Here's a diary of Arunima's first few weeks studying Law at Peterhouse. She wrote the diary for a disability article on the BBC website - it should be noted that students aren't normally allowed to keep cars in Cambridge, and some of Aru's experiences with accomodation and getting around Cambridge will be different to those of non-disabled students. Many thanks to Aru for letting us use the diary here!
Peterhouse has recently made a large number of improvements to make the college buildings and facilities accessible to disabled students - for example the library now has powered doors and is completely wheelchair accessible. As always, being such a small college everyone is always willing to help out and everyone matters, so changes are regularly made to accomodate the specialist requirements of individual students, whether it's full wheelchair access or simply a dietary requirement in hall
Today was the day of the big move! Mum and Dad decided it would be best if I drove up to Cambridge myself in my car (which is specially adapted with hand controls) so that I could get used to the long journey.
I thought this was a good idea, because if I want to go home to Hampshire and back, I need to be confident and independent enough to do it by myself.
We reached Cambridge by about 2.00pm, and my stomach was churning. My hands were a little achy from the drive, but nothing I couldn't handle! When we reached my college, Peterhouse (Cambridge University is divided up into lots of different colleges, it makes everything that little bit more eccentric!) the Porter (also something typical of Cambridge University) was waiting outside my accommodation to lower a bollard and show me the way to the parking area. The bollard is going to be a bit of a problem, but they said that they are going to give me my own zapper to make it go down which will be really convenient.
The room is really, really nice. I've been allowed to live here for the full 3 years of my course, so I was pretty relieved that it was spacious and welcoming. The en-suite is massive (you could sleep a whole army in there, not that you'd want to) and there is enough room for my wheelchairs to charge up.
They have also provided me with a 'mini-gyp' kitchen (more Cambridge terminology), with a microwave and fridge. That's so handy for me, as I wouldn't have been able to carry my food from the house-kitchen to my room. My Local Education Authority (LEA) has provided me with a trolley to carry my food around on.
After unpacking and setting up my stuff (which took 4 hours!), I went to a welcome show that introduced us to the college. Unfortunately it was a bit of a job trying to get into the bar, because there's a huge step. This wasn't something I wanted to deal with on my first day; it was quite embarrassing making a scene in front of complete strangers. The college have said that they are going to try and sort something out.
I stayed in the bar for a bit; it's small, so I remained in one place the whole evening, mingling with other freshers.
The evening entertainment was clubbing at Life, but I was too tired so I went back to my room and phoned some friends and family. Needless to say, I did feel nervous and slightly vulnerable, but I am sure Peterhouse will look after me.
It was so strange being in an alien room. I didn't sleep too well, and I am living next to a restaurant so it was a little noisy.
I got up early in order to go to a meeting by the Senior Tutor, just letting us know the rules, do's and don'ts. It was pretty boring. Afterwards I was supposed to meet with my Tutor, but his room is up 3 flights of windy, narrow stairs.
I should probably tell you now that Cambridge has a system where you get allocated a college 'Mum and Dad' (usually third years), and even a brother at times! Your 'parents' are there to help you with absolutely any queries that you might have and to show you around, etc.
My 'Mum', Finn, is a Law student like me, and has really been so friendly and helpful. It's great to know that she is around if I need anything.
My (real) parents stayed over last night in a hotel, so we went to go and meet with the Disability Resource Centre (DRC) to sort out any queries I had. They are nice and friendly, and have assured me that their door is always open. I don't know my way to the Law Faculty yet, so I am meeting with a lady on Wednesday who will show me a disabled-friendly route.
We had Matriculation at 2.00pm. This is where you become a member of Cambridge University by going through a terribly traditional ceremony, complete with gowns (I drown in mine!) and oath reading. We also had our photo taken.
I was a bit apprehensive about how the whole thing would work for me, but the Head Porter sorted everything out so that I wouldn't have to worry about stairs. He organised a ramp to get into the Matriculation room, but I didn't feel alienated or singled-out, and he was very conscious of this.
