What drew you to your role as President and what are your aims this year?
Alex: Honestly I hadn’t considered it until Kate suggested running together, but once we got started on our manifesto I was excited by the idea of getting more involved with college life and helping to bridge the gap between senior management and the student body, working on issues like the environment, which are important to us and the whole JCR, and helping to shape the experience of the freshers for this year and next.
Kate: I spent a year on the JCR as a freshers’ representative, and although I enjoyed my role, I was ready to leave the JCR behind. However, upon reaching the halfway mark of my degree, I began to wonder whether I’ve been making the most of my time here and brought about significant change. Alex and I are passionate about many of the same issues, so I knew he’d be on board. Together, we will strive for college to be greener, and help make Cambridge less alienating for incoming freshers.
Why is it a shared role this year?
Alex: Practically, I will be on my year abroad next year, so Kate will take over the role fully in Michaelmas. In the meantime we thought having two second years in the role would bring a lot of experience, and that we would be able to settle-in together and get more done in Lent and Easter term by splitting the workload (given exams and other things we both have going on).
Kate: As Alex has mentioned, only half of our presidency will be shared, but we decided this would be to our advantage: having two of us taking on the role now will ensure a smooth transition and strongly set us up to begin tackling some important issues this term and next.
What does the JCR do best?
Alex: We were set such a brilliant example by last year’s committee, especially Sam Riley (last year’s President) and the Vice-Presidents who worked so hard to minimise the impact of the pandemic on our experience. The JCR cares very deeply about representing the student body, holding the College accountable and really trying to give students the best experience possible of College life.
Kate: Trinity Hall freshers’ week was incredibly organised by Sam, Jamie and Daisy. Despite the huge impact of COVID on activities, Trinity Hall was adaptable and flexible and still provided this year’s cohort with a fun-filled week.
You’re both second years which means ALL your studies at Cambridge have been affected by the Pandemic: what were the challenges and how did you cope? Where there any positive elements to this far from ideal situation?
Alex: It’s only with hindsight that I fully appreciate how strange last year was and sometimes can’t believe we made it through. Though it was so difficult to meet people outside College, we tried to socialise as much as we could within College and standing in shadowy corners of the Backs to try and bond as a year group. I’d say a definite benefit is that we are now even keener to make sure the kind of events which define the College get back to normal; working with Ents revitalising bops and the bar and planning a great freshers’ week so they can have the full experience and integrate much faster than we did!
Kate: The main challenge I found arriving in freshers’ during the pandemic was how insular Trinity Hall was. Though I did meet some great people, I struggled with feeling quite contained within the walls of College. I also ended up spending a great deal of time in my room, which despite how lovely it was, became a little suffocating at times. Pub trips kept me sane; as a fallout of covid restrictions, I ended up developing a fondness for beer gardens. In terms of positives, due to the limited opportunities we had to socialise outside of College, I developed really close friendships with those I lived with.
Tell us a little about your subject and what the best parts of it are for you?
Alex: I study German and Italian and I particularly like how varied it is. When I inevitably get bored of vocab and grammar, there’s the literature which requires a totally different kind of thinking and means we get to study some great texts which are really fundamental to European and world literature and understanding the cultures in question. The course is also very social now that we can do things in person and it goes without saying that the year abroad is such a huge privilege and will be a nice break from Cambridge.
Kate: I study Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (abbreviated to PBS). The immense flexibility and diversity of the specific course offered by Cambridge was what really drew me to psychology as a degree. After attending a talk at my school from Cambridge professors, who outlined the PBS course as part of their visit, I was absolutely sure that I wanted to study it here. PBS allows you to borrow modules from a range of other subjects which you study alongside the core psychology content. Whilst they are studied in their own right, they often incidentally provide insight into psychology. For example, this year I take philosophy of science, which breaks down and analyses many of the core assumptions upon which psychology is typically based, and this adds an extra dimension to my study that I absolutely love.
Do you have any advice for students thinking of applying to Cambridge?
Alex: Do your best not to be intimidated by the application process, it’s always worth a shot and will encourage you to engage with your subject in new and interesting ways. Although the town and uni often don’t look or feel like a real place when you look round, the people are fantastic and down to earth and it is still possible to have the traditional ‘uni experience’, going out as much (or as little) as you want and keeping up with the work, so don’t be put off by the academics and the limited selection of nightlife!
Kate: Don’t get put off by the idea of the ‘Cambridge student’, and whether you fit that ideal. If you genuinely have a passion for your subject, then Cambridge is for you. The amazing thing about the Cambridge application process is how they assess you holistically, so try not to stress if there are parts of your application (like your GCSE results, for example) that don’t seem as strong. You are greater than the sum of your parts.
The library recently ran a favourite book survey – what’s your favourite and why?
Alex: Perhaps very predictably for a humanities student, mine is the Secret History by Donna Tartt. It’s fundamentally a brilliant story with unforgettable characters, but the prose is so beautiful and the setting is particularly compelling when you’re a student. Other than that, anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!
Kate: A book that both really fascinated and disturbed me is Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. Brave New World is a fundamentally different kind of dystopian novel because it appears instead to present a utopia. Describing a society oversaturated with drugs, sex and pornography, Brave New World ultimately asks us whether we should be happy or be free.
Best place in College?
Alex: I pretty much applied for the wall! It’s such an ideal spot to sit and have a drink in the summer and a free pass when it comes to people watching. Trinity Hall is pretty unique as a smaller college which still has access to the river.
Kate: My criteria for choosing a Cambridge college started with a quick google maps search to identify those colleges on the river; as Alex has said, the wall was a major appeal. But for me also there is no great feeling of awe than when the sun hits the Gatehouse and Thornton Buildings in the late afternoon and bathes the College in sunlight.
Best place in Cambridge?
Alex: For swimming and long summer days which turn into evenings there’s nothing better than Granchester Meadows! On the weekends Market Square for amazing food and second-hand books, and 2468, the underground bar on Trinity Street for pre-club drinks (or maybe just ‘drink’ given the prices).
Kate: I find the stretch of the river that leads towards Grantchester exceptionally beautiful, and it can only really be appreciated from the punt. This length is more intimate and green and reminds me of the charming scenery depicted in The Wind in the Willows book I had as a child.
Photo: Alex Levy (left) and Kate Valentine (right), JCR Presidents 2022