In this guest post, Helen Bettinson (History 1982 and currently Fitzwilliam’s Development Director) reflects on the College’s ‘Half Way Dinner’ held last week.

This week 140 Fitzwilliam undergraduates acknowledged that they were half-way through their degrees by attending, with their Directors of Studies and other Fellows of the College, the formal Half-Way Dinner. This enjoyable evening is a recent invention and alumni of previous generations might wonder at the point of it. In addition to the social benefits, however, the occasion forces students – indeed all of us – to take stock. Something which, in the normal run of the frenetic Cambridge term, isn’t often the case.

What does half-way mean beyond the simple calculation of being at the midway point in the typical undergraduate degree of nine terms? (Although we shouldn’t take all this too literally as a good proportion of our undergraduates are on four year courses…!) Have students acquired 50% of what they need to cram into their heads for Tripos? Or are they half-way along a steeply angled trajectory to intellectual enlightenment? The Master suggested that the second half should be ‘better’ than the first: certainly our students should build on the foundations of their first difficult year, towards the high peak that will be expected of them in their finals next year…

What is certain, is that the things that make the Cambridge experience significant are not all academic. Appearing on stage, singing in the choir, rowing in the Bumps, scoring a try, debating in the Union, putting on a JCR Bop, organising a society meeting – all are worthwhile activities. But so too is visiting the Fitzwilliam Museum, a pint in the Eagle, a punt on the Cam, and all the other typically touristy things that our students sometimes don’t get around to doing. Do them! In another 15 months these students will be graduating. Magically transformed into alumni they will – in all likelihood – look back wistfully in later life and wonder why they’d never taken the time to eat a Chelsea bun in Fitzbillies or amble around the Museum of Arch and Anth.

For those of us half-way through our lives (or indeed well beyond the half-way point) it is easy to envy the experiences and opportunities that our current students enjoy. Look at the buildings and facilities they have, compared to in our day! We shouldn’t forget, however, that the demands placed on them are huge. They work incredibly hard – to get into Fitzwilliam in the first place and then to keep up with the punishing timetable of essays, projects, lectures, lab work, and that’s before the rehearsals and sports training. We shouldn’t be surprised if, on occasion, the glass may seem half-empty to those struggling to meet an academic deadline or to connect with like-minded souls.

Exhortations to grasp everything that the College and the University have to offer risk patronising the intelligent adults that were seated in the Dinner last week. They don’t need us to tell them how lucky they are or to remind them of the intellectual and social opportunities before them. I do think, however, that the Half-Way Dinner, fabricated tradition that it is, serves a useful purpose to students and Fellows. Taking stock is essential to framing future ambitions. I’d end this piece with the words tempus fugit, except I’d be accused of resorting to cliche. But to those of us now enjoying ‘middle age’, you know what I mean.

PS A few addenda that didn’t fit neatly into the piece above: Firstly I’d like to mention that the Dinner also marked the half-way point in the Bursar’s Fitzwilliam career (assuming normal retirement age). And lastly, I’d like to thank alumnus Iain Reid, whose generosity supports the occasion. No coincidence, perhaps, that as the College’s previous Development Director and a Fitzwilliam historian, he understands the significance of dates and tradition.

Dr Helen Bettinson

About Dr Helen Bettinson

Helen read History at Fitzwilliam (1982) and, after a career in television production, rejoined the College in April 2010. Following the retirement of Dr Iain Reid, she became Development Director in October 2011.

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