The ceremony cracked me up, as I'm not used to such pomp and show, It was all very new and very Cambridge.
At 6.00pm I went off to eat my first dinner at Peterhouse. The college is fully catered so I don't have to cook (which is good because I can't!), and the staff were incredibly helpful. They suggested that I get there a bit before everyone else so that they can get me seated without getting trampled in the rush. The food was a bit suss tonight, but I have been assured it gets better!
Tonight we went on a pub-crawl. Very few of the pubs had good disabled access so it was a struggle getting into them. They were crowded enough as it is, without a huge wheelchair trying to get in! I gave up after about the fourth pub, and decided to go home. That route was fine, and perfectly accessible. Luckily I was sober enough not to get lost, but it's only day 2!
I slept better last night because I was so unbelievably knackered. This morning I had a meeting with my Director of Studies at 9.30am, and for a girl who normally gets up at 12 in the holidays, these early mornings are not suiting me!!
He gave me a list of all the Supervisions (lessons) I had to go to TODAY, and that really put me in a panic. This is because the lessons take place throughout all the different colleges in Cambridge and they are fairly spread out. My adrenalin was really pumping and I didn't know what I would do.
One of the lessons was so far away that my battery would certainly run out, and for an electric wheelchair user, that's one of the biggest fears of them all. Thankfully the DRC came to my rescue and made the relevant phone calls to alter things for me.
I managed to drive to one of the lessons with some mates in my car. We got lost on the way, but found the right place in the end. The access inside Fitzwilliam College was perfect, but I got soaked walking back to the car. It is times like that you wish your wheelchair had wings! We have so much work to do already and so much reading. I don't know if I'm going to be able to cope, but I've dropped myself in it by doing Law, so I have no one to blame but myself!
Tonight we have our Matriculation dinner where we dress up smartly and in our gowns again, have a nice dinner and drink the night away. I'm pretty excited but again really exhausted, so whether I'm going to be home in the early hours is a question that will be answered later.
Well, Matriculation dinner was extremely posh and very fancy. It was one of those dinners where you have 5 forks, 5 knives and even more spoons, and you have to start from the outside and work your way in! Proper silver service. And I'd never seen so much booze in my life ... but I wasn't complaining! I had a great night, and got to talk to some interesting, lovely people - and some rather peculiar ones too! I wheeled back to my room quite late and again did the rounds on my mobile, watched TV and then went to bed.
So back to today. This morning I had another supervision (Cambridge jargon for a tutorial held by a Supervisor) at Downing College, so a group of us walked together. All the grounds surrounding Downing are gravel, so the wheelchair struggled a bit. However, all the professors have been so supportive and understanding about wheelchair access and things like that: they alter rooms so that I can get there and generally seem very accommodating.
After the one hour supervision, I decided to take a stroll down to the Fresher's Fair. This is where all the societies and sporting clubs set up stalls in a big hall, and we wander round, joining whatever club we want, getting free stuff from big companies, and generally getting hassled by societies we have no intention of joining! I normally end up giving in to these people and just put my name down because I feel so bad saying no! I signed up to the Italian and German societies so I can carry on with my languages, and also joined the Indian Society so I can get to eat free samosas and onion bhajis! However, I've just realised that I probably signed up for too many things, and studying Law doesn't really allow for much free time!
The access inside the fair wasn't very good; it was fine getting in, but it was so packed inside that I found it hard to manoeuvre the wheelchair along the narrow aisles and ran over a fair few toes! What a great way of meeting new people! Haha!
I decided to look for a bit of calm after all of that chaos, so I went to the library to check my mail. No problems there - the only disadvantage is that in the pin-drop silence everyone knows when I'm coming, because the buzzing of my wheelchair sounds like a pneumatic drill!
Dinner was really nice tonight; the chicken kievs are renowned at Peterhouse! The dining hall is really grand, but pretty dark: people say it's so that you can't see what you're eating, but the food has been fine so far!
