Why You Should Apply

During the CUSU elections, all the candidates took a great deal of time to point out where Cambridge was falling short. This was not without good reason, obviously, because there are so many areas where Cambridge could improve.

However, I’d like to take a moment to speak about something where Cambridge is definitely getting it right: The Student Travel Award. Uniquely in the United Kingdom, the University gives students a chance to travel around the world to meet alumni groups and build connections between our University and the extensive group of graduates, college members and current students who called, or call, Cambridge home.

The Student Travel Award is designed for any student taking more than a one year degree (sorry MPhil students) who would like to travel to visit alumni groups in any part of the world. The award is designed to build stronger links between the University and the wider alumni community by bringing students to those groups who haven’t been visited for a while, or who need help in engaging young alumni or current students.

Edinburgh Castle – I joined alumni.

There is also a strong inter-cultural and access component of the award, I’m very happy to say. During my time in Edinburgh, we discussed at length at how to connect the Scottish Society to the alumni group, and how alumni can do more to encourage students to apply. This latter mission has particular resonance post-Brexit. In my travels throughout Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, the overwhelming concern was how to deal with the precipitous drop in applications since the Brexit referendum. As a travelling student, I was often asked to share ideas and connect people working on the ground in Amsterdam, Brussels and Oslo with offices in Cambridge.

Tivoli Gardens, Denmark

What is more, students who are asked to travel are listened to. One of your key responsibilities will be to provide recommendations to the various alumni committees on how they can better engage with the University and how they can do better in recruiting recent alumni. This ranges from critiquing their website, to offering tips on how to engage on social media, to getting the groups in touch with their corresponding student societies in Cambridge. For example, the Belgian group have a really fruitful relationship with their society in Cambridge in part because a former student connected them after the Student Travel Award.

Of course, the Travel Award has its perks – one of which is getting to meet extraordinary people who also walked Cambridge’s cloisters. I met a software engineer who is at the cutting edge of data protection, and the Secretary of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Norway, a PhD student working on Nordic medieval history and an expert on Maritime Law in Denmark, a quadrilingual translator in the Netherlands, and a national security expert who is a leading commentator on the Brussels attacks in Belgium. All in fourteen days. With this award, you have an unprecedented opportunity to see the diversity of paths a Cambridge degree can offer you – it was a timely reminder that we’re all not destined (or doomed) for McKinsey and Freshfields!

The other obvious benefit is the ability to travel with the generous support of the University. I would be lying if I didn’t say the chance to see the Nobel Peace Prize HQ, the Belgian Parliament, the Maritime Museum of the Netherlands and the Tivoli Gardens in a two week period wasn’t a huge draw. Better yet, you get to decide the itinerary, and this year you’ll have £1500 to take you anywhere you want in the world. That you often get to do this while living with local alumni is really special, since every city is better through local eyes.

Over my three years at Cambridge, this has been by far the most rewarding opportunity I’ve seen by the central University. I can’t recommend it highly enough. From travel, to connections, to building a stronger community, this award has it all. Applications are due April 3rd.


Antwerp Train Station Entrace

Home Sweet Home

This is my final blog about my trips in Europe. It has been an absolute blast. From Edinburgh to Oslo, Aarhus, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Leiden, Den Haag, and then to Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges and Ireland, I have thoroughly enjoyed every minute of my various excursions.

What’s more, I have been blessed this holiday season to meet so many incredible alumni: Jim, Ian, Mary Jane, David, John, Asle, Amelia, Nikola, Louise, Floriane, Alison, Victoria, Steven, Francoise, Guy and last, but certainly not least, Kenneth, to name but a few, have shown me exceptional warmth and kindness the last few weeks. I hope I repaid them in some small way.

Europe is an extraordinary place. Despite years of conflict, the continent boasts magnificent architecture, a rich cultural history, and hospitable people. At every step I felt I was learning a bit more about the place which, many years ago I used to call home.

