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The undergraduate experience

Holly Firmin (Homerton, 2015)

Holly FirminWhen I came to Cambridge, I expected to find my experience here an overwhelming one. I came from a comprehensive school in an area with an exceptionally poor success rate for progressing onwards to higher education. Whilst, nearly three years later, many aspects of the institution still appear alien to me, I am very glad I made the decision to study History here.

I found Part I of the Tripos so enjoyable as a result of the sheer breath of topics I had the opportunity to study. Although I am a modernist, (and only dared to go back beyond 1890 for one paper because of Tripos requirements!), I was able to study British, European, American and World history. Despite the compression of such as vast array of regional histories into the ‘world’ category leaving a lot to be desired, the modern ‘world’ history paper broadened the scope of my historical understanding by introducing me to topics, themes and places I had yet to encounter in my academic career.  

My enjoyment of the modern ‘world’ history paper led me to choose ‘Sources of East Asian Modernity’ as my Special Subject, and ‘The History of Africa since 1800’ as my Specified Subject for my third year. Although my research interests are focused on modern British history, I have found it invaluable to developing my skills as a historian to pursue in-depth historical study outside of Britain, America and Europe, right through until my third year. Studying in smaller groups, collaboratively, as part of my Special Subject has been an aspect of my third year I have thoroughly enjoyed so far. Having spent so long working, for the most past, independently in Part I, working together in innovative ways, particularly as my lecturer has placed such an emphasis on digital pedagogy and collaborative working tools, has been incredibly rewarding.

The opportunity to carry out my own research in my final year has also been an experience I have enjoyed. My undergraduate dissertation explores the fascinating political history of the borough I called home for 13 years, Thurrock, through the lens of a local activist group operating in the 1980s. This has not only been an intellectually rewarding exercise, but has allowed me to explore my own sense of local identity further, and even become involved in public history initiatives operating in the area. Although I chose not to pursue my original dissertation proposal – an exploration of the lives of working-class lesbians in post-war Britain – for lack of useful and accessible source material, I chose to act on my interest in the history of sexuality outside of my degree. In Michaelmas of this year I led a team of researchers uncovering primary source material to be used in a play I co-wrote and directed, entitled ‘The Cambridge Companion to Lesbianism’. Producing a piece of public history, with an LGBTQ+ cast and crew helping to tell the real-life stories of lesbians in modern British history, is something I am very proud of.

This original research I have carried out this year, both as part of, and outside of my degree, has led me to apply to study the MPhil in Modern British History at Cambridge next year. My research proposal seeks to explore the over-looked history of Basildon, one of the biggest of the post-war new towns, (and the neighbouring borough of Thurrock), and its place in the history of British politics in the 1980s.

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