Roma student Nadja Greku came to Christ’s last term under our scheme for Roma students from Central European University in Budapest. Read about her experience below.

In May 2022, following an almost two-year-long delay, after being selected to take part in a study visit organized by Christ’s College and RSP CEU, I finally had the pleasure to visit Cambridge University. What follows is an assemblage of memory vignettes, diary entries, and post-visit thoughts, composing a reflection note on the study visit.

A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with an 8-year-old that made me reflect on how I was trained to limit myself. My colleague’s daughter proudly stated that when she grows up, she will live in “the castle”. By castle, she referred to the mesmerizing Sarajevo City Hall. Built in the pseudo-Moorish style it reflected an elusive and burdening history, and the ability to rebuild once all hopes have been burnt. In the days after hearing her story, I kept asking myself if I as a child had such dreams about a building in my hometown. Only one building came to my mind- my high school. It was the only institution that opened its door for me as a 6-year-old and made me feel that I belong there. All other buildings were out of reach. They were the places where one needed to behave, admire from the distance, dress nicely when visiting, and often be silent. My aunt who is a cleaning lady at that high school would take me with her to work on Saturday mornings. I would sit in the teacher’s room and eat my cherry pie and with one eye watch the early morning cartoon, while with another I was looking at the big, deep red, teachers’ books. After completing my pie, I would join my aunt in the classrooms. With a small metal spatula in my hand, I would crawl under the benches and help my aunt take off the gum which students would stick under the desks. As a reward, I could draw on the board while my aunt was finishing up her work. Often professors would drop by to finalize some pending work and we would chat about me potentially becoming their student one day. I became comfortable with that environment and therefore knew at an early age that one day it would be the school that I will attend. It is the effects of (dis)comfort which we are made to feel about (imagining) our presence in spaces of power, that my Cambridge visit reminded me of.

Opportunity awaiting

Burdened by impostor syndrome, I often question my applications for studies, jobs, or whatever form of competency-based assessment. However, I never questioned my application for the study visit to Cambridge. Looking in retrospect, applying as decisively does sound a bit “unlike me”. However, the role that RSP and CEU academic writing center played in making me feel that this is not an opportunity to be questioned but an opportunity awaiting, soothed my self-sabotage habit. A few weeks after applying I was informed that I was among the selected students. A moment of pure joy. However, CoVID-19 would soon make it seem that this exciting journey would never take place. After two years, many emails, quite a drag with getting hold of a UK visa, and helped by professor Betegh’s determination to still make this possible, I finally made it to Christ’s College.

While waiting for my room to be ready I sit at a local cafe and observe the people passing by. I write to my friends that the weather is surprisingly sunny, and everything is far more expensive than I expected it to be. Soon I settled into my room and the process of familiarizing myself with Cambridge started. People running as a group; friends having wine near the gates of King’s College; students having a chat over delicious meals at the Upper Hall at Christ’s about the applications they saw and how they could be improved. Busy, lively yet offering places of grounding solitude such as Fellow’s Garden. Staying at Christ’s was both peaceful and exciting. The charming architecture creates a feeling of a safe space and a strange familiarity, it is a space fully modeled and equipped to fit students’ needs. The centrality of the College is a continuous invitation to keep discovering Cambridge. Some of the colleges I have visited, and their tall buildings made me feel rather small, unlike Christ’s where I felt simply at ease. The perfectly green grass in the shape of a full circle at the First Court comes as a hint of what one can expect - a striving for harmony and aesthetics. With famous alumni such as Darwin and the brilliant members of the MCR committee that I have met, it is no wonder why the motto of this place is I often remember. For me, it shows the way this space and its community nurture the ability to continually contemplate and holistically, with great care approach even the smallest issues.

