"Sport helps you connect and make the most of your time at Cambridge."

Medical student James Redlaff reflects on his journey to Cambridge, giving back, and the importance of sport and mental health.

Coming to Cambridge

I had never really thought about coming to Cambridge. Practically and pragmatically, I come from a single parent minimum income background. On my mum’s side of the family, no one's been to university. 

When GCSE results came in and I did well, people were saying, ‘oh, you must be thinking about Oxbridge.’ And I just let that pass because I didn't want to reveal that I didn't know what they were talking about. 

I knew I was going to go to university but the vernacular of ‘Oxbridge’ or ‘Russell group’ wasn’t something I was familiar with. I couldn’t believe that many students at Cambridge dreamt about going there since they were kids — I had only heard about it 6 months before applying. 

Great Court, Trinity College

Great Court, Trinity College

When I was in Lower Sixth, someone from Cambridge came to meet some of us who had the potential to apply. Even then I wasn't thinking too seriously about it. Oxbridge seemed other-worldly. Then I came down to Selwyn on an overnight residential and thought, ‘How great! Two days off school and what a fun little trip.’  

We had about three hours to explore the university, and one person in our group had heard of Trinity College, which we found eventually. I spoke to one of the porters and could tell very quickly from his accent that he was Polish, as is my family. We bonded on that point and he took us on a little tour all the way around Trinity. It was the best introduction I could've had to a college.

Loads of tourists crowded Great Gate in December, and then as soon as the door closed behind us, there was tranquillity. And I just thought this is incredible. One of the admissions tutors at my school later told me that Trinity is one of the most competitive colleges, and I might do well to apply to a different one. But for me, it was 0% versus 0% versus 0% chance at any of the 31 colleges, so I went for Trinity. 

As I saw it, applying to Cambridge was a wasted application. The only reason to do so was to avoid a ‘what if’ regret. 20 years down the line, I didn't want to think back and wonder, what if there was a slight chance? So my reason for applying was to get rejected, to have absolute certainty.

“When I got the offer, I was stunned to silence. I knew I was going to go for it.”

James Redlaff (back row, third from left) and members of the Cambridge University DanceSport team

James Redlaff (back row, third from left) and members of the Cambridge University DanceSport team

Taking up sport

Before coming to University, my family and I marked the occasion with a Mediterranean cruise which I had saved for from a part-time job. On the sea days, I went along to some Ballroom and Latin lessons, which I really enjoyed and wanted to continue doing at Cambridge. 

When I got to Cambridge, rowing was the big fashion, so I joined that and got really into it. But to row at the level I wanted, I would have had to give a lot more of my time and social life than I was willing, given how little would then be left for anything else but rowing! So in my second year, I went to tryouts and got involved with DanceSport. 

DanceSport was one of the most flexible societies available. It contributed incredibly positively to my overall experience.

I remember seeing a consultant in the scrub room doing a ronde chasse with his feet before entering the operating theatre. I asked him if he knew Ballroom and Latin, which he did. We got to chatting and did some extra supervisions, which weren't scheduled, so it was a really nice way to connect.

On top of that, there were enormous mental health benefits. Especially in second year, which is one of the most intense years of one’s medical career, having things to leave the house or library for has an immensely positively impact on your wellbeing. And when your mind is focused on getting the dance technique right, you don’t pay much attention to anything else floating around in your mind.    

Before Covid, I think we were national champions for 11 years, so we're currently the best team in the country. We have fantastic coaches, which makes it an absolute pleasure and honour to be able to dance for Cambridge. On the whole, the experience is liberating. It frees you up in many ways.

In a place where everyone ends up knowing everyone else, sport really helps you connect to the vast Cambridge community and make the most of your time here.

Mental health advocacy

As a sixth-year medical student, I’m interested in parts of psychiatry and might consider becoming a GP. Over the last two and a half years, I've set up a mental health society here at Cambridge called Headucate, which is part of an interconnected network of societies. We just got national charitable organisation status, and I'm one of the founding trustees. 

It’s a society that seeks to de-stigmatise and increase awareness of mental health in secondary schools for secondary school students. We train up university students who will then do workshops in schools across the nation, where we create a support network and mental health infrastructure as we have in our colleges with mental health officers. 

We have a group of more senior students who can then reproduce the workshop for the younger years. Research shows that it’s really important to establish interventions at young ages to prevent the onset of more serious mental health issues later on. I’m passionate about this project and excited to keep it going. 

Giving back to Trinity 

In my six years at Cambridge, I've worked on seven telethons for Trinity to fundraise for student support, such as bursaries and hardship funds.

In total, the alumni I’ve talked to have pledged more than £600,000 to the College during my time as a caller. The highlight was getting over £250,000 [in a single telephone campaign] — that means approximately 100 bursaries. That this has happened twice over is one of the things I’m most proud of during my time here.  

The bursaries absolutely saved my neck when it came to not having to worry about penny-pinching and making sure that I'm tied to a budget all the time.

I've been able to keep up with social events with friends and go on holiday as well. It’s given me a buffer to deal with spontaneous expenses here and there, and I don’t have to be racked with guilt or worry. 

A male student on a telephone call

James working as a student caller during Trinity's December 2021 telephone campaign

James working as a student caller during Trinity's December 2021 telephone campaign

I wasn't aware before doing the telethons that one of the things we’d be fundraising for was student support and the access schemes, both of which I wouldn't be here without. I’m always one of the first people to sign up to fundraise because I really enjoy the call room atmosphere and camaraderie.

I know it’s a cliché, but there’s a satisfaction in giving back. I don’t have any income yet to give back to Trinity myself, so for now, this is my way of helping the next generation of students.

To learn more about supporting Trinity College, please contact Bill O'Hearn, Director of Development: alumni@trin.cam.ac.uk

To learn more about supporting students across Cambridge, please contact Gordon Glick, Director of Development — University Strategic Initiatives: gordon.glick@admin.cam.ac.uk