The last time I saw Cambridge… A scholar moves back to the UK 20 years later

Previous scholar Kate O Suilleabhain was in Cambridge for several months earlier this year. Here she discusses her experience, meeting with the new Davies-Jacksons, and how things have changed. 
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Last year, the law firm where I’d been working asked me to move to London for several months.  I was to participate in the firm’s international exchange program on a fluke; another associate, senior to me, had been slated for this assignment but had dropped out.  The opportunity to return to the UK at that point seemed symbolic, like drawing the latter half of a lifelong arc.  I had kept in touch with a good friend from my time at St. John’s who was going to be dividing her time between London and Edinburgh.  By chance, I had also recently touched base with some of the recent Davies-Jackson scholars.  I was eager to connect with Danae in person, as I knew from her blog and the Scholarship Facebook page she was residing in London.

But they say you can’t go back.  And at forty-four, I wasn’t about to try to re-create the experience of exactly half my life ago, when, at twenty-two, I’d headed off to take my place at St. John’s – weeping, I might add, as the plane took off and as the British man seated to my right tried to reassure me (as I recall it) that British people were not to be feared.

Still, even with the benefit of age and, I hope, at least some greater wisdom, it was hard not to be reminded of that maiden voyage.  Once again, I felt incredibly fortunate to have the chance to move to the UK; once again, my careful plans had given way to something more exciting than what I’d dreamed up.  Surely, there is a lesson in this.

Although my reason for being in London was work, I did reconnect with old friends, and I did get out to Cambridge.  Particularly pleasant was meeting Dr. Dörrzapf for lunch, at his invitation, in the Fellows’ Hall.  I also took advantage of my newfound status as a lawyer (I’d read English at St. John’s) to attend a Winfield Society dinner at the College.

But for me, the most important events of my time in the UK – this time – were those I spent with current and former Davies-Jackson scholars.  While in Cambridge, I had a leisurely breakfast with Deanie, with whom I exchanged notes on reading English — twenty years apart — at St. John’s and from whom I learned about the role of a dramaturge as well as her playwriting triumphs.  We discovered a mutual admiration for novelist Jennifer Egan, who also read English at St. John’s.

Deanie and I also both attended a reunion of sorts one cold Saturday in London, where we were joined by a lovely and wonderful committee member, as well as former scholars Brian and Danae.

I was fascinated to hear them speak to what I’d so often wondered through the years:  how the newer scholars (and their families) had reacted to the news of winning this incredible honor, how they had come to hear about the scholarship, how they had adapted once at St. John’s, what their initial impressions of Cambridge architecture had been, what they’d written about in their scholarship applications, and, in the case of Danae and Brian, the work that was keeping them in the UK following completion of their degrees.  I marvelled at the sophistication, talent, and openness of them.

While we were exchanging stories, I was asked:  How had the scholarship changed us?  The question always brings tears to my eyes.  I had, and have, a hard time articulating an answer that does justice to the enormity of the question.  Even with the benefit of hindsight, my time at St. John’s has never taken its place among other life-changing events, in that it never has come to seem to me an inevitability.

But while no one can accuse me of being an unqualified optimist, I am unusually willing to take game-changing risks when opportunities come my way, and I believe this uncharacteristic characteristic of mine owes mainly to the fact that I can draw on my experience at Cambridge.  I adjusted there to a new system, new culture, new people, and living away from everyone and everything familiar – and it was challenging, yes, and in the end rewarding in ways I still cannot measure.  So how hard, really, can this next step be?  And what’s the downside, really?

It is that optimism, I suppose, that drove me to accept my firm’s last-minute offer to go to London, as well as to make a switch when I received a headhunter’s call a few months after returning home.  It is certainly that optimism that drove me to pursue a long-deferred law career in my late thirties, and to attend law school in Washington, D.C. – where I knew no one, but where I’d come for forty-eight hours, many years before, to meet the Davies-Jackson scholarship committee.  I am still realizing the scholarship even all these years later.

It is true that you cannot go back.  But I have come to see that the past can push you forward in unexpected ways.


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