It’s been an unusual start to the semester for our UK student ambassador, Mariam, a first-year engineering student at St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. COVID-19 restrictions mean that she hasn’t met as many new people as she had hoped and all her lectures have been online.
“My college hasn’t been allowing us to mingle much with other people, and that’s fine given the circumstances,” she said. “But I can’t help but think of how much more fun I’d be having if I’d been here last year. I’ve got four years [for] my degree, though, so I’m not worried.”
Despite the situation, Mariam has found time to explore her new home and is getting into her studies and virtual college life. She’s a Londoner, so Cambridge is tiny in comparison to her hometown, but she’s enjoying the greenness and accessibility of the city.
“I came a week early so I could go and explore and find my way around. It’s just so much more green and fresh! It’s so lovely walking around and being able to see the stars at night; you can’t see that in London. The architecture here is out of this world; when I walk around I think, ‘I can’t believe I’m living here!’”
The tranquility of the city is contrasted by her new busy schedule. As we chat, Mariam is in the middle of one of her five problem sheets with another two pieces of coursework and group projects still to do. And this is all while learning to code Python and use other engineering software in her first few weeks.
“You can’t come to Cambridge thinking that it’s going to be easy,” she said. “I basically do seven degrees in one1. It’s perfect for someone like me that has no idea what to specialize in!”
Mariam is taking on this work in stride, insisting that despite the mountain of assignments, she loves her degree program. However, you would be wrong to assume she’d always dreamed of going to the UK’s top university.
“Culturally, Cambridge wasn’t always on my radar. I was thinking of staying in London, but later on I knew that if I was making my family proud then it didn’t matter,” she said “I remember when I got my offer my mum cried so hard on the phone! She was absolutely in shock and so happy for me. It wasn’t a lifelong dream and I'm honestly surprised I got in. I don’t know what I did! But it’s actually crazy that I’m here now.”
Mariam was lucky enough to attend Brampton Manor Academy. This secondary school makes headlines each year for its high-achieving students, and this year, Mariam is one of 51 of her classmates to go to Oxford or Cambridge. Indeed, although the school is located in one of the poorest boroughs of London, its success now rivals that of the most elite private schools.
“If it wasn’t for that school, I don't think I’d be where I am at all,” Mariam said. “They have an access team that works day-in, day-out to make sure that each application is perfect and if it wasn’t for their guidance, [getting into Cambridge] wouldn’t have been possible.”
Despite its brilliant reputation, Brampton Manor, like so many other state schools across the country, fell foul to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) grading algorithm. The controversial algorithm was used to assign grades to students when the GCSE exam was canceled due to the pandemic. The algorithm used an estimated grade and student ranking supplied by the teacher, and data about the school’s general performance in a subject in previous years, to assign grades. This resulted in many students receiving lower grades than their teachers predicted.
“I had a mental breakdown on results day,” she remembers. “I’ve never received results that were less than perfect; that’s just how my academic history was and they had no reason to downgrade two of my predicted grades. It seems as though social inequality played a huge role; none of Eton’s grades were downgraded, for example.”
Nonetheless, Mariam was still awarded her place at Cambridge and, after the government U-turn on the grading algorithm, was eventually awarded her full predicted grades. She knew people who were rejected from their dream universities on results day, so she’s grateful everything turned out well for her.
“I’d love for it to be a source of inspiration for females in STEM, people in STEM in general, and people that just want to look at nice notes,” she said.
Mariam has five tips for people hoping to follow her path:
1. Believe in yourself.
“There is always a space for you in institutions; regardless of your age, race or socio-economic background. There’s always a space for you at these institutions, and the more you cower away from it, the more you set yourself back. You could be the person that inspires another person to follow your footsteps, so you just have to take that leap of faith. Even if you don’t land where you want to ... just having that experience means you can give value to other people.”
2. Be yourself authentically.
“I can remember trying to bust jokes with my interviewers and make myself comfortable. I thought, ‘If they don’t like me for who I am, why would I want to be here?’ You don’t need to change in order to fit in. There’s a very apparent idea of what a Cambridge student should look, sound and be like, but it’s just not true! When you get here, you meet so many different kinds of people that are just a vibe. I really like it here because everyone is so authentically themselves.”
3. Use Quizlet!
“Quizlet saved my life! Whenever I had an exam, Quizlet would be where I'd go to make sure that I’m doing the active recall, that quick little 10 minutes at the end of the day, and it works. It works! I think it’s underrated, as not only are you making your own notes, but you also have the bank of other people’s notes that you can also refer to just in case.”
4. Do internships and work experience.
Mariam completed an engineering summer school at Cambridge in year 12 and worked at Transport for London and at PA Consulting as well. This allowed her to get a real idea of engineering and also cleared up any misconceptions she had about the profession, “Engineers are cool - I’m gonna leave that there!” she confirmed.
5. Stay on top of things.
Mariam says: “Don’t leave things until the last minute. A-Levels are not a walk in the park. They will come to bite you!”
When she's not studying, Mariam enjoys Korean dramas and going out to cute restaurants. Next summer, she’s hoping to complete another internship with the end goal of one day working as a sustainability consultant to the government.