A Californian Considers Cambridge Cloudy

29Sep06

Note: the thoughts, observations, and opinions herein expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect in any way upon the Marshall Commission, current or past Marshall scholars, or any other group or individual.

This is a post that begins in an unfamiliar, gloomy town and ends with the American pop songs of the 1990s. Part of my purpose for this blog is to document the culture shock and corresponding highs and lows I experience as an expatriate student. I’ll not mask that there are some items that I’ll blatantly gripe about. My goal, however, is to document these differences between my own background and Cambridge rather than complain about them. I think that honesty with the things that frustrate me (as well as the things that inspirit me) will best serve this goal. (The only exception is my comment below on the Marshall stipend, which I do hope is something that can be changed for future scholars.)

The single guiding principle of the Marshall orientation (which I’ll blog about soon) was the following:

It’s not better or worse, it’s just different.

(If there could be two guiding principles the second one would be, “Stop converting!” A maxim to keep one’s sanity in the face of an unfavorable exchange rate.)

That being said, this post won’t be all sourness… much like a salt and vinegar crisp, there’s some saturated fat after the initial tartness.

Grey Clouds of Doom

As a Californian, I’m naturally very sensitive to perturbations from sunny weather. Overcast days are gloomy and depressing. Sunny days are reason in themselves for happiness and celebration. Perhaps paradoxically, rainy and overcast days tend to be the worst, while spring showers in the sunshine are the best. Windy days are somewhat troublesome, though days with no breeze are a bit sedentary. At Cambridge, one is likely to witness all of the above within a span of an hour or so.

As a result, I’ve noticed my general disposition oscillate accordingly. I don’t have Jekyll/Hyde moments like the climate, but I have a tendency to become more frustrated by small things when it’s cloudy than when the weather is sunny and Californian. (Yes, this time of year Cambridge still appears to get quite a few Californian moments… though this may be a result of global warming.)

I’m working on decoupling my emotions from the climate, but for now I’ll have my ups and downs. To be sure this aspect of my expatriate experience has tremendous potential for personal growth. It also galvanizes my opinion that I would have fallen into a deep depression at a place like Cornell despite it’s physics program.

Please, sir, can I have some more?

One doesn’t do physics to get rich. In fact, it’s more common to leave physics to get rich. This is the general trend in academia. However, academics are not completely shielded from financial matters. Students have to buy food, pay rent, and spend just a little on the side to stay sane. Other reasonable costs include travel-related purchases (suitcases, weather-appropriate clothing, carry-on-safe toiletries), books/paper/stationary, transportation, and retirement savings ($4000 per year in a Roth IRA). The point is, students need money. Even students who are on fellowship.

For the Marshall scholarship, it seems that this is subtly becoming a bit of an issue. From what I’ve heard, the Marshall stipend has kept up with inflation but not with any reasonable consumer price index. Thus what once was considered to be a fairly lavish living expenses may not even be able to cover room and board. One current scholar estimated a £10 per day allowance after accounting for housing, which wouldn’t cover three meals in my college.

This year, the Marshall stipend is at £703 per month (£872 in London) from which one is expected to pay for room and board. Additionally, one is allowed to apply for travel grants for academic purposes and some allowances for books/relocation.

By comparison, some other well-known US-UK graduate fellowships have the following stipends after paying for university and college fees:

The purpose of these scholarships isn’t for students to make a profit, but part of the opportunity cost of taking the Marshall is at least £100 in living expenses. It’s one thing if this was the difference between being able to eat out lavishly or eating in-college/cooking, but it’s a bit more drastic. Frugality seems to be an issue at every meal I’ve had with other Marshalls. Some Cambridge Marshalls have been exploring various clerical and retail jobs to help support their stipend. Other scholars have (perhaps half-jokingly … but perhaps not really) eschewed whole meals to try to save their stipend to pay rent. I don’t know about you, but I put food high on my budgetary priorities.

Sure, part of being a grad student is living frugally. Despite being in one of the few places in the world where academic dress is still worn regularly, some of my friends have opted against purchasing a gown to go to formall hall dinners. At the end of the day, it’s difficult when financial constraints seem to push students towards the boundary of being frugal and being cheap. (And, as Ramit Sethi pointed out, there’s a difference.) One shouldn’t have to sacrifice quintissential parts of the Cambridge experience to make ends meet from one’s fellowship.

