Easter term is a strange time for us at Cambridge. For the rest of the year, none of the work we do affects our grade, leaving us free to use supervisions and practical exercises to explore our subject in depth. However, during the second half of Easter term, we sit Tripos exams, which determine our grade for the year.
Hence, Cambridge becomes a lot quieter during Easter term as everyone revises for their exams. In computer science, we’ve got no fewer than 19 courses to go over (everything from computer architecture to law and ethics) – and anything that’s mentioned in the lectures can appear in the exams. This idea that just about anything can appear in exams is half of what makes the exams so scary. The other thing is the stakes. Exams don’t just just affect our self-esteem: getting a low grade can make it more difficult to get accepted for employment or for a graduate degree later on. And, in an environment where we’re constantly made to feel insecure about our academic ability, doing badly can feel devastating.
Our exam insecurities are not particularly helped by the importance a lot of Cambridge departments place on exam results either. For example, the Computer Science Tripos requires you to get 1st Class Honours (the best possible grade) in 3rd year in order to progress onto the 4th year. Furthermore, many colleges (St John’s included) offer preferential treatment to those that get 1sts, including £500, a special feast, privileged dining rights, and first choice of accommodation for the next year. Simply put: a lot comes down to how we perform in these exams.
And so, as exams approach, stress slowly creeps up towards us.
Being at university during a pandemic has been incredibly tough. It’s been a constant struggle not just to handle the work, but even to pull yourself together. With formal halls closed and the buttery being takeaway-only, all semblance of normal university functioning has ceased. Plus, with the lockdown, it’s become next to impossible to meet friends at all (most of them are outside my household). Put simply, life has become entirely dysfunctional.
So, for eight weeks, I would either sit in my room or lie in bed, trying my best to keep up with the unrelenting workload. Like with everyone, not being able to focus due to the lack of in-person teaching was a a severe detriment. But, above all, not being able to see people took its toll. Ordinarily, Cambridge is an extremely stressful place to be, but the one thing that made it enjoyable was spending time with the friends I had made: sharing stories with them and cheering them up when they were down. Making us return to Cambridge with the expectation of a lockdown was akin to expecting to us face all of the stresses of Cambridge with none of what makes it enjoyable.
And yet Cambridge continues to insist that it’s business as usual. At the moment, exams are due to be held as normal, with normal grading and no safety net. This is disappointing but doesn’t surprise me in the slightest: Oxford and Cambridge are notoriously traditional universities. They have previously been slow in getting rid of class lists, and have previously refused to remove the requirement to “keep term” (or stay in residence within the university precinct). Needless to say, there have been rent strikes and calls to reduce tuition fees, but I’m curious to see if the University will budge on the exam arrangements. Everyone’s been affected by this calamity of a year, and pretending people haven’t is the University's biggest vice.
It’s affected my social relationships as well. A few times, I messaged friends asking to go on a walk, but they were either too busy or too depressed to do so. (I did get to go on a few walks with people, but they were few and far between. And besides, there’s only so much you can get from walks.) Over time, the gravity of the situation sank deeper and I began to break down too. Being able to see my Tutor and Director of Studies helped a bit, but what helped the most was living together with my roommate, Cameron. He was always there to talk to; even if I didn’t have anything in particular on my mind, just being able to talk to him was a huge help. (He was such a good roommate – if you ever read this, know that I'm extremely grateful and I’ll always appreciate your help ❤️)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sadness did not stop when term ended. It took a few days to get out of the toxic mindset of work combined with being unable to socialise with people. When I did, one of my friends invited me on a walk around Cambridge. We hadn’t seen each other much that term, although the term had definitely strengthened our friendship, and it would be nice to see her and catch up before we went our separate ways.
When going on walks, I often climb Castle Hill. It’s a small hill where a motte-and-bailey castle once stood. Originally build in the 11th century, it no longer remains – although the mound still exists and, while it’s a protected monument, it’s free to climb. It’s become one of my recurring visits in Cambridge, and its view over Cambridge makes it a wonderful place to reflect. Sure enough, we decided to go there.
It offers a spectacular elevation from which you can see King’s, Trinity, St John’s, and many other colleges, and realise just how fortunate you are to be here.
When we got there, we spoke about how we came about choosing our college. We had different stories about how we came to apply to St John’s, but one thing which we had in common was that we had both originally considered applying to Trinity. Trinity is renowned among Cambridge students as an academically elite college, the king of kings when it comes to academic performance. However, both of us were put off by the impression it gave us at the open day as an unfriendly, elitist college.
