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Blog by: Edward

Reading, Berkshire. Studying Modern and Medieval Languages (French and Spanish). Read more

Back to school: the Access Bus

The short terms in Cambridge provide a lot of opportunities for us to do exciting things during the holidays. Some people take on vacation work, others go on holiday using grants from their College … But what have I been doing this last week, I hear you ask? Well, I’ve been going back to school.

Okay, so perhaps a bit of explanation is in order. I haven’t been kicked out of university. I haven’t completely failed all my exams, nor do I have to resit some of my A-Level modules (again). Instead, I’ve been involved with Clare College’s very own Access Bus. The principle of the Access Bus is that, during the University holidays, a group of students go into schools and talk to pupils who might not think that Cambridge is for them, whether because of finance, background or any other myths about Cambridge admissions. We also do more general talks about university life, and try to demonstrate that student life is not all work, work, work. Every Cambridge College is linked with a certain area of the UK, and since two of our link areas are Coventry and Warwickshire, it was to the Midlands that we – that is, six current students and our two Schools Liaison Officers – set off on Sunday night.

Staying in the local area allowed us to visit a lot of schools in a very short space of time. Averaging around five school visits every day between the two ‘teams’, we must have spoken to several hundred pupils by the end of our week. The talks that we did varied according to the age of the students we were visiting, but they typically consisted of explanations of what university ‘is’, the benefits of going to university, and daily life as a student. By the end of the week, I found that I’d got very well-practised in talking about Student Finance, having discussed it on more occasions than I could remember! This, though, was kind of the point: allowing pupils to speak to actual university students, and to ask questions about the nitty-gritty of student living, is one of the main aims of the Access Bus. During the week, I had really inspiring conversations with some wonderful pupils, and I can only hope that the advice and information we gave them will help them as they start to reconsider whether university is really full of poshos and rich people.

edwardOf course, the trip was also really fun to be involved with outside of the school visits. Everything was funded by the College, from the (very comfy) Travelodge we stayed in to our many breakfasts (and even more coffees) in the Morrisons Café down the road. We even found time to relax during the week: on our first full night in Coventry we went bowling together, which allowed everyone else to demonstrate their utter superiority over my ‘lob-it-in-the-right-direction-and-try-not-to-fall-over’ technique. As you can see from the picture on the right, my friend Robin (who, like all the other students, I got to know really well during the week) has mastered how to look really cool whilst also bowling pretty darn well. The fun continued throughout the week, as we made sure that our evenings weren’t completely taken up with planning the next school visit. One particular highlight was going to see ‘Henry IV: Part I’ in Stratford on the Thursday: even if we did need some quick history lessons on which Henry this was, it was worth it for the fight scenes alone.

This was my third year doing the Access Bus, and my first after a year away in France, but it’s still as much fun as it was the first time I gave up a week of my Easter holiday to talk to pupils. Coming so soon after my dissertation deadline, Access work managed once again to combine two really important things: working to raise aspirations of young people and simply having some good old-fashioned fun.

If you’re reading this and would like to know more about the links that Colleges have with different areas of the country, have a look here. Clare isn’t the only College to run an Access Bus, and all Colleges can organise school visits: I’m sure the SLOs would be delighted to hear from you!

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The Year Abroad Project

The last post on this blog was all about my time in France as a language assistant (if you missed it, click here), but since I returned to the UK the focus has shifted onto another aspect of my third year: the Year Abroad Project. The Year Abroad Project, or YAP, is a project completed during and after your third year, and handed in just after you come back to Cambridge. It’s separate to the (optional) fourth year dissertation, but many people use it as an opportunity to develop their independent study skills ahead of (*dramatic music*) final year. And even though I’ve not finished mine yet, I can tell you without a doubt that it’s one of the best parts of my course so far.

But why is it so much fun? Well, firstly you get a great deal of choice in what kind of project you do. It’s not necessary to settle on a title until the end of second year, which gives you six whole terms at Cambridge to find out what interests you. You can also choose whether to do a linguistic inquiry (perfect for those with a linguistics bent); a translation piece (for budding translators); or a dissertation. While I don’t have anything against the first two options, I’d become particularly interested in a specific topic during my first two years: medieval French literature. That option lends itself most readily to a dissertation, so it wasn’t long until I was meeting with a potential supervisor and discussing reading.