In the evening, I went to another Fresher's Fair, but just for Peterhouse this time. They call it a 'Squash' here. Don't ask me what that's about! (According to this glossary of Cambridge jargon, it's a party or reception usually held at the beginning of the academic year, for the purposes of introducing people to a club, society or organisation - Ed.) I joined the college magazine because, as you've probably gathered, I enjoy writing.
I was pretty tired afterwards so I went back to my room, did some work (oh yes, I have work already) and watched TV. I'm so lucky that I have a nice room; it really helps to have a homely place to come back to.
Our Fresher's Week has turned into a Fresher's 3 days, because today I have my first lecture. I had to get up stupidly early for it, and me and the other lawyers from Peterhouse walked together to the Law Faculty. I had no problems going to the Faculty in my power chair; it was quick and easy, so that was a big relief.
The lectures were only introductory but still lasted for 3 hours, and I am ashamed to say that my eyes did start to droop slightly towards the end of the final lecture! I have since been informed that almost everyone falls asleep at least 100 times in their lectures, so I didn't feel so bad! Afterwards, I went to the computer room to check my emails again - this is something you have to do at Cambridge, because it's the main way the Fellows (professors) and societies get in touch with you.
I had dinner at 6.00pm and then went to the library to do some work, as they didn't have anything major planned for freshers tonight. I must admit that Thursday was my homesick day. Everyone has a day when it hits you, and today was mine. Yay(!)
I really missed my family and friends, and I don't think the thoughts of a hugely heavy workload filled me with much joy either. But after calling up my mates and family for a chat, I felt a lot better. I'm lucky to have them in the first place. I left the library very drained and a bit freaked out because the walk back to halls is right next to a graveyard!
Another 3 lectures this morning. Gross!
In the afternoon we had a Fresher's BBQ, which was lush because I love BBQ. Unfortunately it was freezing in Cambridge and not exactly barbeque weather, but the food made up for all that.
In the evening, we were invited to a Hawaiian theme party. Parties in Cambridge are called 'bops', but I find that word quite annoying and old-fashioned so I wont be using it. (I say that now, but Cambridge vocabulary seems to infect everyone eventually!) Anyway, I got dressed up in a bright Hawaiian top and hula necklace, and then we made our way down to the bar. Most people had made an effort and the whole place was decorated with palm trees and general hula decor! I had a few drinks and we danced in the music room.
I had a really cool night, and it was great to get dressed up and meet some new people.
It's not fair - lectures on a Saturday! Luckily, it's only for this week.
I bunked one of the lectures to go to the Law Society book fair. They said I could go earlier than everyone else to beat the rush and get the best and cheapest books, but it did mean I had to miss a lecture. What a shame!
My sister came down from Norwich today. It's only an hour away, and it's so good to have someone close by. I showed her round the college and we went shopping. Some of the shops in Cambridge have huge steps outside, so I don't have a chance of getting in with my chair. Luckily for me I can use my crutches, and staff are willing to help, but hopefully with the enforcement of the new Disability Rights Act, this will be sorted out soon.
For dinner I had a craving for Chinese food, so we got takeaway. They deliver direct to your door, so we didn't even have to leave the room. It's great having my sis here - we're really close and I do need help buying things and getting my stuff organised. We watched Saturday night TV and lazed around. No chance of me doing any work today!
I had my first lie-in today in over a week. It was so good! There aren't going to be many of those, so I'm going to cherish them for as long as I can.
Today was a lazy Sunday!
My sister left at about 8.00pm to go back to Norwich and I just carried on with my work. The room has gone back to being quiet with just me in it, and it means I actually have to start work seriously now! Or maybe I could just put it off a bit longer. Hmm ...!
Today was the first day of proper lectures. Luckily, this morning is my only 9 o'clock start so I can have a lie in on other days. The lectures were fine, but they went on for a solid 3 hours and I was knackered by the end of them. I keep taking little power naps in the breaks! It seems to be helping.