And, sure enough, we were right (to an extent). Trinity’s had an abysmal track record at helping students during the pandemic. They’ve made it compulsory to wear a mask exemption card (or else students would be denied entry) and they took until after term ended to clarify how the lockdown would affect students. They’ve also point-blank refused everything the TCSU (their student union) have asked to try to make student life just a little bit better and, to top it all off, following news of the third lockdown, Trinity would then go on to kick out all students (international or otherwise) who are able to return home. Not cool, Trinity.
Come to think of it, the University of Cambridge has been completely apathic to its students’ concerns. There are some things I can’t blame them for. For example, if they were to reduce tuition fees for the disruption, many colleges would go bankrupt. However, other things have little rationale. Among other things,
Compare this last point to many tech companies (including the beloved company where I work, Arm*), where the message is that it’s okay to be feeling less productive than usual, and that the number one priority is to look out for our own wellbeing. Being both a student and an employee has shown me a stark disparity in how much those who represent us – and who we represent – care about us as people.
As we went back down to continue exploring Cambridge, we discussed the implications the pandemic would have on the rest of the year. It was difficult to tell the extent of the toll Covid’s taken upon our lives, or even whether we would return next term. The extent of the disruption we've faced (and would continue to face) was massive, and we were under no illusion that it would be months before things returned to normal.
But there we were, students at one of the world’s most famous and prestigious universities. Although much of it was now online, Cambridge still had a lot to offer. We could still access key speakers, language courses and the college’s generous bursaries. We could still speak to world-leading academics, finding ways to contribute to the cutting-edge of human knowledge. And programmes like Hackbridge were still looking for people to contribute, and for ways to help those who had been affected by Covid.
But, most of all, we’d adapted as students. Throughout the pandemic, we looked for for new ways to connect and look after one another. While our friendships were greatly strained by the lockdown, our friends were out there, still thinking about us, and when everything’s over, there’d be huge celebration, our bonds stronger than ever before. We’d be able to look back on our experiences and see how resilient we'd been. We’d be the proud soldiers who’d fought the pandemic and won.
I just hope the cost wasn’t too great.
* Following from my internship, I was granted a return offer to work as a Part-Time Undergraduate employee. The opinions expressed are my own views and not those of my employer.
Internships are a freaking cool thing. Having the opportunity to spend a summer working at a tech company, making money working on a project which will actually see use in the real world, is an experience like no other. I was lucky enough to intern at Arm this year, and I couldn’t have found a better place to intern. Arm’s microchips power some 200 billion devices, from smartphones to smart cars, and the company takes in smart, motivated engineers who help to make the world a better place.
After 13 weeks, I finally finish work here today. I’m really sad for it to come to an end, but I’ve learnt a great deal from being here. Many of the things that I have learnt complement what I'll soon be studying at university, while others are more personal, meta, or are lessons about the real world.
[Currently undergoing IP review]
Throughout my internship, I worked on the Morello project. Morello is an experimental architecture funded by the £70m Digital-Security-by-Design research programme, which aims to make computers safer by reducing the impact of memory hacking. You can find out more about it here.
What have I learnt?
I’ve learnt many lessons over my internship. Of course, at such an advanced company like Arm, it was inevitable that I would learn so many new technologies, programming techniques, etc.. I’ve learnt model tracing, debugging, return-oriented programming, and threat modelling to name a few. However, as my first ever industry experience, my internship has taught me some highly important the personal lessons which I’ve taken onboard and give an insight into the real world. Of these, the most important ones are as follows:
The best part
It's difficult to say which part was the best, as all of it was extremely good and I've had no real negatives about the internship. However, after giving an intern presentation, someone asked me a question which made me think about how I would sell an internship at Arm to other students. I've already described many of the benefits of working at Arm, but if I were asked for just one thing that stands out, I'd probably say something like this:
Advice for aspiring interns
It's well worth applying for internships! This holds especially true for tech, where experience holds a lot of weight in applications, but I'm sure it's also a very good idea for people in the natural and social sciences as well as those like History or Languages whose course might not immediately suggest where they'd be working next.
So, what advice would I give? It's not perfect advice for any means (your mileage may vary), but:
And finally, don't stress out about it too much. Sometimes your luck just won't hold out and you might not get an internship. And that's okay. Even just applying is hugely beneficial, and getting one stage further in the process shows that you're improving. Not getting an internship is in no way a black mark, and many people get their dream job without one. So, by all means, apply for internships – they're great – but don't fret if you don't get one. It isn't the be-all and end-all by any means.