Over the past year, I’ve been trying to work as steadily as possible, fitting reading and note-taking around working as a language assistant. Of course, things are starting to come to a head now, with my deadline (late September) fast approaching, but with the work I’ve done over the past eleven months, it should all be perfectly manageable. This is a fairly unique experience for me, since next year there won’t be anything like this amount of time to write 8,000 words, so I’m making sure that I relish every second of it! Then, of course, there’s the experience of writing an extended piece of academic work for the first time, which is also something of a thrill, as it’s a great taster of what a postgraduate degree might be like. (And yes: I’d like to do a postgraduate degree in medieval French. I’m just that cool.)

More to come from me soon – for now, though, the local university library beckons …

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What is a language assistantship?

As I wrote my last post, I was on my way out to France, getting ready to start work as a language assistant. Well, guess what? As I’m writing this, I’m on my way back home again.

I’ve actually been home twice over the last few months, both times unexpectedly and for family reasons. This time, though, I’m coming back for a little while longer, which will give me a bit more time to appreciate the differences between England and France. (Did I delay writing this post just so I could make that connection? Maybe. Please don’t hate me, blog admins …)

Reading my last post again, it occurs to me that I may not have gone into very much depth about what exactly I’m doing while I’m in Reims, France. Let’s start from the beginning, then: I’m on my Year Abroad. All MML (languages) students at Cambridge are required to take a Year Abroad after their second year, unless you have a very good medical reason for it. There are several main options: study abroad (à la my ‘armchair linguist’ friend); find a job or internship; or work as a language assistant. I went with the latter of these options, for several reasons: firstly, I quite like teaching; secondly, I wasn’t really all that confident in being able to find a job otherwise; and thirdly, the application process is, in comparison to the other options, pretty simple.

So what does a language assistant do? Officially, my job description is ‘to develop the cultural and linguistic capabilities of students within the framework of language learning’. In practice, this is a lot more complicated than it sounds, of course … My établissement d’affectation (host school) is a lycée, which is basically the French equivalent of an American high school. I’m teaching three age groups: secondes (Year 11), premières (Year 12), and terminales (Year 13). All three are looking to some degree (no pun intended) towards the Baccalauréat, which they take at the age of 18.

Different schools handle their assistants in different ways, and I have to say that I’ve been very lucky with mine. My school has given me quite a lot of freedom: teachers send me a portion of their class every week, and in this way I can work with smaller groups than the 20-30 in the average English lesson. Having spoken to the teachers a few days earlier, I’ll have devised a lesson plan, which I then work through with the group. Usually this lesson plan will tie in with what the teacher is working on, so as to offer a different approach to the same topic.

For instance, the other week a teacher asked me to work on the ‘American Dream’. After a walk around town and a think, I came up with the idea of analysing some songs, since it’s both ‘up-to-date’ and genuinely interesting. I picked three songs: American Idiot, by Green Day; America! from the musical West Side Story; and Born in the USA, by Bruce Springsteen. After listening to them through a few times, I devised a table for students to fill out, which you can see here if you’re interested. The lesson itself went rather well: the music made a nice change from textbooks, and proved a valuable aid in getting students to speak. I’ve actually launched a website for my teaching, which has been getting some lovely feedback from the students and teachers; one of our projects for next term is to get students interacting more with the site, rather than just viewing it and downloading content. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes …

For now, though, it’s back to the UK I go, to recharge my batteries and to relax for a while. After that, it’ll be back to receiving emails with titles like ‘Next week’s lesson’, ‘Registration update for the 1ES1’, and ‘Please come and see us in the office to sort out your apartment insurance’. For now, though, I should probably focus on different things. Like all the Christmas shopping I still have to do.

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What I did last summer … (and France.)

Hello everyone! If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably chanced upon my profile page; if not, then you can have a look here. So anyway – welcome to my blog!

My blog will actually be a little bit different from many of the other BeCambridge blogs this year, since I won’t actually be in Cambridge while I’m writing it. Instead, as a third year languages student, I’ll be on my Year Abroad. Every modern linguist has to spend their third year in countries where the languages they study are spoken, so I’ll be in Reims, France, working as an English language assistant in a local sixth-form college. With that in mind, I’ll be spending most of my time on this blog talking not about supervisions, or what’s going on in Cambridge, or clubs and societies; instead, I’ll be offering an insight on the less conventional opportunies that a Cambridge degree offers you.