But Canada is my home now, and despite my wonderful travels, it is still a certain kind of bliss that comes over me curled up around a log fire with the wind howling at -15C outside. I think the Danish call this feeling hyggeNow that I am safely back with my family, I’ll just take this opportunity to thank the Student Travel Award profoundly for this opportunity – it has been an absolute blast. Even more importantly, I hope everyone had an amazing Christmas, and are looking forward to a Happy New Year!

The Palace of the Nation

I’m writing this in the Dublin airport, whose rather clinical ambience clashes quite strongly with the beautiful pictures that will populate this post! I have some very fond memories of the Belgian Parliament, and some even better pictures.

I had booked a tour of the Belgian Parliament a couple of days before it was due to happen, so I was quite apprehensive about the whole thing. Generally, last minute bookings tend to be tacked on to larger groups (especially school children), so I was expecting something not very personalised. To my very pleasant surprise, Frederik (a Cambridge friend I brought along) and I were the only two on the tour! What followed was an hour and a half of some of the most beautiful neoclassical architecture I’ve ever seen. It’s fair to say that the Canadian Parliament could take a few internal decorating tips from the Palais de la Nation!

The Reading Room

Divided into the Chamber of Representatives (150 members) and the Senate (60 members), the Parliament adopts the same colour scheme as the Palace of Westminster – green for the lower house and red for the upper house. However, the similarities end there. Electronic voting is widely practiced and the chambers sit in a hemicycle.

The PM’s seat in the Chamber.
Speaker’s dias in the Chamber of Representatives

What is more, the Speaker’s platform is raised, and the floor ornately laid out and carpeted. The rooms are distinctly neoclassical, with roman columns encircling the rooms.

We were lucky enough to make it onto the floor of both chambers. Another difference is that the King no longer attends for the Speech for the Throne. After a particularly contentious throne speech in the 1800s over education policy, Leopold II henceforth delegated the speech to the Prime Minister. Since then, the PM gives the address.

The Dome of the Senate

Another historical detour: the King is not actually styled King of Belgium, but rather King of the Belgians, since he receives his power from the Belgian people. Belgium achieved its independence in 1830, and at the time democratic nationalism was sweeping Europe. Hence, the small but crucial difference in title was proclaimed.

The Senate was particularly sumptuous and the ornate chairs rather plush. The portraited panels displayed influential figures in Belgian history – Charles V and Philip the Good featured prominently throughout the Parliament, in fact.

Portrait Panel in the Senate

Another fun fact: Charles V (‘Spanish’ and Holy Roman Emperor), the man who expanded the ‘Spanish’ empire in South America, actually ruled from Antwerp in Belgium. Indeed, in 1575, Antwerp produced 7 times the GDP of all of Latin America. Anyway, that’s enough for this particular history lesson, and more about my amazing trips in Ireland and Bruges soon!

Stepping Into History

Belgium was absolutely incredible. I think I’ve fallen well and truly in love. Thanks to Kenneth, the Vice-President of the Belgian alumni society, I was able to see Antwerp, Bruges and Ghent, as well as Brussels. At every point, I found myself enamoured by the spiring beauty of the medieval cities and the placid canals.

Ghent canal

The first day, we spent in Ghent, which was completely renovated during the 1909 World Exhibition. In other words, the city was completely refurbished, faithful to its medieval origins, for the world to see. Needless to say, the refurbishments succeeded spectacularly. The castle – once the seat of the Dukes of Flanders – maintains its imposing presence on the river, across from the oldest wooden medieval house in Europe. Ghent used to be the centre of the wool and textile trade, and the sumptuous town hall proves it.

I was also introduced to the superb cuisine that is Belgium’s pride and joy. I enjoyed a Ghent specialty, Waterzooi, chicken broth with coleslaw and chicken meat. I was sceptical at first, but it was absolutely the best soup I have ever tasted. Add a strong and savoury Belgian beer, you have a lunch fit for a King (or a Duke).

