Student Spotlight: Issy Lin & Melissa Villalon – PKP Summer School Q&A

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Issy Lin (UCB) and Melissa Villalon (UCLA) decided to spend 8 weeks of their summer studying at our Pembroke-King’s Programme at the University of Cambridge. While this programme is shorter than a traditional semester or year abroad, the experience is equally as rewarding and fulfilling both personally and academically. Read this Q&A to get a feel for their experience in Cambridge so far!


  1. Can you introduce yourself and the programme you are enroled in?

Issy Lin: Hi! My name is Issy, and I’m entering my junior year at UC Berkeley as a freshly declared MCB major. I am currently studying abroad at the University of Cambridge in the Pembroke-King’s Programme. Like everyone else here, I get to choose three classes from a wide range of disciplines. The ones that I selected are: History of Medicine and Disease in European History, Good Life or Moral Life, and Behavioural Ecology of Animals.

Melissa Villalon: My name is Melissa and I am a fourth-year biology undergraduate at UCLA. I decided to enroll in Principles of Cell Signalling, Behavioural Ecology of Animals and Humans, and Marriage Between Spirit and Matter: The Study of Drawing and Painting at the University of Cambridge for the Pembroke-King’s Programme.

  1. Why did you choose to study abroad in this specific programme? What do you hope you’ll gain from your experience?

IL: Why Cambridge? Well, Cambridge has been my dream since Grade 9 when my parents took me and my brother on our first Europe trip to visit England. To be honest, I chose UC Berkeley over universities closer to home because Berkeley had an exchange programme with Cambridge .. shhhh! I hope to gain insight into Britain’s reading-and-literature-based teaching style as well as understand the United Kingdom’s National Health Services (NHS). I have a keen interest in medicine and research, and I am fascinated by the NHS, which is radically different from the US domination of private insurance.

MV: The Pembroke-King’s Programme (PKP) offered an array of courses that intrigued me, covering subjects like the arts and sciences. The science classes I am taking count as prerequisites for graduate school in pClare Collegehysical therapy, and the art class captured my interest as I have never taken one before. While in this study abroad program, I do not wish to gain or take anything at the end but would rather prefer to let the experiences happen as I go along. I find it much more enriching and unexpected when I don’t hope for something to occur.

  1. Did you have any preconceived notions about Cambridge or England before coming over? Have those notions changed since you’ve been here?

IL: I’ve had six year to romanticise Cambridge and England before attending the PKP programme, and I must say that Cambridge and England have both not only lived up to, but exceeded, my expectations. Some classic preconceived notions about British culture include their obsession with tea, being well-dressed, and being well-read. I can happily confirm that all three are almost ubiquitously accurate. As I write, I am staring out the windows from my cosy little cupboard-under-the-stairs room onto a beautiful backyard with an apple tree. I can’t express how refreshing and calming that is for me. Every day, I walk out of my hostel with a smile in my heart taking in the bright lavenders growing in neighbouring gardens, and running my fingers over the centuries-old bricks and stones that tell so many stories.

MV: The election whether to stay in or leave the European Union occurred the day of my departure
from California, and I arrived in England the day when the vote was cast to leave. I felt that uncertainty awaited me in England. After spending almost two months living here, my expectations could not have been more erroneous. The transition to life in England (and more specifically Cambridge) was as smooth as hopping on a train in King’s Cross Station (you’ll know what I mean!).

  1. What was your first impression of the city and the university? How do you feel you’ve settled in so far in your time here?

IL: My mum travelled with me to Cambridge and our first day was spent wandering through the beautiful colleges and enjoying pizza by the riverside. Having arrived in Cam77 (2)bridge from London, I can honestly say that Cambridge was an absolute gem with its green meadows and cows (yes, there are random cows around!) and swans. I’m now halfway into my sixth week here and, despite the impending assessments, I still wake up every day with a lightness in my heart and an ambition to see or try something new.

MV: Ambling through the streets alone requires me to heed the nuances of this town and the university, the peculiarities of each building. No street or road is ever straight. They twist and wind, gravitating toward the city centre. The street signs cannot be relied upon. Sometimes, they are haphazardly placed (or not at all) on the peripheries of buildings. I recognize some of the people of Cambridge, like the man lounging on the ground in St. Edwards Passage (from the 13th century) and the suited guitarist who travels like a troubadour. The town has character and I like that. Settling in took little time.

  1. How have you been finding the course? What are the key differences between the course here and the courses back in California? (i.e. teaching style, grading system, etc.)

IL: Learning at Cambridge is worlds away, both literally and figuratively, from the learning style in California. Instead of the 1000-strong chemistry classes back at UC Berkeley, where the professor is but a little speck, I now have classes with a maximum of 20 students. It is such an odd experience to see my professors in the dining hall or chat with them while lining up for a cup of tea. I really appreciate the small class sizes because the courses are very heavily reading-based. My professors expect each and every student to have read in preparation for lectures and seminars so that discussions will be intellectual and insightful. I have a newfound respect for speed-reading and I have also developed plenty of upper arm strength from carrying around a stack of books!

MV: The lectures consist of open discussion between professors and students, a much different atmosphere of learning than in the United States. In England the lecturers (or professors) will directly ask one of the students his/her thoughts on a topic and expect a critical, original analysis of the problem at hand. Independence in one’s studies is pivotal here (there are no office hours!), and I appreciate the opportunity to discover how I can figure out the material on my own. However, lecturers (or professors) are always available with email. When I received my first graded essay from the Principles of Cell Signalling professor, I was discouraged at what I initially thought was a low mark. At the end of his notes, the professor informed me that English universities operate on a different grading system, shifting the grading scale. I learned many more quirks of the English university style that day!

  1. What has been the most challenging part about your time in Cambridge so far? What has been the most rewarding?

IL: The most challenging part about my time at Cambridge is rather personal and less academic-81 (1)based. You see, Cambridge has been my dream for 6 years. I’ve dealt with a mental illness for 4.5 years. So, I made myself a promise that my mental illness would not take up another day of my life, would not hold me back from living my life, and would not tarnish my dream. It is a struggle every day, and sometimes I can’t see a way out, but recovery is worth it. I couldn’t have made it this far without the wonderful and supportive friends that I have made here at Cambridge, including students from UC Berkeley who I may never have met if I hadn’t come to Cambridge. So, you ask me, what is the most rewarding part about my time at Cambridge? Well, I can’t decide between living my dream, facing up to my mental illness and making a close group of friends!

MV: Balancing and managing time is of utmost importance on a short-term study abroad, especially in England. The people I met in all of my journeys in this study abroad program have made the most profound impression in me, remaining in my memory. Sharing conversations with strangers in strange places and situations will be with me for the rest of my life.

  1. Would you recommend a short-term study abroad programme like this one to other students? What are the benefits of doing a summer abroad?

IL: Is that even a question?! Summer is a time to live and, at least for me, this summer has been one in which I’ve relearnt how to live a life. From midnight strolls around the colleges in Cambridge, to last-minute running-for-the-plane weekend trips to Paris, to fancy candle-lit Formal Halls … it has been a summer that will remain in my heart forever. If you’re still unsure, I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself!

MB: Absolutely! As cliché as this may sound, this summer has been the most memorable time of my life! I can only relate to the benefits of my time here, as every student participating in a summer abroad will have a unique experience. The stories that you will return home with will be kept forever in your memory, waiting to be told to family and friends. 

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