Honors biophysics student Mathias Bellaiche is spending the 2012-2013 year studying abroad as a Libby Finch scholar at Cambridge University, in Cambridge, England.
January 21, 2013
As the end of winter holiday draws dreadfully close, I’ve gotten a chance to reflect on all the great experiences I’ve had this Michaelmas term (the first of the three trimesters) at Cambridge. I have loved my time here from the day I landed in the United Kingdom. Though the culture shock took a while getting used to (I upset a few bus drivers by cycling on the right side of the road, and there are still times where I have no idea what certain idioms mean), I’ve definitely come to think of Girton as my home. Cambridge is split up into thirty or so different colleges, each of which is more or less autonomous. Colleges are roughly like dorms in that they are where you sleep, eat and study, but they are also responsible for administrative things such as organizing supervisions and making sure you’re registered for classes.
Also, most of the extracurricular activities are centered around colleges – for example if you are on a sports team you most likely represent your college, as opposed to the university (unless you’re ridiculously good, in which case you join the “Cambridge Blues” for the main purpose of beating Oxford at whichever sport). More than that, though, colleges provide a strong sense of community, and there’s a sense of amicable rivalry between students of different colleges.
I am taking second year physical science courses here, with concentrations in physical and theoretical chemistry and physics. The academic system is much different than at the U of A, with lectures being totally impersonal (most lectures have at least 100 students in them), but with supervisions every week. In supervision, you and one or two other students meet with a professor to go over assigned problems and lecture material. The incredibly personal nature of the supervision system means that no student gets lost or forgotten, and even the smallest question gets answered. The long history of science at Cambridge is overwhelming; I still can’t believe that I’m in the same city as where Newton worked about three centuries ago.
But academics is just one side of Cambridge. Girton is one of the more sociable colleges, and everyone is so friendly that it’s been easy to make friends and assimilate. Before term started, there was an international student orientation during which I met people from literally all over the world and was introduced to English life and the such. The organizers also made sure everyone was equipped with a bike, one of the most important tools for Girtonians. Girton is the furthest college from the city centre, meaning I get to cycle about five miles six times a week. As far as extracurriculars go, there’s literally an organization for every interest, such as wine-tasting or vegetable-growing. I chose to get into rowing though, and it’s been great fun! The boat club is a fantastic way to meet people, and the River Cam is beautiful (though it can get a bit cold for outings at 7.30 in the morning). I’m very much looking forward to the highlight of Lent term (the second trimester) in the rowing world: Lent Bumps, a race in which each boat tries to run into the boat ahead of them without getting “bumped” by the boat behind.
Michaelmas Boat Club Dinner – every trimester the boat club gets together for a yummy meal and good times. Photo courtesy of Andy Marsh.
Besides all this, the actual city of Cambridge has so much history; it’s amazing cycling through it every day! It’s crazy to think that many of the buildings have been around much longer than has the United States, and you can pretty much see the evolution of architecture through the different styles of buildings. One of my favourite buildings in the city (besides Girton College, of course) is King’s College, which was founded in 1441 by Henry VI and was not completely finished until 1544 by Henry VIII. Its chapel boasts the world’s largest fan vault ceiling!
I am so lucky to be able to study abroad in the UK, and this is an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life, as cheesy as it sounds. I am so incredibly grateful to the Libby Finch study abroad grant, the Sturgis fellowship and the Honors College in general, without which there’d be no way I would have been able to come on this program.