Also, apply to Arm. You won't regret it. ;)
It's been an eventful year, to say the least. We've had forest fires, tested the brinksmanship of the Middle East and witnessed the most catastrophic pandemic in recent years. The economy has fallen into recession, people have been losing their jobs, schools and universities have shut down... in short, the entire world is in a state of paralysis right now. It seems unlikely that a vaccine will be available for several months or even years (especially with countries undermining each other's research efforts and the USA working on a US-exclusive vaccine), but I'm also wary of Boris Johnson's possible plan to re-open schools and work too early and too quickly. I understand the strain that the UK is under thanks to the virus, but I presume that there's a way to freeze organisations' assets to prevent them from going bankrupt, through legislation or otherwise.
In the meantime, university life has also frozen to a standstill. Well, sort of. We still have work (more on that later), but I've had much more opportunity to reflect on my student life with somewhat less pressure than I would normally have.
Cambridge has confirmed that the vast majority of us will have exams which no longer matter and that we'll all pass onto the next year. (The poor lawyers still have graded exams, so I've heard...) Despite this, the workload has continued as normal and it has really taken its toll on all of us. All lecture videos and supervisions are provided online, and they are usually put up earlier than they usually would be, although this also makes it easier to fall behind on lectures because we no longer need to wake up to walk to lectures.
We have four courses this term: Mathematical Methods III (from the Natural Sciences Tripos), Introduction to Probability, Software and Security Engineering, and Interaction Design. Of these, SSE is by far the most interesting course: it covers security engineering (so stuff like security protocols and the basics of cryptography) and software engineering (including various methodologies and case studies of when software has gone disastrously wrong). I love security engineering: anything to do with building software with the intention of protecting information or functionality from threats is hugely fascinating due to having to consider an attacker's motives, their resources, and the vulnerabilities they could find. In addition, Ross Anderson is a genuinely amazing lecturer, and our supervisor is amazing and has performed superbly and is super helpful. On the other hand, Interaction Design has been a nightmare for us. There are very few people in our year who actually like it (it's a bit like basic HCI but it wasn't a well-designed course in my opinion), so I decided to take one for the team and write a full set of lecture notes to summarise all the content for everyone else. NST Maths involves linear algebra, in the form of matrices and partial differential equations. So much of it feels like we're being told solutions to the PDEs and forced to accept them, and I have no way of convincing myself that much of what works, works. That said, I'm absolutely ecstatic that I'll never be formally examined on NST Maths.
One of the biggest problems of being in Cambridge is that it is incredibly easy to lose track of time. Everyone is so focused on their work that many social constructs lose their meaning. In particular, people don't remember what day of the week it is or how long they've been in Cambridge, but just which week they're in: there are only 8 weeks in a term so it's an easy way to track progress through the term. This becomes impossible during lockdown: there are no milestones like lectures to track when a new week is starting. Every day is exactly like the previous, and there's nothing to be expected on any given date.
I've started to become disillusioned with the rest of the Computer Science Tripos, at least after Part II. In Part II there's a huge variety of courses which I want to take, most of them being relevant to either industry practice or security engineering (eg. quantum or cryptography). The Part III courses no longer seem as fun as they did before I came here, especially on the quantum side of things (the Departments of Physics, Engineering and Applied Mathematics are all much better-equipped to teach quantum mechanics). If I wanted to learn how to build a quantum computer, I wouldn't be able to do it here in the Computer Laboratory. For that reason, I'm not entirely sure if I want to stay in Cambridge for a Master's degree. I might, but I'm considering heading elsewhere. It'd give a nice change of scenery as well. Top choices include MIT, Princeton, Stanford, and ETH Zurich. I still have a few years to think about it, however, so I only need to worry about crossing that bridge at the end of Part II.
I haven't left the house at all since the lockdown started, and the only company I've had has been my family's presence. Much of my time is still spent doing work, although every now and again I've found the time to give myself some me time.
One of my favourite pastimes has been watching Spooks, which I've finally finished watching. I felt that it tried to be two different things at different times: it was half-thriller, and half actually a realistic portrayal of MI5. That said, it has some of the best character development I've ever seen, and some of the characters really attracted my empathy (while others felt wasted). I've also been trying to get my non-academic skills up: I've been getting acquainted with PyTorch while continuing to learn Japanese (人は日本語を話す?) – I'm familiar with the elementary rules of grammar, I know a few kanji and I can begin to form simple sentences so I'm really happy with my progress!
I've been trying to keep up with as many of my friends as possible but, in all honesty, it's been a bit hard. I've been under a huge amount of pressure lately, and not being there in person makes it more difficult for me to talk to people (and I'm always too scared to suggest video calling). I've promised hugs, cakes, and video games to people when we get back, because some people are really going it tough, and I genuinely care about them.
