A Cambridge Matriculation Day

Jiaqi Nie (EMBA 2017) spent an entire day immersing himself in the history, architecture and academic prowess of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge, for his Matriculation Day.

After my Orientation Week in October, I received multiple emails from my Cambridge college – Emmanuel – all with the same subject line: “Matriculation Day”. I wondered, what does Matriculation Day look like, especially for an Executive MBA student like myself? I thought that the welcome speech by Dr Khal Soufani, EMBA Programme Director, during Orientation Week was my matriculation, but clearly, I was wrong!

I raised this question with friends who are pursuing EMBAs in Chicago, Boston and New York, but none of them seemed to know much about it. “It could be another 15-minute speech from the Dean, though,” one friend offered.

I mused to myself, “another 15-minute speech from the Dean?” This reminded me of Matriculation Days from my earlier academic life. I still remember the powerful scene of my undergraduate Matriculation Day in China where, along with over 3,000 other students sitting on the ground wearing camouflaged military uniforms, I sat listening to speeches from the Dean and other top leaders. Besides a normal matriculation, it was also a spirit-raising pep rally at the start of a three-week physical and mental military training regimen that is mandatory for all freshmen at Chinese universities.

I also remembered the graduation ceremonies I enjoyed during my second undergraduate degree in Canada and my later graduate studies in the US, but no glamorous or formal matriculation occurred in either of these cases.

About to meet my College tutor

When the long-awaited Cambridge EMBA Matriculation Day finally came around, I woke up at 6:30am to meet my tutor at Emmanuel College. Luckily, I found my tutor’s office at Parkside after passing through the many twists and turns of stony roads between many identical-looking, historical buildings. Ringing the bell on the tutor’s door felt like ringing the bell at 84 Charing Cross Road in a scene from the popular Chinese movie Book of Love.

This was the first time I would meet my graduate tutor, Dr Catherine Rae, at Cambridge. She was one of the first 20 women admitted to the “men’s” colleges of Oxford University back in 1974, before joining Cambridge’s newly-established Rolls-Royce Research Centre and Department of Materials. Given that I was an executive manager at China Baowu Steel Group , one of the world’s largest steel companies, I soon discovered a lot in common with my learned tutor. It was amazing to hear the Professor talk about her research into Physical Metallurgy, as well as revealing recent developments from Rolls-Royce concerning both Cambridge and China.

After leaving my tutor’s office, wearing my brand new Cambridge gown, I moved on to the second part of the Matriculation Day: a tour of Emmanuel College from Dr Sarah Bendall, joined by four other EMBA students that enrolled with me at the college.

Dr Bendall is an expert in the history of Emmanuel College and the Cambridgeshire Estate Maps that dated from the 16th century. She had first studied Geography at Oxford, before becoming a Librarian at Emmanuel.

Watching Emmanuel College Choir rehearse

Our matriculation tour started in the College Chapel, which was built from an early design from Sir Christopher Wren, one of the most highly acclaimed English architects in history. During a rehearsal in the chapel by the college’s choir, Dr Bendall informed us that we were standing on the site of a Dominican friars’ house that dated back to 1238. After the friary was dissolved by Henry VIII, this building was semi-ruined when Sir Walter Mildmay, Chancellor of the Exchequer to Elizabeth I, founded Emmanuel College in 1584. It took another 100 years before it was completely restored and could serve as the present-day chapel.

We were introduced to the distinguished alumni of the college enshrined in the chapel’s stained glass windows, and I found one dedicated to John Harvard. He was admitted to the college in 1627, and after receiving his BA and MA, sailed to New England with other Emmanuel graduates. Harvard donated half of his estate, including 400 books, to what became known as Harvard College, part of the renowned Harvard University in Massachusetts. Almost 400 years later, you can still find a statue of John Harvard in Harvard Yard, revealing the extent of Emmanuel College’s impact and how deeply rooted the connection is between Cambridge and Harvard.

Front Court, Emmanuel College

The story of John Harvard stirred our curiosity and we began discussing other Emmanuel alumni. Surprisingly, I learned that one such graduate was Dan Stevens, the famous “big cousin” Matthew Crawley in the drama series Downton Abbey, widely known by the younger generation in China.

It was an experience of a lifetime experience walking through the college’s history with an expert like Dr Bendall. She knows all the stories behind every brick, every painting and every book. By immersing myself in the flood of history that Emmanuel offered, I found many great figures of the past, including John Wallis, a mathematician who introduced the symbol for “infinity”, ∞; Thomas Young, a physician who developed the wave theory of light; Frederick Gowland Hopkins, winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of vitamins, as well as many other Emmanuel graduates whose faith in academics and higher learning were unshaken, as evidenced by their forward thinking and valuable contributions to society.

