A life-affirming experience! Emma Sims talks about her Cambridge graduation

by Emma Sims on 21 August 2019

I always thought graduation day would loom ahead of me; a grandiose and slightly foreboding affair which involved lots of fur, kneeling and Latin. And while it did involve those latter three elements, the day – the experience – itself was nothing short of life-affirming. 

Graduation creeps up on you; you spend Easter Term frenziedly studying for exams, dashing outside for sporadic bouts of fresh air and imbibing as much caffeine as is humanly possible. It’s a term of friendly lunches, coffee dates and early nights – and reading. So. Much. Reading. 

Then comes the end of exams, and a dousing in Aldi’s finest prosecco if you’re a finalist. After that, punting on the Cam, long-awaited trips to the pub and, if you’ve squirrelled away enough savings, perhaps even the odd May Ball. Carefree merriment is the order of the day, and you revel in your newfound freedom. 

And all of a sudden, graduation day rolls around. The drunken revelry of post-exam celebrations becomes more sober, more thoughtful, more sentimental. You start to reflect on the times you had at Lucy Cavendish College, your home for some three years. The dizzying highs (sports wins, academic prizes, musical theatre debuts, a successful bid for a role on the SU) and, of course, the character-building lows. 

The families arrive. Not just yours, but those of your friends, your peers, your fellow Lucians. Lucy is an international college, so lots of families have travelled from as far afield as Paris, Lagos or Philadelphia. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to meet the nearest and dearest of your graduating class, those with whom you’ve shared the past few years. 

After breakfast at Cambridge institution Fitzbillies – unparalleled scrambled eggs – we head back to Lucy Cavendish to get ready. There’s a strict dress code – the look is “emperor penguin” – and skirts must be below-knee-length, shirts unadorned, shoes sensible. Gowns and (faux) fur hoods are worn too, heightening the Harry Potter vibe Cambridge is famous for. A flurry of photographs taken by and with parents and siblings is an inevitability at this point, I’m afraid. 

At lunchtime, the college lays on a spread: there’s a buffet lunch to be enjoyed in the sunny gardens, complete with white wine, strawberries and elderflower spritzes for the sensible among us. Everyone spills onto Strathaird lawns and mingles in the 30-degree heat, attempting not to melt in our black garb. 

It’s an emotional time, saying goodbye to the college community, from the porters to your director of studies to the college tutors – everyone who made your experience what it was will be dearly missed. We congregate to hear President Madeleine Atkins give a rousing yet heartfelt speech, and there’s barely a dry eye left in the house. 

After an official photo on Strathaird lawn, it’s time to practice the ritual that will take place in Senate House, nestled between King’s College and Gonville and Caius. A procession is led through town, with the graduands – the official name for someone about to graduate imminently – walking in formation to the ceremony. The college porters accompany us as we give them a cheeky sideways smile; there’s a sentimental air of “nursery school nativity” to the proceedings – when formality dictates you shouldn’t glance over at your loved ones, but you just can’t help yourself. 

A quick pit stop at St John’s College’s kitchens to grab some water is orchestrated by ever-caring Senior Porter Neil; it’s pretty sweltering in the now-32-degree heat. As we stroll on down King’s Parade, tourists and passersby stop and take photos of our archaic looking bunch. It’s a spectacle, but a joyful one. Like a wedding party, or a parade at a carnival (only a lot more monochrome).

The ceremony itself is beautiful. We glance at our families in Senate House, dressed to the nines, beaming down at us. The ritual itself is regal but short, and done wholly in Latin. Don’t panic; nobody (bar the classicists) understands it, nor is expected to. In the words of the penguins in Madagascar: “Just smile and wave boys, smile and wave”. For more on the intricacies of the ceremony, you can check out the details here

Once you’ve had your degree conferred upon you by the President of the College, you exit stage right into an alleyway that snakes back into the Senate House courtyard, bathed in sunshine. We were welcomed by the beaming faces of the college porters, making proceedings that much more mirthful. Everyone congregates in the gardens of Senate House to take pictures, admire King’s Chapel and revel in the air of hard-earned achievement. 

I’ll never forget my departing exchange as, after we’d exhausted ourselves congratulating each other, I left Senate House with my parents. “Where to next?” a university steward beamed at me, as I clutched my degree in my hands. “The pub,” I responded unthinkingly, “probably The Anchor.” She shot me a look, aghast but amused: “I meant more like graduate programs,” she said. “But enjoy!” 

As I walked off down King’s Parade, arm in arm with my parents, the early July sun beating down on us, I was overcome with a mix of emotions: pride, excitement for what lay ahead – but most of all gratitude. Towards my parents, whose encouragement had got me there, to my kind, clever, gracious friends who I met along the way, and to the college itself – the people who staff it and make it the hub of activity and innovation and life that it is. In a word, that’s what graduation day feels like: gratitude. And wanting to do the past three years – every last second – over again. 

About the author

Emma graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2019 with a BA in Human, Social and Political Sciences. She was Co-President of the Students’ Union in 2018-19 and helped to lead the College through a time of change. She played on the Lucy Cavendish and Hughes Hall Netball Team and she wrote for the student magazine, The Cavendish Chronicle. She was a member of Clare Politics Society and the Cambridge University International Development Society. She was also involved with Womcam (the Women’s Campaign). She won the Jackie Ashley Prize for Best Results in Politics in 2018. Emma is currently working in publishing and freelance journalism, and will soon start on a consultancy graduate scheme.


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