Humans are generally stay-at-homes who enjoy their zone of comfort. Yet, what is the reason to stay physically close to this support system in a world where the West Coast is just as long of a trip from MIT as a flight over the Atlantic? Where my mother’s credit card works just as well abroad as it does in Boston … ? I was one of 25 MIT students who escaped the sphere of MIT’s influence and homely support over the last year on a venture to the University of Cambridge, UK, as part of MIT’s CME program.
Whoever comes to visit Cambridge will be convinced he just stumbled into a scene of a Harry Potter movie. The center of Cambridge is full of tiny, winding cobbled streets bustling with students speaking with gorgeous British accents. Every building is either a pub or tea shop, a chapel or a majestic stone-clad university college. These colleges have the same function as dormitories at MIT — just a lot more independent and generally further separated from each other. These special places foster great networking within the community and create an extraordinary feeling of belonging and pride for every member.
I switched the beaver for a boar (my new college’s symbol) and took up residence in Queens’ College (which sounds more noble than it actually is) right in the heart of Cambridge. “Right in the center” means nothing is further than 5 minutes by foot as the old city is very compact. Still, this short walk is loaded with history and legendary artifacts, just like Newton’s mathematical bridge completely constructed without bolts (although that’s also only what they tell the tourists). You also pass some of Europe’s finest architecture, the country’s best choirs and astonishing art treasures, book or science collections.
Another wonderful aspect is the chance of living in a castle overseeing the romantic Cam River and acres of immaculate British lawn for a year. But, this experience would not be complete without the obscurities of everyday British college life. Many houses in Britain, especially within the aged structures of Cambridge, still rely on gravity powered water systems which sometimes left a few of the CME exchange students praying for drops under the shower head. Also the water faucets only come in the separate hot or cold version at the right and left end of the sink. Just like the water system, many other things seem to have fallen stagnant in time. Good old traditions have always been integral part of the 800 year Cambridge history and daily formals, taking your exams wearing a gown or opening the traditional bumps (rowing races) with the gun shot of a cannon are nothing unusual.
Besides a different perspective on everyday life, the much more interesting part of participating in an exchange is the direct interaction with the unfamiliar. You will find out that the culture and people are not the same, although you basically share the same language. Dr. House and Borat (all Cambridge graduates) prove that the British have an extraordinary sense of humo(u)r which can make interactions and conversation even more enjoyable. British cuisine proved not to be quite as bad as its reputation suggests and, in the end, it only rained about half of the time.
With its high percentage of international students and a much larger range of courses offered, the diversity of people at Cambridge is an eye-opening experience. When your next door neighbor is a history major and you eat together with the anthropology major in the buttery (the Cambridge term for the collective and subsidized dining hall) you might well find yourself philosophizing about feminist architecture over dinner.
This diversity becomes even more attractive, as you will actually find time to spend with those people. The MIT exchange student on Pass/Fail in particular is in an excellent position to really enjoy himself. Since the British academic system relies on a high degree of self-discipline, personal revising and studying, everyone sets his personal study habits and pace. In contrast to MIT’s constant assessment, the major grading is delayed to the end of the 3rd term in May. In the three academic terms, all compact 8 week periods, the curriculum focuses on a challenging and rigorous syllabus within your specific engineering degree including lectures, labs and supervisions (which are a breed between recitation and office hours with one professor teaching only two students). Cross-registering with other majors is more difficult, so the responsibility of getting a broader education through HASS subjects is left to one’s own judgment, action and interest; only language classes and selected economics/management modules can be taken within the engineering department. The results of this very different approach to learning rightly receive recognition through appropriate transfer credit back at MIT. After all, with a history of over 80 Nobel laureates, education in the other Cambridge rates definitely among the top.
Up until exam time, students dive into the large pool of extracurricular activities, engaging in the popular sport of rowing or debating and listening to talks by Stephen Hawking and other great minds at the Cambridge Union.
In particular, it is encouraging to see that students actually tend to show up to events (not only for the — generally less frequent — free food) but because they are genuinely excited. The fact that many Club activities usually require a small membership fee, also helps to attract more ambitious members so that on average a lot more things can be accomplished by individual groups.
The fantastic system of cheap inner-European flight-connections and reliable public transport also creates opportunities to escape the Cambridge atmosphere for spontaneous weekend trips for hiking trips to Scotland or sightseeing in Europe’s metropolises.
Cambridge is a very social place. It is a favorite activity to enjoy the night with friends at a formal — which comprises a three course dinner served in an old majestic and candle-lit college dining hall; bring your own wine!
With a drinking age of 18 as well as college owned and private pubs and clubs, the student town Cambridge is awake till at least 2 a.m. every day.
The festive annual highlight is May Week, which concludes the time after examinations, featuring the May Balls, ranked among the world’s top 10 parties. These sleepless nights with an unbelievable selection of delicacies and finest drinks transform the old university courts into the extravagant worlds of unique fireworks with large ranges of live music performances and other high-end entertainment. Although heavy on your valet, these once in a life time opportunity are definitely not to be missed.
Looking back at the year abroad, all participants brought back unforgettable memories, made long-lasting friendships and returned as true global citizens – having experienced aspects of a different culture, from academics and professional life to everyday social interaction to the fullest. Personal initial hesitations or unsubstantiated fears were quickly dismissed in favor of the infinite charm of Cambridge.
Personally, I regard global learning to be an essential part of any contemporary elite education. This leaves me to hope that the CME program will successfully continue to contribute to international education at MIT and inspire many more student generations.
If you are curious or still hesitant yourself about applying to the CME program please do not hesitate to contact the CME office, the CME coordinator within your major or any Alum.
Stella Viktoria Schieffer is a member of the Class of 2009.