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Why it Felt Good to Turn Down Cambridge

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Last April, I had my dream come true. I had been accepted into the MPhil in Screen Media and Culture at the University of Cambridge. I had always wanted to study at Cambridge. I instantly pictured myself wearing chinos and a plaid blazer, punting in the River Cam with a glass of Pol Roger while preppy students dashed in and out of brick buildings around me. Growing up in Canada, the thought of attending an institute like Cambridge seemed like a distant fantasy. Needless to say, I was very excited.

I had also been accepted into the MSc in Media Studies at the London School of Economics but I was surprised to discover that there was a major difference in tuition fees between LSE and Cambridge with Cambridge being surprisingly more affordable. Even including college fees, it was still only half the cost of tuition at the LSE. This made Cambridge even more attractive to me. It would still be a stretch to cover the cost of tuition and college fees but I was determined to make it possible. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity.

As most graduate students soon learn, the funding for post-graduate education is severely limited in the UK. There does not seem to be a lot of incentive to continue your education past undergraduate level. Being North American the thought of not going to graduate school was out of the question, I love researching and after years of working a nine to five office job, I was excited to throw myself back into studying.

Everything was going to be perfect, I was going to continue to live in London and commute up to Cambridge two days a week when I had my two hour lectures. I was recently married in May, we had a lease on a flat in North London and my partner worked in central London so leaving the city did not make sense. I had everything planned out until I stumbled across a vague section of the Cambridge University website.

Terms of study:

"All full-time graduate students are expected to live within 10 miles of the centre of Cambridge while carrying out research in the University. Students who have good reason to live further away must have the agreement of their supervisor that this will not impair their ability to study and to attend the University as required, and the consent of their College (this is not the same as leave to work away from Cambridge)."

My heart sunk. I decided not to panic, certainly I had good reason to live further away and commuting to Cambridge is only 45 minutes on the train from London. For most Londoners, commuting to and from their work place takes longer. I decided I would write to my supervisor to ask for clarification on what the terms of residency were in order to attend Cambridge.

Let me begin by saying that my supervisor was absolutely lovely and was always very helpful. She explained that residence (within 10 miles of Cambridge) was a requirement for attendance. She said she had not known that requirement be waived for an MPhil course and that I should plan to move to Cambridge.

I knew that it would be a struggle to move up to Cambridge but nonetheless I applied for accommodation through my college. I was shocked to find out that a small single bedroom would cost about £100 a week. There was no way I could justify paying an extra £400 on top of my existing bills in London. Not to mention, I was a newlywed and I didn't like the idea of living apart from my partner for months at a time during our first year of marriage.

My dream of attending Cambridge was now becoming a nightmare. I had already accepted my spot and told everyone that I would be attending. I felt foolish but mostly I felt mystified that at the age of 29 I was being told where I had to live in order to pursue higher education. University is about learning how to make your own decisions and certainly post-graduate students should be mature enough to decide where they can live while studying.

Oddly, it's only Oxford and Cambridge who appear to have this rule. I was also shocked to discover that "graduate students who have been undergraduates in Cambridge for at least a year have already met the residence requirement." How did any of this make sense? Students who had done their undergraduate study at Cambridge were exempt from this silly requirement.

Suddenly, at the eleventh hour, I was forced into making other plans. At first, I was upset about not being able to attend Cambridge but then I started to realise that I might have dodged a bullet. Did I really want to go to an institute that wanted to control so much of my personal life? I was uncomfortable with an institute dictating where I had to live (within a 10 mile radius of Great St Mary's church to be exact!).

To make matters worse, "the University also limits the hours of paid work a full-time research student can take." So not only were they saying that in order for me to attend, I must move up to Cambridge but they could also limit whether or not I chose to work while studying. This made me even more uncomfortable. As a mature student who had been working full-time in London, I had become accustomed to a certain lifestyle and I was planning to work a few days a week to maintain something of a social life. To discover that this would also be controlled made me realize that the fantasy of attending Cambridge was better than the reality. What had, a one point, seemed charming to me about attending Cambridge (the formal dinners, the old buildings) now seemed to resemble more of a cult. Perhaps if I was eighteen, I could understand the appeal of having my life controlled in such a way but as an adult, it just didn't make sense.

Fortunately, I was able to get into a programme at a university in London that allowed me to continue to live in my flat with my partner and didn't discourage me from pursuing any outside opportunities. In the run up to starting my Masters, I have managed to do some freelance writing and I may continue to do more while I study. The point is it's my choice whether I continue to work. Turning down Cambridge might be one of the decisions that I look back on in years to come and regret but for right now, I think I did the right thing and if there is one thing that I've learned so far, it's always to trust my instincts.