Working from home in the realms of E Learning, Zoom conferencing, sending work home and setting deadlines via email, has made me very reminiscent of when I completed my Masters back in 2012 at Cambridge University. My Masters, in Educational Research, was completed long distance alongside teaching full time. I never really talk about my Masters or my time at Cambridge, (unless you talk to my family who love an opportunity to mention it) in truth I never told most of my colleagues or friends at the time. This was partly due to the fear that I might not have actually been able to do it (I had been out of formal education for 5 years). So, this is how I became a graduate with First Class Honours from Cambridge University.
Ever since my A Levels I wanted to study at Cambridge University. I felt too young at 18 to move so far from home, Homerton (for my PGCE) just didn’t feel quite right (I went to Durham University instead) so when I started to consider my Masters, Cambridge was my one and only choice. The problem was they only offered long distance, part time Masters in Education to alumni of the University. After emailing the course directly, a small ray of hope was ignited that this might change in future years. And it did. Roughly two years later, after supporting a student with her UCAS form, I once again felt the pangs to learn and challenge myself, so I had another look at their website. Starting in September that year, Cambridge were going to pilot a Masters course open to non-Cambridge graduates. Without hesitation I began writing my third personal statement and after a very useful bit of advice to add a piece of scholarly research into my application, my statement was ready to be sent off. Within a few weeks I was invited for an interview, booked my hotel, authorised leave from work, researched every possible question and prepared all my answers (I never did a pilot interview with anyone though as I find them so cringy!) I was ready.
On the day before my interview, I headed for my train to Cambridge and as this was my first solo trip, I wanted time to find my hotel, explore the Faculty of Education ready for my interview and just prepare myself. After arriving and walking in completely the wrong direction for a good 20 minutes, seeing more bikes on the road than I am used to and drinking in the atmosphere of a busy cosmopolitan city, I finally found where I was meant to be going. On the morning of my interview, nerves setting in of course, I walked to the building, smartly dressed in a summer dress and jacket, signed myself in and waited. Right on time I was greeted by a warm and friendly face, an academic who would later become my course leader, who made polite and welcoming chatter with me. I don’t remember a lot about the specific questions of my interview, but I do remember it being the best interview of my life. This is because it wasn’t like an interview, the two ladies who interviewed me wanted to know about me, they were making sure I was right for them and they were right for me. It was an enquiry into me as an academic not an interrogation into my suitability. I do remember one question though, they wanted to know why I picked the research mentioned in my personal statement (research that later became the focus area of my thesis). My advice is to be yourself; Cambridge was not the right place for me when I was younger but it was absolutely where I wanted to be at that point in my life. About six weeks later, I got a letter (it also happened to be the last day of college before summer) so I dashed home before the leaving speeches to open it. I had been accepted onto the course, now to get accepted into a college (several universities require acceptance to a college as well as the course). College offers were extremely limited to a part time, long distance, masters student but I was accepted by Fitzwilliam College and thus became a Fitzbilly.
The course comprised of set assignments, work was sent weekly and reading to analyse in preparation for Thursday evening Skype seminars and face to face meetings in Cambridge roughly every 6 weeks. Each week had a theme such as action research, research methods, learning theories and reflective practice, which helped us study the pedagogy behind educational research, necessary for the completion of the assignments. The work in most cases was manageable, the reading was made easily available, having Skype seminars and chatrooms worked in the most part and the material was interesting and engaging. It was organised, structured and supportive. There were roughly 11 of us in my class at the start, a complete mix of life experiences and academic backgrounds from ex Cambridge students to a professional who had opened his own school in Europe to an academic who already had a PHD and then there was me…so I listened, watched and learned. But we all had something in common, we were all teachers and we all loved teaching. I drank in the knowledge that surrounded me and learnt how to be a student again. The process definitely made me a better teacher, it reminded me of how daunting learning a new language is, in this case the language of educational research and how to create the means and ways to learn this language in order to keep up with the conversations around me. It was a steep learning curve but one that I craved. I wanted to learn, to challenge myself and my capabilities.
I fell in love with Cambridge very quickly, it has that small-town feel, like York and Durham but the buzz of a big cosmopolitan city. The privilege of being able to study somewhere with such a wealth of history and academic brilliance was very humbling. What I did not love were the train journeys! Who knew Cambridge was so hard to get to? There were many Friday nights, straight after teaching a full day that I would head to the train and make the five hour journey (which included three train changes) down to Cambridge. When there, I was a true Cambridge student and tourist, attempting punting, accepting invitations to college formals and afternoon parties, exploring King’s College and college bumping (rowing competition).
Before I knew it, it was time to start working on my Thesis and after many a conversation with my supervisor (who supported me tirelessly through the process of writing 20,000 words) I finally found my focus: Dialogical Learning (facilitating classroom talk which has always been my passion) and how to combine this with writing – an area untapped within a lot of research fields. After many trips to the campus library, an endless flow of coffee, a summer spent in the garden writing, edit after edit and a lot of hardship trying to understand the mathematics behind proper data analysis (it nearly broke me!) my final piece was ready for submission. My aim through the whole masters was to survive the vigour of the course, alongside my full-time job and do the absolute best I could. I am not one to give up on anything I start but I was also never driven to achieve top grades, for me just doing my best was always enough. And fortunately it was enough for my assessors who recognised my work as “bold, innovative and a great platform for the research”.
Graduation can be best described as surreal. From the pre-graduation practice where we were ‘taught’ when to bow/curtesy, how to address the Vice Chancellor, when to nod and give thanks (most of the ceremony was in Latin so this practice was vital!) to the street procession where we walk from our colleges to the Senate House in the grounds of King’s College (Fitzwilliam happens to be the college farthest away, so luckily it did not rain nor was too hot – a red face does not look good in photos) to the actual tourists who asked for photographs with me in my gown (someone even photobombed one of my photos so they could have a picture with me). For the most part, I just couldn’t believe I was there and that I had done it. Behind Cambridge’s pomp and ceremony, is a family of academics who are genuinely interested in learning, who are never too busy or ‘important’ to listen to the ideas of students. This was unlike any academic experience I have ever had, professionals interested in brainstorming ideas and exploring innovative and unique research possibilities together. This university is one of the most renowned and for good reason; the ethos of learning it cultivates where everyone’s ideas are important, necessary and valued, can only ever lead to brilliance.