Antwerp train station

Later the afternoon, Kenneth and I took a whistle stop tour of Antwerp. The city’s stunningly beautiful Renaissance architecture drew the eye at every term. What is more, Anterwerp surely has the most spectacular train station in Europe. A gift of Leopold II, the terminal entrance could be the facade of an Opera house. I left the city in awe.

That evening, I was lucky enough to join Cambridge alumni for their annual Christmas Party. As soon as I arrived, I was press-ganged (partially my choice) into singing a selection of Christmas carols. We were led at the Piano by Andrew Wise, a Cambridge music grad now living in Ghent. Thanks to many rehearsals with the Emmanuel Choir, I knew the harmony to Es ist ein Ros like the back of my hand – got some compliments too!  As we retired we ate at a charming Italian restaurant in Brussels – a charming end to a charmful day.

Ghent belfry

Because Belgium was so packed, I’ll add more about my visit to the Chamber of Representatives and Senate in Brussels and the town Bruges tomorrow – some absolutely incredible photos to come!


An Historical Tour of the Netherlands

Apologies for another delay – it seems be becoming a habit. Happily though, I am only delayed because of a few more fantastic days in the Netherlands, this time in Leiden and Den Haag (The Hague).

In Leiden, I had a most pleasant lunch with Newnham alumna Victoria, who has lived in the city for 25 years exactly. She’s a Brit who’s raised her children in the Netherlands, so I was treated to a wide ranging discussion of Dutch history and society from the eyes of an adopted native. It was all fascinating.

Leiden sits at the confluence of the Oude (Old) and Nieuwe (New) Rijn (Rhine). Because of its strategic location, it has long been a coveted area, and received city status in 1266.

The Leiden Keep, the first defensive fortification in the city.

It is also, incidentally, paired with Oxford, UK – as both places have the oldest Universities in their respective countries.

In fact, Leiden was granted the first university in 1575 precisely because it had decided to side with the Netherlands against Spain during the 80 Years War. This was crucial for the success of the Dutch war of liberation precisely because of the city’s strategic location. Indeed, it held out against the Spanish siege for almost four months, and was never taken. That’s hardcore. The lifting of the siege on October 3rd is still celebrated in the city. It is also the home of Sinter Klaas, whose arrival by boat every 5th December is still broadcast live on Dutch Television.

A picture of the Calvinist Domkerk from the keep. The Protestant reformation played a huge part in Dutch independence.

After we wrapped up our most pleasant lunch along a Leiden Canal, Victoria bid me farewell as I trundled to Den Haag for a couple of hours. Unfortunately, I had less time than I would have liked (my bad planning), but I did manage to see the Binnenhof, or the seat of the Dutch government. Absolutely stunning buildings, although I did not manage to get into the Tweede Kamer (literally Second Chamber – equivalent to the House of Commons),

The Binnenhof entrance.

but I did see the complex, including the Ridderzaal. The Ridderzaal (Hall of Knights) is where the King reads the Speech from the Throne every year. I left enamoured with Dutch architecture and the ancient beauty of the Netherlands’ de facto capital.

That evening, through a series of happy accidents, I ended up at an alumus’ Christmas Party, which was a joy. It was great seeing young people making a life for themselves after University – a good reminder to me that life does not, in fact, end after Cambridge closes its doors!

I leave the Netherlands thoroughly happy – some might say enchanted!

And yet more lights!

Light shows seem de rigueur now in Northern Europe: first Aarhus, then Copenhagen and now Amsterdam! Last evening I had a wonderful time strolling down the Dutch capital’s many canals and seeing some truly breathtaking modern art. But first, a bit more about my day!

