Helen Bettinson, left, with friends on her graduation

'The personality of an institution can endure through the generations'

Helen Bettinson (History 1982) was an undergraduate at Fitzwilliam and returned to the College to work in the Development office, serving as Development Director until 2016.

What was your first experience of Fitzwilliam?

My first knowledge of Fitz was coming here in 1981 to visit a girl (Sarah King) who had been at my school. There were three girls from Peterborough who had come to Fitzwilliam, two in ’79 (one of whom was Judith Bunting), one in ‘80. I went to the Peterborough County School for Girls, a former grammar turned comprehensive that didn’t traditionally send girls to Oxford and Cambridge, so it was a big deal. I saw that it was possible for girls with my background to come to Cambridge, so I decided to apply after my A-Levels. I was lucky – I didn’t have to do the entrance exam. I remember coming for my interview. Because I already had my A-Level results, I was told 15 minutes after my interview that I had a place. It was amazing. Then I had the rest of the year off and went travelling.

When I arrived at Fitz, I’d had a gap year. I was nervous, but I felt quite grown up because I’d been round the Middle East on my own. Most of the male colleges had gone mixed by then, but they still seemed intimidating for a state school educated girl. I’d been to a girls’ school, so I was determined not to go to a girls’ college! Fitz was perfect: it was welcoming and accessible. Even though only a third of the intake was female, it felt more like 50-50. And I think it is because they probably set out to take girls who were outgoing and able to cope in that environment. I was the first person in my family to go to university and I was very happy here, very challenged intellectually. Still, all these years on, some of my closest friends are people that I met here at Fitz. 

What brought you back to Fitzwilliam in the Development Office?

There was a period of about 10, 15 years where I didn’t have much to do with College. The reason I got pulled back into the orbit was because of Robert Lethbridge, who had been Senior Tutor when I was Junior President. Robert was really good at staying in touch with his MML students, one of whom (Sara Humphrey) was a friend of mine, living abroad. She was staying with me and we decided we’d come in for dinner. Robert was Master at this time. I’d recently moved to Cambridge and been applying for jobs, and Robert was my referee. I wasn’t getting anywhere with these applications and he said ‘come and see me tomorrow’. The next day he talked me into joining the Development Office. I worked with Iain Reid. We really hit it off and laughed about Fitz historians ending up back at Fitz. 

What were the similarities and differences in coming back?

Physically it was very different. There were some of the same Fellows here, people like John Cleaver, David Scott, and my Director of Studies in History, David Thompson. That was odd, thinking I’d gone away and had a life elsewhere, whilst these people had been here all the time. It took a while to be able to call David Thompson David. He was always Dr Thompson and then Professor Thompson. The other person I recognised immediately and hadn’t changed at all was Michael (Page), who works in the Buttery. He and I had started in the same year and it was nice to see the continuity of staff. Fitzwilliam hadn’t been a college very long when I was a student and there was still a bit of a chip on our shoulder about being perceived as the ‘not very academic college on the hill’, but that’s so different now. It’s great to see that Fitz is a big, vibrant, mainstream college. But in most ways Fitz felt the same as when I’d left in 1985. Getting to know alumni who were at Fitzwilliam House, as well as those who came to the College in later decades, it’s clear that the friendliness of the place is the key. And I think it’s extraordinary how the personality of an institution can endure through the generations.

With the benefit of hindsight, what advice would you give to the 18-year-old girl applying to Fitzwilliam?

Never take anything for granted, but be brave, be confident. Go for it. Choosing to apply to Fitz was the pivotal decision of my life. On the one hand you know that you’re lucky to get in, but on the other hand, you wouldn’t get in if you weren’t up to the challenge. It’s that balance of gratitude and luck, and acknowledging that you’re here because you have it in you to be here.