A very important note: you should absolutely, positively not misconstrue this as ungreatfulness. I (and the other scholars) are very, very thankful to the Marshall Commission, the British government, and the people of the UK for providing this opportunity and the funding that they are able to provide. In fact, the Marshall provides a priceless connection to the UK that is unique from the other scholarships.

However, despite that, I still had several doubts when I confirmed that I would accept the scholarship. In my personal decision to take the Marshall, I had to turn down a two year graduate fellowship from U.C. Berkeley that was not deferrable along with my acceptance to their graduate program in physics. The fellowship was for $24,000 per year and would have allowed me to jump directly into my PhD research without having to worry about large teaching commitments in my first few years. Even with Berkeley’s pricey housing market, I would have been able to live comfortably and focus on research.

What is important in this discussion is that if the Marshall intends to be considered an ‘elite’ scholarship along with the Rhodes, it needs to be able to offer something more competitive with the other options scholars face. It’s not that the scholarship is trying to market itself over other options. Rather, students who want to take the Marshall and be part of its program of US-UK exchange shouldn’t feel conflicted (or even worse, regretful) about their choices due to financial constraints.

I really value the chance to learn from some of the best researchers in the UK while being a ‘cultural ambassador.’ This is a very special experience that I’m excited (and have sacrificed) to be part of. However, I don’t want to have to take out loans to help support my Marshall scholarship when I could otherwise have been doing good research in the US.

Luckily, there has been some call to action on this front. The Marshall Alumni Association has started the Geraldine Cully fund to raise an endowment to supplement the Marshall stipend for future scholars. This, of course, is a bit of a tough sell for many: why raise money for people already getting scholarships? But the Marshall is funded by the people of the UK as a safeguard on US-UK relations. (There’s a lot more to the Marshall Scholarship than just funding to do a degree in the UK. Wouldn’t you think Bill Clinton’s time in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar affected his disposition to Tony Blair when they first met in the White House?) Anyway, with one of the counsellors in the British embassy in Washington and a fellow ’06 Marshall, I hope to raise some money for this fund by asking for sponsorships as we run the London Marathon. More on this as it develops.

Where’s my ID card?
Those of you who can’t stand university bureaucracy should be cautious with Cambridge. The “University of Cambridge” as an entity does not exist in the same way as Stanford University or even the University of California. This is due to the Oxbridge (“Oxford-Cambridge”) college system which is a relic of education some centuries ago. In addition to dealing with the University of Cambridge at large, one also interacts formally with one’s college (Trinity College for me) and one’s department (Department of Applied Maths and Theoretical Physics). There are various people assigned to look after you in different capacities, and it’s quite overwhelming for someone from the American system where everything is centralized around, say, the registrar.

One of the effects of this decentralization is that it’s easy to get lost and not know who you’re responsible to for various things. I have a Trinity College ‘buttery card’ that serves as my college identification, card key, and debit card. I also have a university card that will get me into the university libraries. I then take this university card to be programmed by my department for departmental access. The buttery card isn’t picked up at the college buttery, but rather at the accomodations office. I tried to pick up my university card from the university card office, but they had already sent it to Trinitry college, where it was not at the porter’s lodge with my other ‘welcome’ materials, but with the senior tutor’s clerk. I have a tutor from my college who is in charge of my general well being, while I also have a director of studies who is in charge of my academic direction. If I have a question I can ask either of these two figures, but also the porters or individuals from the university structure or my department. It’s all very overwhelming for someone who is used to having everything I need placed on my desk before I arrive and knowing exactly where the registrar’s office was if there were problems.

Hard Water, Hard Knocks
England has ‘very hard’ water. This means that the water has a high mineral content that often leaves limescale deposits in kettles and clothing. This is apparently not a health hazard for drinking, so I’ve opted against purchasing a Brita water filter (which was a necessity in LA). This is the first time I’ve drank water straight from the tap. The water is also not flourinated, so I’ve purchased mouthwash with flouride to use regularly to keep my tooth enamel healthy. Oh, and just to weird out Americans, there are usually separate hot and cold water faucets. I’ve heard that this is because the hot water is stored in a water heater and is slightly more likely to pick up deposits. Thus it is common to put cold water into a kettle to boil rather than hot water.

