Outreach at Catz: Gemma’s story

Wednesday 9 December 2020

Growing up in a small village in Suffolk, Gemma Deacon (2020, History) developed a passion for history while studying for GCSEs and A Levels at Thomas Gainsborough School, her local secondary school and sixth form. While her path to studying history was clear, she was anything but certain about whether Cambridge was a realistic ambition:

“When I was younger, Cambridge figured in my life at two extremes: it was easily reachable as a nearby city in geographical terms, yet also a dream that seemed slightly out of reach academically. It was only once I achieved strong GCSE results that I started to think seriously about applying to Cambridge.”

Fortunately, Thomas Gainsborough School is among the state schools in Suffolk paired with St Catharine’s. (The approach of linking state schools with a specific college enables all the Cambridge colleges to work together to cover the different regions of the UK.) So, while the school didn’t have a track record of students securing places at Cambridge or Oxford, Gemma was able to discover the benefits of studying at St Catharine’s through the College’s regular communication with her school, including:

  • A school visit to Catz;
  • A regional event at Northgate High School (a Suffolk state school) for around 100 Year 12s, hosted by Dr David Bainbridge, one of our admissions tutors, and Kathryn Singleton, Schools Liaison Officer; and
  • A Catz History Taster Day.

Gemma’s introduction to the College, during the school visit, included a tour of the Island site with Catz Ambassadors (current undergraduates who volunteer their time to help), a talk about the Oxbridge admissions process, and a prospectus workshop that encouraged students to think about what they were looking for from a university.

Pictured: The College's Schools Liaison Officer offers advice on the application process to Gemma and her classmates.  

“The initial visit to Catz enabled me to find out for myself how centrally the College is located and what a friendly place it is. Kathryn Singleton and the other staff on the day clearly cared a lot about the College – coming from such a supportive school environment, this was particularly important for me. What convinced me that Catz was the right choice for me was the admissions data because the state school intake meant I was likely to be surrounded by other people from a similar background.”

Gemma remembers the College’s History Taster Day fondly: Fellows provided an in-depth explanation of how the College and University work, and a live demonstration of an interview with Dr Valentina Caldari and a current student, which provided valuable insights into this crucial stage of the application process. When the programme split up attendees into small groups to sample an hour-long mock supervision, Gemma was able to join a group discussion led by Dr Niamh Gallagher.

“Looking back, these outreach activities were pivotal and helped break down my misconceptions of Cambridge. Without them, I might still think of Cambridge as an almost mystical land that only a few people can access, rather than somewhere I could genuinely thrive. My early glimpses of the supportive culture at Catz turned out to be pretty accurate given the tutorial and welfare provision available to me now.”

Kenny Alexander, Director of Sixth Form at Thomas Gainsborough School, explains, “Our direct link to St Catharine's over the last five years has been a brilliant way of accessing everything my team, or our students, need to know. The opportunity to experience College life first hand, as well as interacting with current students, undoubtedly influenced Gemma's Cambridge journey. Gemma’s legacy is that other Thomas Gainsborough School students now feel that they can aspire to Cambridge, knowing that she is studying at St Catharine’s.”

Pictured: Gemma at Matriculation in October 2020, when she was formally admitted to the College.  

Advice from Gemma for applicants

Now in her first year at Catz, Gemma has kindly offered advice for anyone thinking about applying:

  • “Don’t underestimate yourself! Given my background, I never thought it was something I could achieve.”
  • “Starting the application process can make it seem more achievable and enjoyable. It was unexpectedly fun to read the historical sources and prepare for tests and interviews, and this reassured me that my academic interests were a good fit for life at Catz.”
  • “Do things early and be organised. The UCAS deadline in October means you’ll need to make an early start on the application process and get to grips with all the forms that you are sent.”
  • “I found opportunities to speak with students, staff and Fellows really helpful so look out for details of online sessions organised by the College.”

If you thinking about applying, please reach out and contact the College’s admissions team with any questions or concerns. We are always happy to hear from applicants and provide advice.

  • Megan Walsh, Undergraduate Admissions Administrator ( – For specific questions about an application to Cambridge (A Level combinations, grade requirements, application paperwork or processes)
  • Kathryn Singleton, Schools Liaison Officer ( – For general advice on preparing to make an Oxbridge application (advice on exploring an academic subject beyond the school curriculum; advice for parents, guardians, and teachers; insights from current St Catharine’s students about life at Cambridge)

Find out more about applying to study undergraduate courses at St Catharine's.

Find out about our outreach activities.