New Challenges – I

New Challenges – My Study Weekend

Coming to terms with a real possibility of defeat is a challenge to everyone. My study weekend during school half term is a case in point. It has also been a sharp reminder of just how pursuing my PhD whilst holding down a full-time teaching job is and will be full of predictable challenges and unforeseen hurdles. It will be a constant test of physical as well as mental stamina, even more so than my first PhD when I was a full-time student.


On arrival at Clare in the afternoon, I found two messages on my mobile phone. One of which was from my loan lender. I phoned them back straightaway before even picking up my room key. My worst fear was delivered – despite constant reassurance, I was told that the loan was not available. Four weeks after my course had started, this was a devastating blow. Not only had I reintegrated back into the complex labyrinth of the university system, the preparation of my research was also underway. Suddenly, everything could all grind to an abrupt halt. Apart from registering my displeasure with the lending bank, there was nothing I could do to change their decision.

Instead of a visit to the University Library, I spent the afternoon informing my supervisor, close friends, research colleagues and my tutors at Clare of the bad news. It was comforting in an emergency circumstance like this that I could go to see and talk to people for help and advice. Admittedly, it was also hard to suppress the emotions and to concentrate on moving forward. However optimistic I tried to remain, a dark cloud was gathering overhead and overshadowed everything. The worst feeling was the sense of hollowness of every endeavour that I made towards my work. It seemed that my actions had lost all purpose. Ironically, returning after my MEd, I felt that I was making a much better job second time around. Still, I had a full plan for the next three days.

The MCR was the perfect place to meet fellow graduates and make new friends. I needed a friendly face and there were always some most fantastically warm and effervescent individuals willing to chat to. And there were several of them this afternoon who were interested in getting involved in the annual telephone campaign to alumni to fund-raise. With free Prosecco on offer, the spirit would definitely be buoyant. Very quickly, I struck up a friendship with a second-year PhD student in engineering. We were interested in the two talks this evening and decided to have dinner at the Buttery first where we were joined by a couple of other friends.

The two talks were entitled ‘Hindu-Christian theology in the context of East-West encounters’, and ‘Abrupt climate change in the Quaternary record of northwest Greece’. The MCR was filled with other graduates. Free pizzas were passed round and we helped ourselves with free drinks and bread sticks at the bar. Even without the trapped haze and thick tobacco aroma, the studious atmosphere was unmistakable. The styles of the two speakers could not be more contrasting. The theologian was thoughtful whereas the geographer was a self-confessed flippant. But don’t be fooled by quiet demeanour or humorous flippancy. Both talks were fine examples of solid scholarship and the questions from the audience were equally searching. In a room full of fake cobwebs, plastic spiders and carved pumpkins for Halloween, we discussed, drank wine and made new friends – I was more determined to turn my crisis into fresh impetus to carry on with my research.

The light in the College Library shone like a beacon of a lighthouse and I had a busy day ahead….


The last time I was in a boat was possibly when I was rowing a leisure boat with a group of school friends back in Taiwan. I had always wanted to try rowing and I signed up as a novice to join the College boat club. I had my first outing this morning at 7:00. I remembered those clips from the Boat Race and the Olympics how gruelling the training was and how it started before sunrise even in the depth of winter. I was out of bed at 5:30 and by 6:30 I was pedalling towards the boat house through the deserted streets of Cambridge in the dark. It was cold.

After some warm up on the ergs, it’s time to get the boat out. Every stage of the preparation required our full attention not just to lift the boat off the rack safely and move it out of the boat house and unto the river undamaged, discipline also kept all of us safe as a team. It felt like being back in the army, minus the drill sergeant. As a complete novice, I had to pick up not just the techniques but also the rowing terminology. On the river with seven other teammates and a cox, no one wanted to look like a fool. Very quickly, we were tested both physically and mentally to row as a team, learning how to respond promptly and correctly to each command from the cox and the instructions by the coaches on their bikes on the river bank. On a couple of occasions, I actually thought that our boat was about to tip over and we were going to end up in the freezing river Cam. The guy in the bow had a tough time as we kept rowing towards the bow side of the river bank, nearly hitting the moored narrow boats several times and having to disentangle us from the weeping willows. In bow 2, I rowed on the stroke side and was focusing on keeping my back straight and trying to keep up with the guy in bow four who was a more experienced rower. Meanwhile, bow 3 was shivering violently in his thin, green football top. At around 8, the river was teeming with boats from other Colleges. Not exactly mayhem, but we did have several near misses when the blades narrowly missed other rowers’ heads or the long necks of the swans! Surprisingly, despite the congestion, the atmosphere on the river was eerily serene, perhaps it was because most of us were all new rowers and too focused on getting our techniques right.

When we did get our rhythm right, the exhilaration was immense. The wind rushed past and the boat cut through the water like a quick blade through jelly with each grunt of the stroke. The sun rose above the tree tops through the low mist on golden shimmering grass. The river bank came alive with morning joggers, cyclists and dog walkers. Some early-rising tourists stopped and took photographs of the spectacle. By the time we turned the boat round, the river was all clear. Most boats had finished training and those guys with 9 o’clock lectures were getting anxious that they might be late or miss them. The boat felt distinctly heavier over our heads when we lifted it out of the river and manoeuvred it back into the boat house.

Proud? Definitely. I completed my challenge and was reasonably pleased with my maiden voyage as a complete novice. I wanted to get back on the river again. I learned that rowing was a team sport. There was no room for heroics or ego. All must row as one, breath as one and get to the finishing line as one.


About W. S. Lien

Tweed Wearer - Country Lover - Teacher Researching Professionalism and Identity@Clare College, Cambridge - Keen Amateur Photographer - Devotee to Poppy my Labrador
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