Feature image credits: Madeleine Southey, Caitlin Cashmore-Roche, Finnian Robinson, Robyn Topper

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