Cambridge During COVID- A Reflection on What Has Changed

September 26th, 2020

Thomas Freitag

As an undergraduate, I was elated to learn that I had received the Kanders-Churchill Scholarship, because it meant that I would have the privilege of continuing my studies at Cambridge for another year. I completed my senior year of undergrad at Jesus College through a program offered by the University of Pittsburgh and got to partake in all of Cambridge’s unique collegiate offerings. From formal halls filled with joyous conversation to department walls adorned with Nobel laureates, I savored every moment at Cambridge, knowing that I would get to appreciate it for another year.

However, the coronavirus pandemic quickly threw a wrench in the works. Shortly after Lent term, I was forced to return to the United States with but a day’s notice, unsure of what would come next. Now, returning to Cambridge on the quiet grounds of Churchill College, I can take a moment to reflect on the changes that have occurred in the months I was away.

There are certainly worries about the upcoming academic year, as despite the best efforts of healthcare workers and diligent scientists, the coronavirus continues to exert its impact on daily life. Even in Cambridge, an area of England that has remained largely unscathed by the worst of the pandemic, there are concerns about what the upcoming term will hold. If I didn’t know better, I would believe that I was returning to a different university entirely. No formal halls, limited in-person contact, and much of the coursework shifted to digital spaces. It’s hard to see the resemblance to the Cambridge I arrived at last fall, but although the disruptions to class structure and social life are significant, the spirit of the university remains unchanged.

As an American, I was often intrigued by the concept of the “stiff upper lip” that is often defined as a characteristic of British society. It would appear to be evident of a cultural coldness which permits little joy- an insistence on fortitude at the expense of happiness. However, as I return to Cambridge in the midst of the greatest crisis in my generation’s lifetime, I recognize that this stoic quality is one that is often rooted in kinship. I am watching as the university community is working to come together as a family, preparing as best it can to advance our collective scholarship while protecting the people which support us in our ventures. Our student body has been burdened with a difficult task and to give up so much is difficult, especially for those who have worked hard to walk the hallowed grounds of Cambridge. However, there is an unmistakable sense of duty and a clear dedication to ensuring that these interruptions to university tradition are undertaken to uphold the greater good.

In many regards, it is disheartening to have had the taste of a “normal” Cambridge, especially knowing that my peers are arriving at a university that has changed so much in such short time. There are moments that I worry our cohort will be deprived of an authentic experience, the pandemic robbing the incredible scholars who have borne the risks of the pandemic to satisfy their intellectual curiosity. Yet, I see that my peers are already becoming accustomed to the culture of inquiry and unity that I admired when first coming to Cambridge. While we have arrived in turbulent times, there is no sense of dejection. Instead, there is a drive to make the most of our circumstances and to go forward despite the uncertainty. It is said that Isaac Newton did his best work when Cambridge’s academics had been disrupted by an epidemic of the bubonic plague and while I do not believe that such perilous circumstances are necessary to breed innovation, I continue to be inspired by the fortitude of those I have the privilege of standing beside. We may not get the chance to experience a “normal” year at Cambridge, but we will do our best to make the most of our opportunity and to seek out the light when the world is at its darkest.

“I have had dreams and I have had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.” -Jonas Salk

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