State schooler vs the second richest Cambridge college

‘Have you really never been Skiing?’ and other posh conversations

Firstly, let’s get it out of the way. Yes, I know you’d rather be at Oxford than John’s, and as original and humorous as this joke is, I am willing to overlook your ignorance, and evident jealousy, in favour of providing you with a thorough, and in-all-ways-comprehensive, review of my first week at the second richest college in Cambridge.   

The Open Day Debacle  

As a naïve, soon to be silly fresh, I attended an offer-holder open day at St John’s College before I officially embarked on four-years of poor-quality sleep, pot noodles and microwave meals at the oh-so-prestigious University of Cambridge.  

After the event had finished, a day which I had spent mostly remembering not to walk on the grass, trying not to trip on cobbled stones and discretely taking touristy pictures, myself and some of the other first years decided to head to a café until our various modes of transport arrived.   

After all, we would likely be spending a lot of time together over the next few years. 

Naturally, I believed the perfect location for such bonding to be the Regal, for in my experience, Spoons had always been a reliable constant in life, and in my humble opinion, is designed for almost any social situation. Unfortunately for me, we ended up at the Town and Gown. After finishing my exceptionally overpriced drink, it was time for me to get the bus out of Cambridge and back to my beloved county of Essex in time for my 6pm shift at the local pub, to which someone loudly exclaimed “you have a job?!” with as much terror as confusion.  

Don’t you? I thought. My friends and I had all started working when we turned sixteen. It was certainly not out of the ordinary.  How did these people know each other and their schools already anyway?

One of my touristy pictures taken on an open-day at St John’s College (Credits: Alexandra Shepherd).

“You’ve really never been Skiing?” 

Fast forward a month or two and it’s my first week at St John’s College, Cambridge. I had gone home from the open day with a decidedly bitter taste in my mouth, and not just because of the damage just a few drinks had done to a bank account supported by a minimum wage job. And, although the M&S carbonara and organic butchers’ meat in the fridge meant the discovery that all my flatmates attended private schools didn’t come as a total shock, I remember feeling uncomfortable, a little bit embarrassed even.  

When I attended my first class, I listened to my peers introduce themselves, tales of backpacking, ski resorts and exotic holidays came almost in the same breath. Doing a languages degree, my lack of travel experience stuck out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know whether it was better to say that truthfully, I’d worked full time over the summer to save for university and had never visited Spain or Germany or get caught in a lie about backpacking around Latin America.

2/3 of my lovely flat mates outside our humble abode (Credits: Alexandra Shepherd)

(Silly) Freshers Hall and world-renowned Revs 

At freshers dinner the next day, I had a 5-course meal, marvelled at the hall, struggled to decipher the menu, and after listening to a Latin speech which I understood no word of, I audibly gasped when they told us that the chairs which we sat on cost £700 each. I am not going to pretend I didn’t consider the most effective way to get two or three past the porters.  

On reaching Wednesday of freshers week, I decided it was time to brave Revs for the first time. Armed with the wisdom that this had the potential to be the best club night ever experienced, or more likely, the worst, I spoke to a few fellow freshers there. Probably by chance, the first two people I spoke to from my college informed me that they had attend two of the most well-known fee-paying schools in the country. I wondered if they’d have heard of the state comprehensives I’d attended. 

Probably not.  

Despite my fresher’s experiences, it has been confirmed by factual sources that St John’s is objectively the best college in Cambridge (Credits: Camfess via Facebook).

I didn’t mind too much, but I also didn’t know how to join in with their conversations. It seemed in that moment that the open day wasn’t a one off, but the way life would be here.

The demise of the state-schooler 

I went back to my room, rang my mum, and told her I had no idea who I’d be friends with. I wasn’t smart enough, well-travelled enough or interesting enough to be here. A text-book case of imposter syndrome maybe, but it seemed everything that week had confirmed my fears. 

The rise of the state-schooler 

And yet, halfway through Lent term, I know the answer to that question. My flatmates are some of my closest friends, and although all but one refuses to join me in Aldi, they are all down to earth, genuine, lovely people. And anyway, they’re the ones missing out on that front.  

Tomorrow we will be attending a formal dinner in our college, sitting on £700 chairs, and I still won’t understand the menu but, much to my surprise, our conversations won’t revolve around skiing holidays and yachts, but likely the Mainsbury’s Bolognese sauce and our respective Nando’s orders – the most shocking part being that one of them genuinely believes that Lemon and Herb is a respectable option. 

All four members of the flat, enjoying a formal with very fancy food, expensive chairs and confusing cutlery- and having a lovely time regardless (Credits: Alexandra Shepherd).

The greatest problem is that it certainly wasn’t just me that felt this way. A fellow first year student at Johns, who wished to remain anonymous, told us that although they believe “there’s been a recent shift to being proud to have come from state school rather than private or grammar,” she still feels that, “You can tell slight differences between state-educated undergraduates and those from a more privileged background.”  

This is not exclusive to Johns, though, as a fresher at Lucy Cavendish put it simply: it was “tough” to get through those first few weeks given their background education. It cannot be denied, though, that there is a disparity across colleges, as Corpus Christi student, Molly Rigby, says that the “biggest shock” was the cost of things like societies, stash, and a membership to the union, and how “everyone seemed to pay for all of this without a second thought.” Clearly, this remains a wider problem than just my freshers week experiences.  

Two state-schoolers storm posh St John’s formal hall during Pink Week (Credits: Alexandra Shepherd)

What next?

There is no doubt that Cambridge University has taken decisive steps to improving access, and with the coming introduction of Foundation Years and the Free Places scheme at St John’s College, it seems there has never been a better time to be at Cambridge. But we need to do more for students during this transition. If I’d have known that there were other students struggling with which knife and fork to use in hall, and the copious amounts of Latin, maybe I would have felt more at home. 

Simply, it’s not enough just to offer help to us when we apply, we need it when we’re here – and not just financially. This is one of the reasons I am so glad John’s has opted to include a Class Act Officer as part of the JCR. Having someone who I felt I could speak to during this period would have greatly helped me find my footing, and I do hope the next generation of freshers feeling as I did use this resource for support.

Should things continue on the current trajectory, I am hopeful that Cambridge University will continue bettering its access and outreach, not just for those applying, but also in helping those lucky enough to get in, because truly, everyone deserves to feel at home here.

Cambridge University Press and St John’s College, Cambridge, were contacted for comment.

Featured Image Credits: Alexandra Shepherd 

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