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Institute of Continuing Education (ICE)


The International Summer Programmes centenary: 100 years of cultural exchange at Cambridge

“The course for foreigners naturally produced problems of exceptional delicacy and interest[...] but the summer courses emerged from the ordeal triumphantly thanks to the common sense and desire for goodwill which was manifested throughout by everyone. If the nations of Europe could display and practice the sweet reasonableness that has characterised their individual representatives at Cambridge[...], international problems would stand a fairer chance of amicable solution. ”

That student review of the ‘Vacation Courses for Foreign Students’, as they were called at the time, comes from 1925, but the sentiment is just as familiar to the feedback from our students today.

Small numbers of international students had been making their way to Cambridge ever since the 1890s to participate in the ‘Summer Meeting’, which offered lectures in History, Literature and Science. The success of the Summer Meeting led to the Vacation Courses, which became a regular, popular gathering from 1923, initially welcoming students from 19 countries.

Today, the ISP truly is a global affair, with up to 1,000 individuals from as many as 70 different countries congregating in the city across four weeks to learn more about subjects that inspire them.

An opportunity to find your passion

Sarah Ormrod is no stranger to the yearly event, having joined ICE in 1987 and become the Director of the programme in 1995. Despite that long association, it’s clear that Sarah still gets a buzz from the annual arrival of students every July: “It’s different every year – different courses, different speakers. We discover wonderful teachers and have lots of new and returning students. I get to know some people quite well from conversations during their two-week stay, especially when they keep coming back for 10, even 20 or more, years.

“I’ve got a fantastic team and they commit an enormous amount of hard work all year round, but at the end of the programme, we get to hear what it meant to the students. We watch people with intensive careers or challenging care responsibilities being able to experience the sheer pleasure of studying something they love, whether it’s Shakespeare, astronomy, philosophy or creative writing. Or students write to tell you about how the course they did 15 years ago opened doors for them. That keeps you energised.”

A flourishing community of multicultural experiences

As that student review from 1925 highlights, one of the strongest elements of the ISP is the cultural exchange it facilitates, which, Sarah believes, greatly enhances the quality of the learning insight for students. “It’s a safe way to meet the world in a place where the atmosphere is open and respectful of others’ perspectives,” she says. “We encourage people to contribute their own views and learn from one another. When people listen to each other and set their own points in context, it can really open minds.”

And because International Summer Programme courses attract learners of all ages and backgrounds, that diversity of exposure is a boon for everyone in the room, adds Sarah. “One of my particular joys is seeing the multiple nationalities and ages in each course. We get students who are 18 sitting alongside those who are 80 or more, and that may be a surprise to them both on the first morning. But once the session starts, those different experiences bring a great vibrancy to the classroom. Our teachers are skilled at encouraging them all to talk to one another and, even more importantly, to listen.”

Something for everyone and friendships that last

This year’s ISP runs from July 9th to August 5th and covers subjects across the fields of Business; Global Challenges; History; Literature, Philosophy; Visual Arts and Science, with students able to combine courses that pique their interest. Each course is capped at 25 participants and lasts one or two weeks, with students selecting morning and afternoon sessions from Monday to Friday.

Courses are complemented by a wide-ranging series of daily plenary lectures exploring new ideas, as well as additional evening talks and events. And with the option to stay in a beautiful Cambridge College – including breakfast and evening meals – and time to explore the city or meet up with fellow students, the ISP is a great place to forge lasting friendships, too.

“Behind the scenes, people keep in touch around the world, sometimes even going to visit one another,” observes Sarah. “You see those who are already great friends from previous summers catch each other’s eye as they walk through the door on the first day, share big hugs and catch up. You feed off that positivity.”

To find out more about the International Summer Programme at ICE click here

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