I’m staying in Utrecht which, despite being the 4th largest city in the Netherlands, is only a 20 minute train from Amsterdam city centre. At noon, I was treated to an…interesting concert of modern music at the Muziekgebouw. The performers (a harpist, a singer, a bassist and two percussionists) were excellent, but the music was a bit lacklustre. Students from the Amsterdam conservatory, the artists handled rather inaccessible music by Berio and Crumb fairly well. But, having come into the concert not particularly enjoying modern classical music, I left not particularly enjoying modern classical music!

In the afternoon, I then popped to Gassan Diamonds, where I had the most interesting time learning about how diamonds are cut and priced. There are ‘Four Cs’: Carat, Colour, Clarity and Cut.

The diamond cutter spins 3000 times a minute and is coated with diamond dust (the only material hard enough to cut diamonds).

Depending on the brilliance of the cut, the weight, and the imperfections, you can pretty well approximate the cost of a stone. Brilliance matters because the more facets (and thus the shinier), the less of the rock is actually used. The guide showed us various cuts, from £35,000 to £2000

Some of the beautiful diamonds on display.

It was pretty incredible to see how tiny differences had a huge impact on price.

Then, I popped into the Het Scheepvaartmuseum (The Maritime Museum) where I was treated to a very cool virtual reality tour of Amsterdam Harbour in the 1700s.

The ceiling of the Maritime Museum

This was Holland’s golden age, so the place was buzzing. In the exhibits I also got to see maps from the 1600s. There was one, from 1648 marking Dutch independence from Spain, that you could have sworn was an artistic interpretation of today’s map. Truly incredible given the expertise at the time.

The Map

Finally, I was joined by Alison Fisher, an alumna who is now a translator in Amsterdam. She also hails from Caraquet (!), a place not too far from my neck of the woods. It was great to hear her explain the festival of light, and we managed to capture some really stunning pieces of art. There was even one from Ai Wei Wei that weaves it’s way around the entire city. I was really struck to hear that the Dutch government pays artists a stipend, so long as they register and produce one artwork a year.

While you can’t see it in the photo, this installation lit up in a spiral.

This is then housed in a library where ordinary citizens can ‘borrow’ the artwork for their homes. Truly an incredible initiative. I leave Amsterdam thoroughly enchanted!





A small part of Ai Wei Wei’s project
Really stunning piece that appeared as if light was running into the tunnel.

Sea of Lights

I promised I’d post today about Copenhagen, so here it goes. After a 3-hour, very spacious, train ride from Aarhus, I arrived in Copenhagen on Sunday. What followed was two lovely day spent in Andersen’s city.

A Pagoda in Tivoli

Since I travelled the first day without a camera, I confess I have very few decent photos, but they’re more than made up for by the light show at the Tivoli Gardens. Tivoli is the second oldest amusement park in the world, but it doubles as a beautiful set of gardens. I spent my evening wandering it’s lanes and paths taking sparkling photos of the light show. What was once a verdant botanical garden was now a canopy of light!

One of the more beautiful decorations.

In particular, Tivoli did incredible things with the pond, upon which there was an actual wooden vessel. The park had little chinese-style (Junk to be precise) boats upon which children and their parents were sailing. The lights were arrayed to evoke small lily pads across from what was surely a replica of an 18th century ship.

The pond from one angle.

Simultaneously, they had strung up the willows and oak trees with lights , so the barrenness of winter was replaced with a brilliant yellow.

Finally, even the rides and attractions managed to add to the allure of the park. Each was strung up in abundance, down to the last detail. For example, the tower was a deep blue that radiated magnificently around the predominantly yellow buildings around it. Despite it being pitch dark, I felt like I was in a near perfectly lighted exhibition.

The Blue Lights

After my decadent stroll, I joined Floriane, an Oxford and Cambridge Society member for glauwein – a Danish variety of mulled wine perfect for this sort of evening. We had a great chat about life after university, and about how to engage alumni in the future. As a classicist herself, now working in an Art Gallery, it was really brilliant to hear about all the doors an Oxbridge degree can open. Looking for more of this sort of thing in the five days left!