Encouraging teaching culture

My imagination shaped through popular culture contributed to stereotypical expectations, which combined with my imposter syndrome, meant that Cambridge would not be just an academically rigorous place (which indeed it is) but an overwhelmingly intellectually advanced environment, preventing me from following the classes or even finding my place in intellectual transactions over a glass of wine. What follows is a diary excerpt after a class I joined:

“Attended a sociology class today (on health, medicine and society) after a very long time, and I actually enjoyed it. Lectures here are pretty easy to follow, and the way professors teach resembles a poetry reading- smooth, provoking, with a reminder to be humble about our own perceptions and to remain hungry for counterpoints. I really enjoyed witnessing a space where no question/comment is deemed as "stupid"/invaluable. Where it is ok for professors and students to read from notes while making an argument. A friendly exchange of puzzles.”

I am grateful in particular to Professor Weinberg for allowing me to attend his class, which did not just offer academic knowledge but made me reflect on my everyday relations and choices. I am thankful to professors who have taken the time to reply to my emails and who have enabled access to their teaching materials in the online format. Professor Moreno Figueroa’s criticism on the lack of Roma-related content in the syllabus on race and her openness to consider including materials I might offer has shown me that Cambridge is a place where knowledge by all is welcome.

Humans of Cambridge

The interactions with the people that I have met at Christ, from the first conversation I had upon entering Porters Lodge, made me feel at home. The people I have met during my study visit, have shown such kindness and intellectual humility that I did not expect. Random encounters at the library and at the Upper Hall, led to sharing stories of fear, failure, and hope. Most students noted that it is a competitive yet rewarding environment. What stroke me the most was the level of intimacy and vulnerability in these conversations with a stranger, through topics such as: what comes after Cambridge; the stories of applying for jobs and feeling completely out of place; messing up at work and learning to cope with failure; feeling overwhelmed by how productive others are. I have immensely enjoyed the lectures at the Emerging Research Seminar on Diversity, where I have thanks to the kind invitation by lovely Julienne, learned among other things about pyromantic practices, for the first time. Sharp, well-versed, kind MCR members (with a great sense of humor) whom I have met at the formal dinner, made me feel comfortable with sharing my own experiences of failure and hopes and helped me realize that there is a need and an interest at Cambridge in learning more about Roma. Before joining the Diversity Seminar, my imposter syndrome sneaked in but that was promptly pushed aside, as I started having questions about the amazing lectures given by Cambridge students. I felt free to ask questions and afterward, enjoyed conversations with newly made acquaintances in front of the Yusuf Hamid Theater. People I have met were fully aware of their privileges but also the hard work they invest in reaching their goals of bettering their local communities, as philosophers, political scientists, psychologists etc.  MCR is a great group of driven students and change makers, and a community I would love to join in the future.

Re-imagining possibility

While I write this, I am logged into Raven, and it is my third time relistening a same lecture, wishing I was in the room and asking questions: Where do Roma fit in the syllabus? I would ask. Have any Roma studied here before? What is the history behind the Gyp room at the MCR and does it relate to the word G*psy? I laugh to myself at how comfortable my imagination has become with taking part in a Cambridge classroom and I scroll back to the beginning of this reflection. It is the affect created through human contact and inhabiting even for a brief while a space which the society has trained us to believe was not meant for “someone like us”. After this naval gazing exercise, I now have stories and feelings related to this space. Cambridge and in particular Christ’s college is now a place I can see myself at. I mean it both literally as I have a material reminder, a photo of myself being there but also as a future educational prospect. Now that I was there, I know it is a possibility.

I wish to thank professor Betegh for committing to this project, and for taking the time out of his busy schedule to meet me. Your excitement and faith in this project give me hope that power relations can be undone through an individual decision to do good and the ability to navigate institutional bureaucracies, capacities and resources and broaden its prospects toward a more equitable, inclusive purpose. I am sincerely grateful to Christ’s College for supporting this initiative. The week I have spent in this beautiful environment has also helped me gain more clarity on the topic of my MA thesis and has encouraged me to apply for a PhD in Sociology at Cambridge in the upcoming application cycle. If I will be granted a chance to come back to Cambridge as a student, I would be keen on staying at Christ’s as I truly felt at home. I am also thankful to RSP for making sure that this project remains in place and to the IR department for supporting my visit, although it came around at a busy time of the year. I am especially thankful to Julia for giving me an insider tour of Cambridge and sharing her stories with me. With hopes that we will meet again and that other students reading this will be encouraged to apply.