As I write this, I’m in the car on the way to St. Pancras, getting ready to arrive in France later today. But of course, I’ve not just been packing non-stop since the end of the last term. For many of us, the summer holidays offer a chance to relax after an intense year, as well as to try and find some paid work. For me, that’s meant helping out with some of the summer schools that the University runs. During the summer, lots of external companies run summer schools set in Cambridge Colleges, although these aren’t affiliated in any way with the University; that said, the University’s Admissions Office does run a number of events that are publicised to schools and sixth-form colleges. In particular, I’ve been on two main events as a staff member: the Sutton Trust summer school, for Year 12 students, and our GEEMA summer school. Both of these were great fun, and I was just amazed by how smart everyone on the events was. If you’re thinking of applying to Cambridge but aren’t sure that it could be for you, then I’d highly recommend them.

For now, though, my thoughts are turning towards the Year Abroad. Sitting in a car on the way to the train station is as good a time as any to reflect on what the Year Abroad is for: for modern linguists, it’s a compulsory part of the course. I’ve spent two years in Cambridge, developing my language skills and finding areas of study that particularly interest me, and now it’s time for me to use what I’ve learnt. A friend of mine, nervous about going away, recently described himself as an ‘armchair linguist’, and I’m starting to empathise with him: it’s very easy, when studying languages, to lose yourself in the intricacies of literature, or linguistics, or history, and to forget just how a language like French is actually used day in, day out, by hundreds of millions of people.

And at the moment, I’d suggest that that is the real purpose of the Year Abroad: to take something abstract, yet rewarding and useful, and to transform it into something concrete.

See you in France!

(And in case you’re wondering, my ‘armchair linguist’ friend is absolutely loving it.)

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Bumps, Blades and Jazz Bands: Easter Term in Cambridge

The end of term in Cambridge is marked by quite a few interesting events. I’m spending rather a lot of time this week playing gigs in our Jazz Band, Colonel Spanky’s Love Ensemble*; before our week of gigs started, though, I’ve been taking part in the May Bumps.

The May Bumps are, for want of a better word, awesome. They’re the single biggest student sport competition in the country, with about 2,500 people participating. The premise is fairly simple: eighteen rowing boats, each with eight rowers and a cox, line up one in front of the other. Then, when the cannon goes off (and it is an actual cannon), each boat tries to hit – or ‘bump’ – the boat in front before the boat behind can catch up. After each day, the boats involved in a bump swap places, and this is all repeated for three more days. The aim each year is for a crew to win ‘blades’, which you achieve by ‘bumping’ on each of the four days.

Rowing has a reputation as something of a ‘rah’-type sport, an activity dominated by ‘toffs messing about in boats’. Since starting at Cambridge a couple of years ago, though, I’ve discovered that it’s actually one of the most inclusive sports that there is here. Every College has a Boat Club, and every one of those accepts ‘novices’ – people who’ve never rowed before. In my College, the first term of this year saw as many people start rowing as there were members of the entire senior squad! These very same novices will often go on to row in the best boats within a year or so, which goes to show that you don’t have to have done the sport at school to get good very quickly. I spend most of my time at the Boat Club as a cox (the small person who sits at the back, steers the boat, and motivates the
rowers), and my entire crew had only started rowing when they came to Cambridge. Even in the Boat Race on television, there will always be members of the Oxford and Cambridge crews who began rowing with their College.

But back to the Bumps themselves. No-one who knows me would describe me as particularly sporty, but through coxing I’ve been able to experience a lot of the camaraderie and team spirit that comes with taking part in sport, in spite of my lack of muscles. Coxing is also really different from anything else I do in
Cambridge: the feeling you get when you’re sitting on the start line, ready to motivate eight athletes and steer them to a bump, provides a much-needed break from writing essays or completing Spanish grammar exercises. This year, I’ve even had a go at actual rowing, which is a very different challenge from coxing. Even in the lower boats, where I was put when I asked if I could give it a go, you learn very quickly to work with other people to make the boat move as quickly as possible. It’s a really worthwhile way to spend your time while you’re in Cambridge.

In spite of what I’d heard before starting at university, rowing certainly isn’t just for people who have watched the Boat Race every year since they were five, or own their own private fleet of boats. It’s a really good stress-buster, a fun way to spend your time, and a superb outlet for that competitive streak that so many of us feel.

Oh, and if you’re wondering – my crew did indeed get ‘blades’ this year. Don’t believe me? Here’s the proof, complete with me wearing ridiculous sunglasses and looking like an idiot:

Edward winning the bumps

*In case you’re wondering, Colonel Spanky is our name for one of the band members. He’s pretty cool.

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