University of Cambridge Visit (June 7)
by Wallace Genser (U of Pennsylvania)
Our visit commenced with tours of several Cambridge residential colleges led by current Gates Scholars, after which the delegation relaxed in the Gates Scholars lounge before being hosted for lunch in the student union. Our visit concluded with brief presentations from funding foundations and student presentations and Q&A, which highlighted the broad range of research being conducted by US students at Cambridge and provided a sense of how US students experience Cambridge.
Several of our tour guides were PhD students, whose enthusiasm reflects the vibrant graduate student community promoted by Cambridge and the scholarship programs. The guides noted that they have a bit more flexibility in their schedules at this time of year than undergraduate students, since our visit coincided with the exam period. Several mentioned that the unusual (to Americans) academic calendar of 8 weeks of classes, followed by 4 weeks off, then an additional 8 weeks of classes leads to an environment characterized by an active campus culture punctuated by periodic slowdowns, which one noted is sometimes the only way busy PhD students immersed in their work mark the passing of the academic terms.
When asked about the fast academic pace of student life at Cambridge, our guides acknowledged the challenge of working rapidly through their degrees and encouraged students to engage deeply with their college (which several noted is much more common at Cambridge than in US graduate programs), and to maintain a balanced perspective on academic life by enjoying the co-curricular life on campus, such as participating in punting and college sports and occasionally attending Evensong in Cambridge’s spectacular chapels.
After lunch, foundation representatives briefly updated us on their programs. Jim Smith from the Gates Cambridge Scholarship noted three important updates:
1 – As Jim had mentioned at the 2015 NAFA Conference in Oakland, the Gates had been considering asking applicants to apply to the US or Other International applicant pools on the basis of their place of residence instead of their citizenship. However, after exploring the possibility the Gates decided to continue to ask applicants to apply through their home country for the 2016 competition. The Gates will continue to explore the possibility of switching to a residence-based system for the 2017 competition for students planning to enter Cambridge in 2018-2019.
2 – Luisa Clarke is the new Gates Cambridge program administrator, which will permit Jim to spend more time working with the Board on strategic planning.
3 – The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is launching its new magazine documenting the pathbreaking work being done by Gates Scholars, who are assuming leadership positions around the world. This new publication should facilitate even greater networking opportunities between former and current Gates Scholars.
Michael Morse from the Churchill, who reminded us that he is the only full-time employee of the foundation, noted:
1 – The Churchill awards 15 one-year scholarships each year to STEM students attending Churchill College at Cambridge.
2 – 70% of Churchill College students are in STEM fields. There is no similarly STEM-focused college at Oxford.
3 – Rather than seeking “well-rounded” students, the Churchill seeks top STEM students with “interesting jagged edges.” While he acknowledged that he could not more sharply define “interesting jagged edges,” he noted that one Churchill recipient stood out because the recipient had started a goat club at their college.
Hilary Perrott from the Cambridge Trust described the scope of the Trust’s grants:
1 – The Trust’s goal is to help admitted students who lack the financial means to attend Cambridge
2 – The Trust provides 400-500 awards each year
3 – Roughly two-thirds of the Trust’s awards to PhD students are full-cost scholarships
4 – Recipients are selected on the basis of academic merit, financial need, and in the case of scholarships funded in conjunction with Cambridge Trust partners additional criteria such as country of origin and field of study
Our visit concluded with presentations from a group of Marshall, Churchill, Gates, and Cambridge scholarship recipients in Education, Materials Science, Medical Sociology, International Relations and Politics, and Molecular Biology. The delegation was struck not only by the quality of the student presentations but by the broadly interdisciplinary nature of the projects.
A brief student panel discussion followed. Key points included:
1 – The importance of careful selection of one’s faculty mentor
2 – The wisdom of carefully selecting one’s Cambridge college in order to make the most of one’s extra-curricular experience
3 – Gates Cambridge recipients noted the importance of the Gates Scholars cohort community, which is annually cited as the most valuable benefit of the program.
4 – Recipients urged potential applicants to:
a) articulate how their past experiences fit together
b) discuss why they selected their program of study (particularly the fit with their potential supervisor)
c) focus on communicating their interests and potential to engage with others about their work
Enjoy some of the spectacular photos of Cambridge by Mary Denyer, Teresa King & Elizabeth Colucci: