During the summer of 2020 we launched a series of conversations with alumni to hear their memories of Trinity and catch up on what they’ve done since leaving. Matt from ARDO spoke with Sally March (1996) and you can read her story below. You can find more stories here.
Why did you want to study History at Trinity?
So History is a subject I’ve always adored – I know some people find it very dull, and if it’s taught badly it can put some people off. It’s always something that’s absolutely fascinated me, and I knew I wanted to do History or Politics, and I really wanted to push myself. I looked at some universities to do both, but I wanted to apply to Oxbridge and much preferred the flexibility of the History Tripos at Cambridge.
I went to an all girls school, and am ‘first generation university’ – my dad’s a shopkeeper. I applied to Trinity because it was big, and there would be lots of different people around – the idea of going to somewhere like Corpus with less than 100 people in a year was frankly horrifying. Most people I know say they wouldn’t apply to Trinity because it’s so big, but that was really attractive to me. I remember getting a letter from my College mother telling me about my siblings Hugh, James, and Geoffrey – they were absolutely lovely, but I did wonder if I’d fit in! Trinity is so big that you can easily find your niche – and if you don’t find it at Trinity, there’s a whole University of 10,000 students – you’ll definitely find people to connect with if you want to.
Where did you live while you were at Trinity?
I lived in first year in what was formally called ‘Z block’ – on Sidney Street. I had a room right at the top, just over where the Sainsbury’s lorry reverses in every morning. In second year I was on Bridge Street, and third year I was on G staircase, over an arch across the road. For my Master’s I was out on Milton Road somewhere…
Where is your favourite part of Trinity?
I love Nevile’s Court – in the summers when you’re revising, and you can come outside and the sunlight in the colonnades is absolutely fantastic. You can just sit on the edge – obviously not on the grass – with a book, and it’s just lovely.
What’s your favourite part of Cambridge?
The best thing about Cambridge, now that I’m a townie – it’s all the green areas, not just Jesus Green which students use a lot, but all the pastures and Fens, Fen Causeway where the cows are, heading down towards Grantchester – it’s really nice in a city to have all these green spaces.
It’s really interesting how much Cambridge has changed since the 90s. When I was a student, Heffers had 5-6 shops throughout the city, and it’s surprising, for a city that hosts two large universities (Cambridge and ARU), how few bookshops we have now. Even now, after lockdown – the number of shops that have closed down in the last 3-4 months is slightly worrying.
Do you have a favourite memory from your time as a student?
There’s a really nice period when you have finished your exams, whichever year, and before you know the results – and you just feel as if you have nothing to worry about in the world. It’s normally really nice in Cambridge at that time of year, and for those few days, a week – you can just enjoy being in Cambridge without any responsibilities. Also the early mornings in Easter term, the clarity that’s brought by the sunlight.
One memory I can’t leave out, although it’s not a favourite, is salmon caprice – obviously eating in Hall is such an important part of the student experience, and there were three things that stood out while I was there – baton vegetables, potato croquettes, and this salmon caprice which struck fear in people. It was baked salmon with baked banana on top – definitely a ‘speciality’ during my time there. I remember standing at the menu one day despairing at this, when one of the Fellows walked past, laughed, and says ‘We don’t get that at High Table!’
Were you involved in any groups or societies?
In my first year I stood as secretary of the TCSU under Faisal Islam, who’s now with the BBC, and I was also Membership Secretary of the TCMS for one year – not really my area, but my friend Geoff was president and I think wanted someone friendly on the Committee. I was also the First Year Rep on the BA Society during my Masters, and captain of the University Challenge team – I still keep up with a couple of Trinity alumni and do pub quizzes together.
One particular memory from my time on TCMS – there was a Committee where the TCMS met with the Junior Bursar, who was Paul Simm at the time. The secretary of the TCMS had to take the minutes of this meeting, and only 40 minutes after the meeting ended I had a Porter banging on my door requesting the minutes for the Junior Bursar to review!
Is there anything you wish you’d known before you came to Cambridge?
Not so much something I wish I’d known, but more to do with attitude – I’m quite a shy, introverted person, and I should have been a bit more adventurous and ‘gone for it’ a bit more when I was an undergrad. I didn’t need to be so worried, or even intimidated – yes, inevitably there are people brighter than you, but you got here on your own merit, you deserve your place. If there’s anything you want to try, whether it’s hang-gliding, or pentathlon – you should go for it, use those 3-4 years to experiment as much as possible.
Tell us about your career so far
I never knew what I wanted to do beyond getting to Cambridge, but I did know that I didn’t want to go to London, so I stayed for a Masters and still wasn’t any the wiser. It just happened that I knew someone at Sidney Sussex, and they needed an assistant in their Admissions Office for 9 months. So I did that for a time, working on admissions and I was the North West Access Officer for Sidney which was really interesting.
After that job, I started at the most junior level at the Pembroke Development Office, and have stayed at Pembroke and done lots of different things. I’m now the Alumni and Communications Officer – I’ve been at Pembroke for a very long time!
What’s the best bit about your job?
So I work at Pembroke College, and the reason I love working there is because I have so much contact with the students, and I love getting to know them, watching them fulfil their degree, graduate, and then go on to do amazing things. I love watching people succeed, and then they come back and I get to hear what they’re up to as the Alumni Officer, or you might turn on the TV and see your student helper on Newsnight as an expert in British politics!
I also really value the relationships I’ve developed with alumni over the years that I’ve worked there. Now, the people I first knew as students have children, some have divorced and remarried – but they all go on to do such interesting things, and it’s so great to see them doing so well and hear the fascinating stories they’re telling.
Do you still use your degree at all?
History is a bit like a Swiss army knife of a degree – you can go off and do most things (although many in my year became lawyers). Obviously the ability to read and absorb a large amount of information and then formulate it into an argument is useful in whatever you do in life. Working at Pembroke, there’s a huge amount of history about the place, and I have quite an affinity with that and that’s the sort of thing I love getting to do, whether that’s writing, or tours. I still have a great interest in History, and it allows you to chat with people on a wide range of subjects, particularly if you’re reading widely enough – which has been very helpful when sat next to someone at an alumni dinner for 2 hours!
What is your proudest achievement?
Not really an achievement as such, but I’m really proud that I’ve kept my curiosity and desire to keep learning. At the age of 40, I decided I wanted to learn Russian to keep the brain limber. I’m really glad that I still enjoy learning, and have the opportunity to do so.
For a more jokey answer – one particularly notable memory was when Henry Kissinger came to speak at Pembroke, and I was dispatched to stand guard outside the door when he used the toilet.
What advice would you give to current students?
In the current situation, for first and second years, keep focused – look out for opportunities around you, but you know you still have a year or two of your degree to go, and hopefully things will have changed slightly by then. For final year students, you know you have the skills, the intelligence, so have faith in yourself. Something will turn up – it may not be what you expected, but given how the world works now, you’re likely to have a career that isn’t as linear as mine has been! There are so many skills and opportunities that you’ll be able to transfer to different things.
Recorded in August 2020
If you want to get involved and share your story, please get in touch with Matt and Rachel at [email protected]