What's it like being at Cambridge as an American student?

Deanie Vallone was catapulted from a small American college into studies at Cambridge. It was a culture shock alright - but a positive one

As a child I dreamt of being a blend of Hermione Granger and TS Eliot, a girl who found her true home studying at a mythical school in England. But much like winning the lottery or receiving an acceptance letter from Hogwarts, the idea of a Midwestern girl going to Oxbridge seemed like a pipe dream.

Then came the Davies-Jackson Scholarship, a privately funded scholarship administered by the Council of Independent Colleges. The scholarship gives first-generation American students (i.e. the first in their family to go to university) the opportunity to study at St. John's College, Cambridge. Selection for the scholarship focuses on writing ability, requiring several extensive essays. Candidates must also demonstrate high academic performance and independent thinking.

Being a first-generation student, I placed a lot pressure on myself. Yet throughout my studies, I've never been alone. There was always a professor helping me edit my Cambridge application or friends cheering me on. Thus it was only fitting that my mother read me my Cambridge acceptance letter over the phone while I stood in a Florida airport. I had three good friends standing next to me to hear the news as soon as I got off the phone.

Since that tumultuous moment over two years have passed in which I've lived in the UK. What surprised me the most is how easily I adjusted to the UK.

Despite some significant differences - chips vs. crisps vs. fries, driving on the 'wrong' side of the road, Marmite? - I was still living in a university town, surrounded by students (and a whole lot of Americans).

The most exhilarating aspect of attending Cambridge was finding young people who were just as passionate as myself. This is not to say US students aren't highly motivated, but Cambridge collects them and puts them in one small town.

Intimidating

I would be lying if I said it wasn't intimidating. A lot of us students that arrive at Cambridge were at the top of our class. Suddenly we're in a lecture hall crammed full of these star students. This kind of environment makes for tough competition, and failing to be the absolute best can be a difficult reality to face. Despite what appears to be a harsh environment, my fellow students have been nothing but encouraging and accepting.

I believe this competitive but generous mentality stems from the fact that majority of the students are in love with their work. None of us would be here if there wasn't a fire driving us to hunt down obscure textbooks, or to attend morning lectures (despite having been at a club the night before).

Though Cambridge is founded on academic work, it would not be the concrete entity it is without its traditions. Having attended one of the largest and perhaps most traditional colleges, I had the full experience. This was a carnival for my child self.

Picture massive candlelit dining halls, billowing black gowns, glamorous balls, boat races, Latin prayers, and Christmas dinners with crackers (what a novelty!). Elements such as these made Cambridge a home, not just a glorified classroom.

Living a dream

For so many, Oxbridge is a story in a newspaper, a Wikipedia article, even a pipe dream, as it used to be for me. Living this dream for two years has made me realise that despite its ancient eccentricities, Cambridge can be just a normal place. Some nights it is just down-to-earth students eating Super Noodles as they rush to type up an essay due the next morning - not terribly different from my undergraduate university in the US.

My time at Cambridge has provided me so much more than a line on a CV. I discovered the Cambridge theatre scene and found my true calling. I travelled to countries I never thought I would. Through travel grants offered by St. John's, I trained birds of prey in Ireland. I published a short story in a literary magazine, interviewed Neil Gaiman for an international film festival, finally figured out the Underground, and met extraordinary people. None of this would have been possible without the help of both the Davies-Jackson Scholarship and St. John's College.

This summer I will be returning home to the States. While I love the US, England has become my home these past years. I know now that I could live here the rest of my life, much like Mr. Eliot, and be entirely happy. I have become T.S. Granger or Hermione Eliot, the hybrid-girl I always hoped I'd be. Though I have no immediate plans to come back to the UK, I know I will very soon. My life has been changed utterly by this place and I'm not about to let it go.

Deanie Vallone is a recent Davies-Jackson scholar

News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate / Trainee Sales Executive

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Graduate/Trainee Sales Executive is re...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer - Peterborough - £18,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Graphic Designer...

Ashdown Group: Graduate Developer - Cambridgeshire - £23,000

£22000 - £23000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Graduate Front-End Develo...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003