Afterwards, the computer engineer came round to assemble my computer and connect me to the Internet. I am so happy I have a computer in my room now, as it was a bit inconvenient having to go to college all the time.
The evening mainly consisted of doing work; I have my first proper Supervision tomorrow, and my Supervisor has set a fair amount of reading for us to get through to prepare for it. It's going to be so much better when I get into a routine because then I can work and play!
Lectures again this morning. I came back to my room at lunchtime and had my landline installed - yaaaay!!!
The Supervision went fine, except that I thought I knew what I was talking about, but then it came out quite confused! Apparently, that's what's supposed to happen but I'm not so sure!
In the evening, I signed up to be a cox in rowing. I wish it was called something else though, people always laugh when I tell them I'm going to be a cox! They assured me that I shouldn't have any problems participating, but that it might be hard transferring into and out of the boat. We'll just have to see, but I can swim, so if we capsize (which happens very rarely) I will be safe.
I lounged around with some friends and then went back to my room for an early night - except a man decided he wanted to listen to his radio in his car really loudly for about half an hour outside my window, so I couldn't get to sleep!
It goes without saying that I had lectures this morning! At 1, I went back to my room and just chilled out for a while. I get really tired, even after just 3 hours of classes. The afternoon passed quickly.
In the evening, a few girls came round to my room and we watched 'What not to Wear' and ate a lot of chocolate! We had a typical girlie evening and it was good fun. After they left I got an early night and went to bed.
After my lecture this morning I went exploring. I just looked around town and at all the different colleges nearby. Unfortunately it started to rain, and I don't have a cover for my chair yet, so I was getting soaked and I had to race back to the house.
At 4 I had a supervision at Fitzwilliam College, which meant I had to drive. I use hand-controls and a steering ball so I don't have to use my legs. It's a really cool system actually.
I'm afraid driving in Cambridge is a nightmare!! There are cyclists everywhere and they just pop up out of nowhere. We got there in one piece though, and I think I'm just going to have to get used to them!
I did some more shopping today. I found out I need more jumpers than I already have because Cambridge is so cold! My sister came down from Norwich at 1 to drive us both home for the weekend. It took about 4 hours because of the traffic but it was worth it! There's no place like home.
This weekend I caught up with my best friends and we had a really great time. In a way it doesn't feel like I've been away, everything is just so normal. It's great to be back and to eat my Mum and Dad's gorgeous food again.
I've been set a lot of work this weekend, but I doubt that I will get time to do it. I'm going to try and completely relax.
On Sunday, my sister and I drove back up to Cambridge, ready to start a new week.
I had my coxing trial today! After lectures, I drove straight to the boathouse across town and then, following a quick introduction and safety talk, I scrambled into the boat. It was actually fairly easy to get into, but I was so scared I was going to slip and fall into the river in front of all these stern professional rowers, and that would have seriously bashed my reputation! Coxing was really good fun. I learnt some commands and steering wasn't very hard because of all the years of wheelchair and car driving. My first boat-park was damn near perfect, so I'm pretty chuffed with that.
Afterwards, I did a bit of shopping and got back to my room completely knackered. I think I might have to reconsider what days I do coxing, because I don't think I'm going to be able to handle doing lectures and rowing all in one day. It's quite annoying sometimes because I get tired quite easily; I plan to get a certain number of things done in one day, but get so drained that I just end up sleeping! Oh well, at least that means I'll be bright and hyper in the evening!
I had to write my first ever case report today for criminal law. It wasn't easy, and because I had never done anything like it before, I didn't even know where to start. After a mild panic, I explained to myself that of course I didn't know what to do because I have never studied Law before and therefore have obviously never written a case report before! So I calmed down, and just did my best. I know that's a cliche, but it's very true, because they're not going to expect wonders with your first essay - and hat's just something I'm going to have to keep in mind for a while.
Surprisingly, my criminal law supervision today was really good fun! We had a really interesting discussion, which wasn't heavy-going or confusing (thank goodness).