It was such a relief to hear that my internship is still going ahead as normal. We had a Q&A session recently explaining how the internship's going to work. In short, it's going to be work-from-home, and we'll be able to use a web-based virtual machine (which really surprised me) to access our computers. We'll also be able to connect to Arm's VPN to access content on the company intranet. This means that we won't have to install anything onto our computers, which I should've seen coming but is still astonishing.
That said, at least I've got an internship this summer. A huge number of my friends have had their internships cancelled completely, which is heartbreaking: some people in Cambridge and Imperial have won some amazing competitions and had some absolutely incredibly accomplishments: some of them had internships designed for people several years above them. While it shouldn't put them at any disadvantage (because everyone's been affected by this), it's still hugely disappointing for everyone involved, and I don't know if they'll need to re-apply or otherwise.
Honestly, I can't see things returning to normal by October next year. Social distancing measures will not grant herd immunity in a few weeks, and we'll probably rely on buying time until a vaccine becomes available. Allowing people to come back together will simply cause a second peak soon after lectures begin. In any case, I'm not sure I would want to attend lectures at all if Cambridge starts as normal.
I'm feeling optimistic, however, and maybe one of these days all will be back to normal. Cambridge will restart for me just like everyone will be able to return to their normal lives, and I'll be able to go back to complaining to my friends about how hard the Tripos is.
We're through another term at Cambridge. Most of it was business as usual, despite an obviously increasing response to the COVID-19 outbreak, further strike action, and a massively increased amount of practical work. I'm seriously hoping my Arm internship won't be cancelled, but so far it's not looking good for either our exams or getting to see friends during Easter term. On a different note, it could result in the resurrection of video calls, and, if our exams really are cancelled, we may universally be deemed to have received honours, and that'd be an interesting thing to have on our transcripts.
Assassins was the way I met new people and bonded with them this term. Essentially, it's a term-long game where you have to kill people (who you receive as targets) while not being killed yourself. Weapons you can use include mock knives, swords, Nerf guns, water guns, and boulders. If you break any of the rules or kill someone who you weren't supposed to, you'll get put on the wanted list; and if you become inactive for too long (usually a week), you'll fall on the incompetent list. Both of these list people who are valid targets for all players in the game (in fact, making attempts on incompetent players is a great way to maintain competence).
Of course, the greatest thrill of the game is the sheer paranoia when you play. People will do anything to stay alive: I've seen people wear wigs, enter and leave lecture halls extremely early or late, camp it out in other colleges' libraries, and so on. You can never truly underestimate your assassins: everyone has an uncanny ability to recognise each other and find out their lecture/lab timetables, which paths they take, and more. Or so my paranoia tells me... for the most part, nothing happened to me. Someone did knock on my door on the first day and then about three weeks in, the latter of which occurred when I was not at home. (There's a reason I point my gun at any door I'm opening...) More pragmatically, however, most of my time was spent helping my friends assassinate people: I would give them enough information about their whereabouts to help them locate their targets, then provide real-time information to help them stab their targets. In all, I think I directly witnessed two or three kills this way, all of them in the Computer Lab within the span of a week. A friend and I also raided Homerton at one point, acquiring two kills. (Sadly I wasn't very good at staying alive this game...)
My death came after I was attempting on one of my targets. I was in Chapel Court, and saw someone very suspicious standing around. I made it known pretty quickly that I was suspicious, taking a very convoluted path and dashing past him... until I head back out and can't spot him, then get stopped and sprayed with a water gun. Oops! It was fun playing, though! He made it to the duel but didn't win.
To be fair, my death occurred before all the real, urm... stuff... hit the fan. You see, early on in the game my alliance set up a ridiculous plot to kill a perceived threat. But he got very annoyed at us, and leaked information that resulted in numerous people getting killed by their own targets. We hated it, the umpires hated it, and it completely and utterly broke the game. To be fair, we did have an amazing moment later when two of my friends anticipated they would be ambushed after a lecture this way, and went to the lecture 15 minutes before it was due to end. Sure enough, some attackers came along, and they called me to serve as a distraction. (That was an amusing battle report...) Most of the rest of the game was fairly quiet, although I did harbour several assassins in my room after I died. The duel was roughly as expected, with the obvious caveat of someone shooting someone else after the duel was over, and everyone pulling out weapons and shooting each other.
On the social side of the guild, there are quite a few socials where people get to know each other. I quickly found out who took the game very seriously, and made quite a few friends this way. It's quite something to hear about everyone's feats in Assassins, and, I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but making friends with the person who killed you is quite something.
