Cambridge Update from Keiler Totz ’13


Life at Cambridge University has been an incredible experience so far. Any initial fears about moving to a new country and attending one of the world’s oldest universities were quickly eased upon first walking through the quaint city of Cambridge. It was the small things, the quirky accents and elusive street signs, that were most noticeable at first, but it was the friendliness of the people that made me feel at home in my new surroundings. The city is filled with life, from the bustling city centre with its outdoor market and street performers, to the students whipping around town on their bikes (students are prohibited from owning cars), which charges the air with an infectious energy that stands in stark contrast to the striking yet solemn presence of the ancient city buildings and church spires.

Cambridge University follows the collegiate system, a unique feature that differs from most North American universities, in which students apply to one of 31 colleges, each with its own history, campus, atmosphere and financial structure. The colleges are responsible for providing students with housing, financial support, food, entertainment etc. and they assign each student a Tutor and Director of Studies from their own college staff, who provide guidance with personal well-being and academic matters respectively. For the first couple years of your course, colleges are also responsible for arranging supervisions which are another unique facet of Cambridge, where students meet in small groups of 2-3 to review problem sheets/ essays or receive additional lectures from university professors or other academic staff. I have found this to be an exceptional teaching method for reinforcing concepts taught in class and preparing students to write the year end’ tripos’ exams (a name which is thought to have come from the three-legged stool candidates taking exams once sat on). Undergraduates are not allowed to be employed during term time as the university feels that Cambridge life and academics are too intense to allow for a job. Each college prides itself in its ability to best prepare students for the rigour of their chosen academic field and there is a healthy rivalry between colleges in academic standings, athletic competition and overall superiority. Being a Pembroke engineer, I wholeheartedly believe Pembroke College to be the best of the bunch!

My first impression was how nice everyone was. For such an academically intense university, I was thrilled to find that everyone supported each other and would go out of their way to make you feel at home. The student-led Fresher Week was a whirlwind of meet-and-greet activities, complete with punting on the River Cam and mingling over drinks with College Fellows in the Old Library.  The Matriculation Ceremony, where I was formally accepted as a member of Pembroke College for life, was steeped in tradition. We were required to wear a formal gown, and were called up, one by one, by the College Praelector to sign our name in a massive record book with old-fashioned quill and ink. The four-course Matriculation Dinner was an extravagant affair where we were welcomed by our College Master, who also had the distinction of being the former master of M16!

I discovered my new home, Pembroke College, to be full of charm, tradition and new terminology. I learned that the friendly porters, who keep the college in great working order, live in the porter’s lodge or ‘plodge’ and keep an eye over your pigeon hole or ‘pidge’ (aka mail slot). They are also often seen chasing errant students and unknowing tourists off the beautifully manicured college lawns. At Pembroke, it is forbidden for students to set foot on these lawns (only College Fellows are permitted) until Easter Term when college members are allowed to play croquet on certain fields.  The three academic terms are called Michaelmas (pronounced “Micklemiss”), Lent, and Easter, and the school week starts on Thursday and ends on Wednesday. Some optimistic students say they are never more than two days away from the weekend, whereas others, like some first years in Natural Science or Maths, have the misfortune of Saturday morning lectures. Meals are served in the ‘trough’ or ‘buttery’ and often topped off with dessert or ‘pudding’. Formal Hall dinners are one of the most iconic Cambridge traditions, and Pembroke College has the reputation for having one of the best! The £9 tickets quickly sell out, and pay for a delicious three or four course meal served nightly in a candlelit hall that rivals Hogwarts, complete with students in black gowns and academic fellows announced with a gong. The end of school term is a magical time, when students celebrate the completion of exams by attending elaborate black or white-tie May Balls (actually celebrated in mid-June), where food, drink, and entertainment areas are set up all around college, and feature lavish buffets, big name concerts, and amusement rides.

After completing my first year of a four year Masters of Engineering program, I am now specializing in the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology.  The lectures are fast-paced and highly engaging, and I have learned more than I could ever have imagined possible since graduating from SMUS just over a year ago. Outside of class, I keep busy by playing on the Cambridge Blues Basketball team which competes around England in the British University & Colleges Sport league, with the upcoming highlight being the Varsity Match versus Oxford in early spring. I also volunteer in the community with a science enrichment class at a local primary school, where I have been welcomed into an enthusiastic and entertaining class of young scientists! Being at Cambridge has also provided me with wonderful opportunities to travel and meet new friends from around the world. This summer, I studied Business in Asia at Hong Kong University and then interned at SAIC Motor Corporation in Shanghai with a group of incredible students from top universities around the world. I also just recently returned from the annual Varsity Ski Trip, the largest student snow sport event in the world, where I skied alongside thousands of Oxbridge students at the Tignes ski resort in the French Alps. It has been an amazing journey so far, and I plan to make the most of my next years at Cambridge.

Keiler Totz at Cambridge
View of the Pembroke Library Lawn at the start of Michaelmas Term.
Keiler Totz at Cambridge
Forbidden grass at Jesus College.
Keiler Totz at Cambridge
Picture with Chairman Mao in Tiananmen Square.


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