Afterwards I went down to the local sports centre and joined the swimming pool. It's great exercise for me, and it's the only sport I really enjoy and am half-decent at. It's really cheap to join as well, and they have no barriers for disabled members - the lifeguards and staff are exceedingly willing to help if you need it.
I had a night to myself tonight - just lazed around, watched TV and relaxed, without the pressure of work and the perils of having a hangover the next morning!
More work again this morning, but only one lecture, so I can't complain! This evening, I went to a mock-court workshop, which taught us how to stand up in court and present an argument. It's called 'mooting', and they hold lots of competitions throughout the year. I really like the sound of mooting because it was the whole idea of public speaking and arguing that attracted me to Law in the first place, and if I want to be a barrister I need to practise as much as possible. The workshop went on 'til quite late, but they gave us free food and wine which made it even better.
I have a really short day today, so I can spend the afternoon just doing work and relaxing. I went to a party at the bar with some friends tonight. The bar is small and a bit crowded, so it's hard to manoeuvre a wheelchair around inside. I normally just park it in one corner and use my crutches. (I'm usually quite sturdy on them, but after a few drinks I get really wobbly and prone to stumbling! No different to any other drunk student then, so that's OK). Technicalities aside, we had a laugh and there were a lot of people there to mingle with and chat to. The music wasn't so cheesy this time either, and I got back pretty late.
I drove up to Norwich today to spend the day with my sister. The drive was really easy, but I found my arms were quite tired afterwards because of the hand-controls. We went out around the town and did a bit more shopping (as we always do!)and then I drove back to Cambridge in the late afternoon.
The porter helped me assemble my scooter and carry my shopping into the room - I honestly don't know what I would do without them! I just chilled out in the evening and wrote some letters to friends.
I went for a pub lunch with a friend today - I was having a craving for a roast dinner! It was a gorgeous day, so we walked around the parks for a while and then headed back to our halls. I finally stopped procrastinating and did some work today as well - it's all too easy to forget that it's the reason why you're actually at uni!
Overall, I think I'm definitely feeling a lot more settled in at Cambridge than when I first arrived. I've decorated my room and it feels really cosy. I've realised that I'll never be without help here - there's always someone a phone call away who can give me a hand. I've met some nice people. As for the course, while the work is hard, it's also interesting. I think it will take time to get completely comfortable with the course though, because there are still some parts that I really don't understand.
I'm still having a few problems getting around Peterhouse: the entrance to the actual college and the bar are not wheelchair-friendly, but they're trying their best to convince the college masters to allow renovation. Unfortunately, a lot of the colleges (and even some of the paving stones) are protected by heritage, so Peterhouse may not actually be allowed to adjust anything. This doesn't surprise me - I've chosen one of the oldest universities in the country, so I'm bound to come across problems with modernisation. At least they're trying though, that's the main thing.
I do still miss my friends and family, but they're only a phone call away. Some of my mates are coming up to stay soon, so I'm excited about that.
Having a disability should in no way stop you or discourage you from going to university. It's a part of who you are - just like the colour of your eyes or the size of your feet. It's not something that people should or will discriminate against. I think that 99% of universities will do as much as they can to make you feel comfortable and provide you with all the necessary facilities you need. All you need to do is ask, and a lot of the time you'll find that people (at least the uni staff) are not patronising - they just want to know if there's anything they can do. However, if you're getting on fine, they'll leave you to it.
I've not lived away from home on my own before: I've been on holiday with friends and away on trips, but I've never been totally dependent on myself. It's scary, there's no doubt about it, but then I think it's pretty obvious that it would be. Disabled students have so much more other stuff that we have to think about, and at times it gets a bit overwhelming. But you have to have confidence. The biggest thing is that you're at uni, you've had the determination to apply and once you're there, things will start to slot into place. And if they don't - complain! Don't try and take everything on yourself; it's the university's responsibility to make sure everything is cool, not yours.
In the end, things will get better, and you'll become very self-sufficient. It feels good to be doing things independently, and you'll have a lot of fun at uni - guaranteed!