This week was my last fresher’s week, which meant my last College Feast/Matriculation Dinner. This year I had the privilege of speaking to all the incoming freshers, so I’ve popped it here as part of my record of the year.
Good evening students, Fellows, Senior Members, Dame Professor Carol Black. Newly adopted Newnhamites, I hope you have been enjoying your first taster of the Cambridge formal experience – on behalf of the JCR I’d like to welcome you all.
I thought, seeing as I have the opportunity to talk to you now, that I’d tell you three things that Newnham has taught me over the past couple of years, in the hopes that something I say will be of help. The first thing, take up space. The second thing, take a step back. And the third thing, take a chance.
But before we get onto those things, here a few small bits of information you may need: the college that is spelled Mag-dal-ene is actually pronounced Magdalene, you can get into Cambridge Botanical Gardens with your university card for free, and there’s an event in Week 5 of each term at Jesus College Chapel called ‘Blues&Chill’ that is just the best thing and you should go.
Glad we’ve got that over. Now back to the three, slightly more important, things:
Firstly, take up space. You are now the newest members of Newnham College, University of Cambridge. Congratulations. You are part of a college that has made history, and has been taking up space since 1871. Please, never let anyone make you believe that either you or this college is not worthy of taking up space. In 1890, Philippa Fawcett, after whom the Fawcett building is named, topped the maths Tripos, 13 percent ahead of any of the men. It took another 58 years for women to be deemed worthy of being awarded a Cambridge degree, and over another 90 years for the university authorities to stop limiting the number of women admitted to this university – that was only 36 years ago. And there are still people who will make you feel like Newnham is in some way inferior to other colleges by saying ‘isn’t that an all-female one?’ – in the manner I’ve just demonstrated. I think it was this sort of attitude that made me feel surprised at the end of my first year when I learned that Newnham’s results placed it fifth out of all the Cambridge Colleges. Please learn to be unapologetic, and fiercely proud, of being a Newnhamite.
Something that has stuck with me is a comment a paramedic made on the radio. She said that when her team carried women on stretchers, no matter what their size, they more often than not apologised for how heavy they were, whereas no man ever did. Women are taught not to take up space. May the experience you have here help you disobey that teaching! Take up space. Try not to doubt your place here – eeeven if only because our admissions tutor Dr Sam Lucy now runs admissions for the whole university, and really knows what she’s doing. You know? In my first year here I only asked one question in lectures – and that question was ‘Please can you speak up? I can’t hear very well’. It’s taken me a while to work out that I should take up space, and I’m here to tell you that you should too. Use these next years to practice. So that’s the first thing Newnham has taught me, unapologetically take up space. And if you can, grin widely as you do so.
Onto number two, take a step back. It is surprisingly easy to feel as if everything is on top of you in any one particular moment. That could be because a work deadline is really close and you don’t know how it’s going to get done, or because – like me on my very first night at Newnham – you’ve dropped oil all over the kitchen floor and have just had the realisation that you don’t own any kitchen roll. In those moments, try, if you can, to remember the unimportance of practically everything. That essay deadline will pass, and your memories of enthusiastically using a mop to just spread and dilute the oil you’ve-just-dropped around that kitchen floor will make an excellent speech anecdote in a couple of years’ time.
I can tell you that there will be times in the next week, month and year that you feel uncertain. Sometimes you will feel exhausted by everything that life throws at you. Sometimes things won’t go to plan. Sometimes what you couldn’t have anticipated will confuse you or make you lose hope.
Take a step back. The unpredictability of everything is part of life. Watch a film, read, cook, find a friend and have a moment with them! Go outside – and take a step back.
Sometimes perspective is really all that’s needed. Think about what is most important to you. Remember that the investments that give the biggest return will never be financial, they will always be relational. Use your time and money accordingly. Regardless of what Cambridge tries tells you about your academic success, however brilliant – or otherwise – it will remain true that the only type of learning that really matters cannot be found by reading a book in the University Library. The learning that really matters is learning about yourself and others. So take a step back. Work out what’s important to you, work out what you believe. Stand by it and live by it. It’s my beliefs as a Christian that are most important to me, so that’s what I want to live by. Honestly, learning what’s important to you and what you believe, and learning to grow in the characteristics you value – whatever those are – will be of much greater worth than the piece of paper that will show you have a degree at the end of all this. So take a step back.
And thirdly and finally, take a chance. In your time here make as many mistakes as end up happening, and watch as you take yourself further than you think you will get. In my first term I took a chance and took up rowing… and hated it. In my second term I took a chance and became Secretary of the Cambridge Union Society and loved it.
You don’t know where these next few years will take you. I didn’t know two years ago that I would be in the same room as Nick Clegg, Vivienne Westwood, KT Tunstall, Catherine Mackinnon, Emma Thompson or Bernie Sanders. I didn’t think I’d be appearing on the University of Cambridge’s Instagram, or be travelling to Athens, Seoul, Tokyo, Vienna and Gorlitz. I didn’t know that I’d meet people that would start me on the process towards becoming a vegan.
Most of all, I didn’t know that I’d find friends to be utterly amazed by. Friends to share with, learn with, cry with, and laugh with (and at). I didn’t know that I’d have fellow Newnhamites around me that I’d be confident of staying in touch with for life. May you also be able to say that sentence someday.
All in all, taking a chance is a very good thing. I hope that the chances you take will themselves take you in similarly unexpected directions.
And there you have it. Three unexpected, but hopefully not tooooo unwelcome, things that Newnham has taught me. May you learn – to take up space, take a step back, and take a chance.
Newnham has taken me so far already.
I wonder where Newnham will end up taking you.