Flickering candlelight casts strange shadows along the walls. The accumulated mumble of voices is silenced by the piercing sound of a gong, followed by an immediate eerie quietness. Everyone rises from their seats, gowns billowing. A mesmerizing Latin chant reverberates throughout the medieval hall.
This wasn’t a strange dream, but part of my real-life journey as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, the world’s fourth-oldest university. As an undergrad in Canada, I would meet up with colleagues over a casual pint at the campus pub, but in Cambridge, socializing takes place in a more formal and structured setting.
The most frequent communal activity that has persisted since the university’s founding is the “formal hall.” This elaborate custom involves the donning of formal attire and gown and partaking in a three-course meal served in ancient dining halls.
Participating in these formals teaches numerous important skills. Firstly, they bring people out of their academic silos and facilitate interactions between disciplines. One evening, I conversed with a gentleman who directed a pharmaceutical company. He was interested in learning about Canada’s Constitution, and afterward he spoke about the clinical trials his company was conducting.