University is defined by unique experiences, making lifelong friends and a sort of interface between education and the real world, and Cambridge is no different. I applied a little bit less than a year and a half ago, with glowing eyes ready to take on the significant challenge and then use what I'd learnt to do good in the world. I still consider myself extremely lucky to have got a place here, and even more fortunate to have made my offer! I know a lot of people talk about the demanding workload we face here, and that's certainly true – although I'd say that it depends on your course and expectations (it's less than you expect if you were expecting hell, but more than expected if you wanted to party every week). However, something people often overlook at academically elite universities is what student life is like: it's a massive shift from what you're used to at sixth form. It's probably going to be the first time you'll face true independence, and I'm here to tell you what that's like.
The first few weeks
Moving out is an exciting but very difficult affair. If you're most people, you'll have a tear in your eye as you leave your parents, siblings and cat behind to make a new beginning in your life. I was excited but I missed my parents significantly less (sorry!), as I knew I would see them again very soon. We called each other quite a lot for the first few weeks, but that gradually slowed down until I now send my parents a few messages every few days.
The first few days away from home are much scarier than they look: I had fears ranging from making new friends to having to cook for myself and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer grandness of St John's College. After a few days, none of those bothered me anymore, and the JCR team were really welcoming and really helped me feel at home. Fresher's week is definitely chaotic, as every minute of your week is decided by the JCR, with compulsory talks and other events (they actually monitored attendance). The fresher's fair is optional, but you're definitely going to want to go there! I signed up for the Assassins’ Guild, Quiz Soc and a few others which I promptly forgot about. (I'll talk more about societies later...)
My first few lectures almost seemed normal once they started happening. As per my Director of Studies, I began on the lecture content before the lectures so that I would keep up to pace with them. They start slowly while they cover content you already know, before slowly picking up the pace. Obviously, you'll spend your first few weeks heavily motivated to do the best you can do, and supervisions will start coming soon after. They will also be okay, but they will slowly wear you down. But what really got me was week 4. That was when I started questioning my newly acquired friends, and whether they truly cared about me. I started to isolate myself a little from everyone, until I suffered a complete mental breakdown right before week 5. Fortunately, I managed to pick myself up after that, and I started to realise who my true friends were. I was able to start ignoring the presence of people who were having a negative influence on me while making new friends. People would judge me for it, but it did wonders for my mental health.
Fast forward to now. My day-to-day life is going really well, and some of the friends I've made since then are the people I feel closest to. However, having seen what other people have been up to, I definitely prioritised academics way too much in my first term, even though I thought I hadn't. Thus, one of my resolutions this term was to involve myself in more extracurricular pursuits and give myself as many opportunities as possible. So far, I've participated in a BAE Systems CTF (coming 3rd in the whole event) and I got accepted into a Model UN in Singapore (though that's at risk due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak) The other thing I really want to get right this term is getting to truly know other people. I've mentioned my friends, but I want to get to know them better. When we speak, it's often to talk about our subjects or complain about the workload. Getting to know more about people's lives, their hopes and dreams, and the things they hold dear is something I'm really interested in, but sadly Cambridge really doesn't give enough time for that. The people I speak to most often, I talk to in the Buttery Dining Room (our college canteen) on roughly half of all evenings.
Last point but I thought I should add this – the supervision system is actually really fun! Well, actually, it can be hit-or-miss depending on your supervisor, but that's not the point. The core concept is that you do an examples sheet, or write an essay, or something similar, in order to find out how well you know a certain topic (this feeling is different from homework which felt more like a test of sorts) and have it marked for the supervision. In the supervision itself, you discuss the concepts in the work, often with very in-depth examples that they guide you through (by getting you to the stage where you're able to solve the problems yourself). Some supervisors are legends (shoutout to our Foundations of Computer Science/Discrete Maths supervisor!!) and really make sure you know everything, while others are meh and only discuss the bare minimum that was asked in the examples sheet. Overall though, the supervision system is definitely worth it, if incredibly demanding and time-consuming at times.
So what would I say is different?
I hope you've gathered a good idea that life at university is pretty different from school! I'll try to summarise the most important ones here:
University is exciting, and for good reason. It's the first time most people get to live as adults, and so I'd advise you to truly rejoice in that excitement – it's a great opportunity that you'll never get again. It's where you'll get to become a member of society in two senses: learning to become useful and contribute something, and developing yourself and your relationships with other people. This is the last time you'll have so much freedom and yet be in such a tight bubble: once you're out in the real world, you'll be working 9 to 5, making money in order to pay the bills and aware of how public policies affect you. University is like a sandbox, and you're free to experiment with yourself and with others, safe in the knowledge that the you'll be picked up again should you make a bad mistake. That's probably the most important thing about university – though I'm sure most people live relatively normal lives.