‘Maybe we can all dress up as council estate teenage mums’ – with that one line all my resolve at staying on at Cambridge University shattered.
The braying laughter that followed the Student Union Officer’s idea for the next pub crawl confirmed that not only was I amongst very different people to me but that I had entered a whole different world. I transferred to Queen Mary the next day.
As most Freshers find, starting university in a different city, away from your friends and family and surrounded by overwhelming social and academic pressures, your first year at university is a testing time. I was no exception to this when I arrived at Cambridge University to begin my law degree. As the first from my college and family to reach Oxbridge, the expectations on me were high. However, unlike any of the students in my year group, I was going in as a nineteen year old who had left her two year old son in London with her partner to make the most of the opportunity that I had been given. I was that teenage mum that these people had in mind – not the Vicky Pollard caricature but a young mum nonetheless, someone they perceived as being from a socio-economic background inferior to their own. They did not know I had a child – had they known then perhaps the comment would not have been made. But the fact still remains that these people, about to embark on an academic career at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, a university known for sending off alumni to senior political offices and the like, were completely out of touch with the real world.
I have no doubt that there were perfectly nice individuals there, I’d made friends with a fair few myself, but the fact still remained that a student elected by other students to hold a position in the Student Union (a body created, ironically, for student inclusion and participation), held such low opinions of those that came from council estates or were teenage parents. To him his fellow students would obviously be from a similar background to himself and so would appreciate those jokes. After all, why should he expect a teenage mum to be sitting in front of him in the grand hall of a Cambridge college? To him and many others, that kind of institution was still the preserve of the elite.
The stereotypes of the elitist children of aristocrats is not as acute as perhaps a decade ago but that one comment in my fresher’s week still showed me that there was still an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality prevalent in some part at Cambridge.
Many of these students were coming from exclusive schools into a prestigious university and would then probably embark on careers in lucrative professions. They would have influence after their academic careers finished in many fields and professions from the judiciary to political office. If they are indeed being educated in a bubble which reinforced prejudice then I sincerely hope that bubble pops – because we all know there are enough out of touch politicians sitting in the Cabinet right now.
I should add that the decision to leave was of course a very personal one; many people from similar backgrounds to me choose to stay on at Cambridge and have wonderful experiences. But my decision was largely fuelled by my desire to not spend any more time amongst people who probably would never accept me. I chose to spend it in London with my son and friends in an environment that felt infinitely more diverse and welcoming. It’s been nearly three years since my transfer to Queen Mary and I hope that in this short space of time some more progress has been made to break down the barrier between classes and backgrounds that tarred my experience of Cambridge.