Thursday, January 21, 2010

Orange and Apples: Cambridge

Sometimes choosing a college isn't just the difference between one city or another, or even a different state, but a question of what country to settle in for your undergraduate years. Jessie Turnbull is an architecture graduate student who attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge. Here, she presents the differences between the two schools.

I wanted to study engineering when I applied for my undergraduate degree at Cambridge in the U.K. But after a year out studying womenswear design at London College of Fashion I realized --- as I sat in a lecture hall of 300 nerdy boys in grey sweaters being bemused by fluid dynamics --- that perhaps engineering wasn’t for me after all. It’s hard to gauge when you’re 17 and still at high school what career you want for the rest of your life. If I’d been at Princeton, I’d have just taken a few classes in different departments, seen where I fitted in, and at the end of my second year made a decision. As it was, I had to drop out of engineering after three weeks, re-interview with the director of studies in architecture, and cross my fingers that I hadn’t made a terrible decision.

I got lucky and was admitted into the Architecture faculty, and happily studied there for the next three years. From the first year each week, my college buddy Rosie and I would spend an hour with a senior academic discussing the finer points of Le Corbusier’s ideas about why houses are like ships. I would have another couple of hours of one-on-one time with the excellent design professors, and would attend a series of lectures by highly respected academics. This is a typical experience in any field, and is rather different from the precepts taught by graduate students to groups of around 10 at Princeton.

At Cambridge, the three terms are short and the course workload is high, but the holidays are long and relaxing. However, at the end of each year when it comes to exam time the pressure is immense. Princeton maintains a better balance between exams and coursework, to create a more even pattern of work throughout the year, compared to Cambridge.

What really helped me to enjoy my undergraduate years was the year off I took before I began. Princeton is gradually incorporating a scheme which encourages students to spend time traveling and volunteering for a year before starting college, but in Cambridge already around half the student population takes a year out before “matriculating.” I found that my gap-year friends were much more sure of what they wanted to study, had done their share of partying and were mature enough to settle down and work, with less of the tears and self-doubt that comes to all students now and again.

The Princeton collegiate system was modeled on that of "Oxbridge," but in Cambridge the college is far more integral to your experience of the university. The faculty who provide one-on-one supervisions are members of your college, you live in accommodation provided by your college for all three years, and if you choose to, you can eat all your meals there. The college environment fosters friendships between students from different majors and creates intimate social networks, such as drinking societies or sports clubs.

Cambridge has the advantage of being immersed in a real town with shops, supermarkets, cinemas, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. A walk along the Cam will lead you past the famous King’s Chapel, through fields of cows to the charming village of Granchester. A walk along Princeton’s canal will lead you to Route 1 and eventually to sketchy Trenton.

Princeton is a great school with excellent faculty but with less to offer in terms of a well-rounded social and historical experience of academia. Cambridge has the fantastic teaching method which brings together the most and least experienced academics, but has less leeway for discovering alternative career paths. If you know where you’re headed, Cambridge is a fantastic place to study. If you’re still finding out what you are, you should go to Princeton.