Two generations from the same family have chosen to pursue postgraduate courses at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge (fondly known as Catz) and enjoyed similar experiences at the College two decades apart. We recently had the opportunity to interview alumna Amanda Lo (MBA 2001) and her nephew William Lan (a Medical Sciences MPhil student specialising in psychiatry) to find out why they both came to Cambridge and how their time at St Catharine’s compares. 

What was your academic journey before Cambridge?

Amanda: “I began my university studies at New York University, before majoring in Economics at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). After graduation, I worked at a construction business while I applied for leading MBA programmes. I felt this postgraduate qualification was an important step for me to become a businesswoman. I applied to the Cambridge Judge Business School when its MBA programme was just 10 years old, as it already had a great reputation. I flew to the UK when I was called to interview by Cambridge and Oxford, and fell in love with Cambridge instantly. The rest, as they say, is history!”

William: “I also graduated from UCLA! I studied microbiology, immunology, and molecular genetics as an undergraduate. Like my aunt, I then paused my studies to gain valuable work experience. I worked as a registered behavioural technician for children diagnosed with autism, and also as a crisis counsellor at a suicide prevention centre in California. My passion for mental health advocacy led me to want to pursue academic research in the psychiatric field, and Amanda told me about the 1-year MPhil programmes offered by UK universities, which are not common in the USA. She also suggested that I take a look at Cambridge because of her positive experiences. The MPhil in Medical Sciences programme (with a focus on psychiatry) seemed a great fit with the added advantage of being based at a prestigious academic community in a city known for being the centre of life science innovation.”

Amanda: “I was happy when William decided to study abroad as I thought this would give him access to new experiences and broaden his horizons. I enthusiastically recommended Cambridge, as we both thrive in academically stimulating environments with diverse student bodies. Our discussions revealed that Cambridge fosters a more seamless integration among students from various backgrounds compared to UCLA. When I was at Cambridge Judge, it was pretty common to be part of an MBA project group where the other students were each from a different country. Globalisation was a hot topic in the 2000s and I was eager to learn from other cultures when I applied. Even though I’d previously lived in New York, I’d never lived somewhere that felt so vibrant to me as Cambridge.”

Why did you choose St Catharine’s when selecting a Cambridge College?

Amanda: “I met a Catz student from Denmark during a welcome event hosted by the Business School when I was visiting for my in-person interview. He immediately introduced me to a whole group from Catz, which gave me the impression early on that Catz was a very friendly place. First impressions count and this one turned out to be very accurate.”

William: “I was drawn to Catz primarily due to my aunt’s fond memories of her time here, which she often shared with me during my upbringing. Additionally, Catz’s reputation for fostering a close-knit community, its smaller size, and the unique opportunities it offers resonated with my personal preferences and academic goals.”

Are there any coincidences from your time at St Catharine’s?

William: “We both ended up living at the Russell Street accommodation for Catz postgraduates. At one point, my room was very close to where Amanda’s was twenty years earlier. It was nice to share a similar perspective of the surroundings despite the 20-year difference.”

Amanda: “Just like William, I love the compactness of Cambridge, a city where everything is conveniently close. Our accommodation at the Russell Street site boasts a fantastic location. My room, situated on the second floor overlooking the street, became a gathering spot for friends. They would playfully call up to my window whenever they passed by on their way to or from the train station.”

Do you share any extracurricular interests?

William: “I believe this might be one of the few areas where our experiences differ. I’m involved with the University’s novice fencing team and have been elected to the Middle Combination Room (MCR) Committee as the Postgraduate Welfare Officer at Catz. Being awarded a scholarship to participate in the Heidelberg exchange programme offered by Catz has also been a highlight that I will cherish – a chance to delve into the German language and connect with another culture.”

Amanda: “The Cambridge MBA programme was very active. We had a packed schedule of events which left us with little spare time. However, I managed to go to one or two classes organised by the ballroom dance club each week. I was a big fan of Formal Halls and I’m glad to hear that Catz is preserving these traditions.”

William: “You can’t find Cambridge traditions like formals or punting anywhere in the United States so I’ve definitely been trying to make the most of them.”

How does the sense of community at Catz compare then and now?

William: “Similar to Amanda, I’ve made new friendships with other students from completely different backgrounds at Catz. I can confirm that what Amanda said about diversity is true. I found it far harder to form this sort of friendship circle back at UCLA, where there was less mixing between different groups.”

Amanda: “I knew all my neighbours at Russell Street and cherish the memories of us gathering in kitchens, which became the heart of our lives: from celebrating Chinese New Year to playing board games around the kitchen table. Being quite introverted, it was necessity alone that compelled me to step out of my comfort zone and engage with new people. Reflecting now, I realise how the College environment transformed me, making me more confident and outgoing – Catz truly shaped who I am! I am concerned that some international students today may overlook the importance of forging new friendships in-person, potentially missing out on the full immersion of the Cambridge experience.”

William: “Over the past twenty years since my aunt’s time here, the growth in digital technology has significantly impacted how international students interact and communicate with their friends and families back home. While certain traditions endure, such as formal dinners and other cultural events, the use of platforms like Zoom and social media has transformed the way we connect and engage with one another. As a result, the MCR at Catz is even more important as a champion of in-person events that force us out of our normal routines. These range from barbeques in the Russell Street Garden to swinging each other around in the McGrath Centre at the Burns Night ceilidh. Nevertheless, the essence of community and the balance between tradition and innovation remain integral to our Catz experiences.”

Amanda: “In the space of only one year at Catz, I made so many lifelong friends – some of whom I still visit 20 years after leaving Catz and Cambridge Judge Business School. I encourage today’s students to prioritise these meaningful connections. As I often remind William, seize every opportunity in Cambridge, as the experience will resonate with you for a lifetime.”

Thank you to St Catharine’s College, where this article was first published.  Visit their web pages here >

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