One sobering moment was finding out about the 261 casualties of Emmanuel men during World War I and World War II. They didn’t get the chance to come back and complete their degrees at the college, but had given their lives to defend the peace and freedom of their fellow citizens.

By sunset, we had passed the Queens Building, a building opened by HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh. It was breathtaking when we were led to the college’s library, and I will never forget the moment she opened those beautiful handmade books, some of which survived the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Exploring the Library

My favourite item had to the be the painting of an enthroned Queen Elizabeth I from a charter for Emmanuel College in 1584, which was crafted with amazing detail. All-in-all, the whole Matriculation Day was a very rare and profound learning experience, with a sense of deep self-reflection that I hadn’t expected.

By 7pm, we were told that the “official” Matriculation ceremony was about to begin! Under the instruction of Dr Jeremy Caddick, Dean and Chaplain of Emmanuel, we each took the college pen and put our signatures on the Cambridge Emmanuel College Book, one by one. It was a sacred and dignified moment. From then on, our names are forever connected to the history of Emmanuel College and the University of Cambridge.

The Master of Emmanuel College, Dame Fiona Reynolds, and other fellows including my tutor also joined us for the ceremony. There were five EMBA students in total and two PhD students who participated in this matriculation. Each of us gave the Master a short self-introduction, and she was amazed that every student she was admitting to the College came from a different nationality.

Officially joining the College!

After a warm hug with the Master, and a few toasts with champagne, we were invited to a Formal Hall dinner in Emmanuel’s Dining Hall, which had been renovated in the 1760s. This was the first time I would ever sit at High Table, wearing my Cambridge gown, with hundreds of Emmanuel students in the dining hall, all too dressed in black gowns.

During the dinner, Dr Caddick discussed the recent Financial Times report regarding Cambridge’s asset management with big oil and gas companies. It is a hot topic as Emmanuel is one of the richest colleges at the University of Cambridge, with over £150 million endowment. I also spoke with one of the PhD students, Jana Sipkova, who is doing biology research, and was told that the other PhD student in that day’s Matriculation was preparing for the famous Boat Race between Cambridge and Oxford.

The candlelight, long tables and gowned students in the Matriculation dinner reminded me of a scene from Harry Potter at Hogwarts. This experience would never be reflected in any ranking of an EMBA programme, but it was truly one of the best events of my life.

Our Dining Hall for the Formal Hall dinner

It was 9pm when the Matriculation dinner ended, and 12 hours since I had first met my tutor at the beginning of the Matriculation Day. I thought the day was coming to an end, but, once again, I was wrong. We were invited by the Master to have an after-dinner tea with in a beautiful exclusive room.

It was a great honour and privilege for me to have tea at the same table as Master Dame Fiona Reynolds, the first female master of Emmanuel and Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She is also the Non-Executive Director of the BBC and was Director of the Women’s Unit in the Cabinet Office. Sitting alongside the Master were two visiting professors of Anthropology from the University of Chicago. They came to Cambridge for a conference and were invited to join us. Suddenly, everyone’s attention focused on stories of these professors’ recent field trip and research in Egypt. They were also interested in the Chinese government’s latest intentions to preserve historical buildings, especially in Beijing and Xi’an. It was unbelievable that I was learning about Anthropology from two learned professors at the end of my Matriculation Day as a Cambridge EMBA student.

When I came back to my room, it was almost midnight. What a wonderful FULL Matriculation Day I had had!

Prior to becoming an EMBA student at Cambridge, I remember how I had kept asking myself again and again, “why Cambridge?”, and “why an Executive MBA?” Business is not just finance, accounting or marketing; it is about people and ideas. The magic of being a Cambridge EMBA student is that people not only belong to Cambridge Judge Business School, but also become deeply immersed in one of 31 Colleges of the University of Cambridge. The integration and cooperation between Cambridge Judge Business School and the University’s colleges have raised so many successful start-ups and future leaders, in both the business world and the public sector.

This could be the last Matriculation Day in my academic life, but it is just the start of my journey at Cambridge. Each time I struggle with a group project, a paper, exams or real-life challenges, I remind myself of some of the scenes during my Cambridge Matriculation Day, which gives me great power and spirit to keep going forward. It was a LONG Matriculation Day that overshadowed any other 15-minute welcoming speech that I was used to, but, when it comes to creating the most memorable events, life often needs a sense of ceremony, doesn’t it?

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