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Adulting in Cambridge as an international student

Adulting in Cambridge as an international student
May 22, 2019 556 views

On the 2nd of October, 2014, after a 10-hour flight, I landed in the UK for the first time in my life. Carrying my 4-kg rice cooker, I painstakingly searched for the exit in the maze-like Heathrow Airport Terminal 5. After another four hours of travelling, I finally reached my room in Homerton College. Before going to sleep, I Skyped my mum and cried, “I want to go home.” Nostalgia hit fast and hard, but more challenges awaited me. 

Why I chose to study education

I grew up as an ordinary child in Beijing China, attending state schools from nursery to senior high school (equivalent to a sixth form). With a wonderful opportunity offered by my senior high school, I was able to study A-level subjects alongside the traditional Chinese curriculum. 

Since 2011, I spent most of my extracurricular time in high school volunteering for a charity that helps children diagnosed with leukaemia. These children came from rural backgrounds and people in their villages believed that leukaemia was a contagious disease. This created a series of challenges that prevented these children from going back to school and being integrated into their old communities. That was the first time I realised how social prejudice could exacerbate the difficulties children with disabilities face when trying to access education. Also, I was heartbroken to witness their mental suffering that resulted in a high rate of school drop-outs and high risks of family breakdown. This experience strengthened my determination to study education, in particular to explore the ways to build an inclusive environment and culture that contributes to children’s long-term social flourishing and emotional well-being. 

Fast-forward to the 6th of January, 2014, I was accepted to study Education with Physical Sciences at Homerton College. Feeling extremely lucky and grateful, I started my journey to an unknown but somehow familiar country. 

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BA Congregation


Struggling with one language and two disciplines

Growing up in a predominantly monolingual environment means limited access to practising English. The best way to conquer this problem is to speak and write a lot. Quoted from an unknown source: You do not suffer from your broken English, the listeners do. Empowered by this thought, I used my boldness to pester people with my poor language skills. I got out of my comfort zone and started talking to people, which not only facilitated my oral fluency, but also earned me many close friends. 

Cambridge is full of surprises, mostly unexpected and challenging ones. I knew that I signed up to do Education and Physics, but I did not expect these two subjects to be too difficult to balance. My typical workload at the time included an example sheet of around 20 physics questions every single week and two 1500-word essays every two weeks. In my second year, I had four exams in a row with my brain quickly switching between the two disciplines. On one day, I was arguing about youth displacement and global strangeness. On the next day, I would be calculating the transmission probability of an electron tunnelling through a barrier. The key to finally survive my torn-apart life was to actively engage in discussions during supervisions, acknowledge what I did not know, seek advice, and most importantly, learn from suggestions and incorporate them into my day-to-day learning strategies. 

I am very proud to say that despite the physical exhaustion caused by cycling between college, faculty, and lab, my interdisciplinary undergraduate degree prepared me well for conducting academic research.

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Last Photo of the Cavendish Lab


Taking baby steps to do research

Whenever I discuss the Cambridge undergraduate experiences with my friends, I often hear the comment, “Cambridge is a place that wants to turn every student into a researcher.” In my case, Cambridge undoubtedly stimulated my interest for doing academic research. 

In the third year of my undergraduate life, I came across a paper in the Department of Sociology on Statistics in Social Sciences and a research and investigation-based dissertation in the Faculty of Education. They revolutionised my views towards research. I witnessed the power of using quantitative analyses in modelling the growth of a society and an individual, contributing towards evidence on societal transformations and individual life trajectory. Also, this approach can identify critical stages for development, thereby directing policies to offer the most timely and effective interventions. 

After finishing my BA in 2017, I continued to do an MPhil in Educational Research, in which I learnt a range of methodologies. This course made me realise that understanding the constraints of any type of method is a crucial part of academic research, as it is dedicated towards more responsible claims of results; through acknowledging the current limitations while identifying the future opportunities.

Following my MPhil, I progressed to do my PhD in 2018. My third matriculation into Cambridge has been very exciting and inspiring. I am involved in two research groups, REAL and PEDAL, as my PhD evaluates the social and emotional development of children with communication disorders in both developing and developed contexts. So far, I have had many intellectually stimulating conversations with respected academics in the field and passionate postgraduate researchers, who gather together to improve children’s life opportunities and their emotional well-being around the globe. 

A new journey just commenced and many interesting stories are yet to happen. Looking back at my time in Cambridge so far, I feel exceptionally fortunate to be supported by so many kind and encouraging people, in the form of my family, friends, supervisors, and college, faculty, and university staffs. They helped me create a warm and comfortable home 5000 miles away from my hometown, enabling me to pursue my goals wholeheartedly with great confidence and courage.

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BA Graduation in July 2017

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MPhil Graduation in November 2018


Vicky Yiran Zhao (@VickyYiranZhao) is a First year PhD student at the Faculty of Education. This story was first published on March 4, 2019, on the FERSA Blog run by graduate students at the Faculty of Education in Cambridge (available here) and has been republished here with permission.

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