This is mostly unrelated to the water, but I was additionally frustrated today when the drying machine refused to dry my clothes after I ran two cycles (of around 40p each).

Spiders

I no longer open one of my windows because a disturbingly large spider has taken residence on the other side. I’ve named it Charlotte and, for good karma, have decided to forge an armstice in which neither of us accosted or intruded upon the space of the other. Unfortunately one of Charlotte’s cousins seems to have set up shop in one of the hallways downstairs and I nearly ran into it.

The spiders here are creepy and plentiful. I’ve been assured that they’re not poisonous, but one Marshall did warn me that one particularly large species is the fastest spider in Europe. Gross.

Full Circle: The Grass

In Trinity only fellows are allowed to walk on the well manicured grass. It seems that the English ideal of a garden is one that is well manicured. Trinity is one of the most well-manicured colleges in Cambridge and it is no surprise that Andrew Marvell (“The Mower, Against Gardens”) went here. The grass is a shade of green that is greener than any green I could have expected. This is true even after accounting for the gray backdrop of the sky. For what it is, it’s more perfectly trimmed and healthy than anything I would see at Stanford.

I was griping about finance to a friend in California, saying that the difference between the two of us was that he is poor in Berkeley which is a hippie town at heart while I’m poor in Trinity College whose grass is greener than green and trimmed to the fraction of the blade. It was only appropriate that he pointed out to me that I had previously griped about Berkeley that their grass wasn’t green enough for someone used to Stanford grass. (This was a poorly veiled discussion of the general architectural grandeur of each university.) Now that I’m finally somewhere where the grass is greenest where I stand… does it still count that I’m not allowed to stand on it?

Silver Lining
At the end of it all, the sun has always managed to find its way back to Cambridge. The weather here is mercurial and eventually things turn up, if only for a while. Packages that are lost in the busy back and forth of the porter’s lodge are eventually found. Tasks which seem hopelessly impeded by the glacial pace through various bureaucracies eventually are completed. Bank accounts, knock on wood, will eventaully be opened and my first stipend check will be there to allow me to exhale a little. And then, just to add that silver lining and remind me why I’m here, I am surprised.

Tonight I found myself chatting with several young mathematicians eager to get started with our program. They were exhuberant, personable, and excited about the year… and they all seem to live in my staircase (roughly my section of the building). After the BA welcoming event, I found myself at a fellow’s moving party, at which I chatted with some fellows, postgrads, and the college chaplain before we trekked from the fellow’s old room across the Great Court’s lawns (!!) by candlelight to his new abode. It was an altogether Cambridge-esque experience, though motivated by the fellow’s time in Boston where it would be common for people to synchronize their move-in/move-out times since they were all shuffling apartments with one another.

Despite Cambridge’s overbearing heirarchy constantly reminding you of your place (master, fellows, post grads, undergrads), I saw postgraduates casually sipping wine at the party and contributing to its liveliness. This was much in contrast to the awkwardness at Stanford when grad students would show up at undergraduate parties. It made me smile to meet a fellow who was a ’97 Marshall who had ended up enjoying Cambridge so much that he’s settled down here. And I found it in me to meet new people and chat it up while our host played old pop MP3s from the 1990s on a hard drive that he’d recently recovered from his graduate school days.

At the end of the day, I think that part of the reason why Californians are adverse to cloudy weather is that cities in California are temples for sun-worship. Los Angeles, with its sparse-but-characteristic palm trees is a city built to bask in light. (Consider Frank Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.) Cambridge, however, is built differently. While a Californian like me can be content to find sunshine in brief pockets here and there, the town grew over 800 years to embrace its weather. The lush gardens of its colleges, the sprawling trees of the backs, the meandering river that embraces the city; all have their own regality that expresses itself during a whimsical shower or overcast morning. The buildings, from the cobblestones up to the topmost merlons, take on new characters in the weather. I would venture to say that the walls of King’s college are at their grandest when partially dampened by rain.

And so, once again, rain or shine Cambridge is not better or worse, just different.



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