I’ve been back in Blackpool for just over a week now, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the experience was incredibly surreal. Oxford feels like a dream I had, one of those all encompassing ones that outstays your waking and hangs, like a half imagined memory, until eventually your senses come to. And yet, as I write this waiting for the dream to reveal its illusion, I find it won’t happen. I’ve spent a term in that fantasy land, and every second was real.
In the time since getting back from Oxford, I’ve been overwhelmed by questions from grandparents, friends, parents’ colleagues and even a few Oxbridge applicants from my old Sixth Form. What’s Oxford like? Was it what you expected? Have you enjoyed yourself? I’m running out of ways to say, ‘It’s fantastic!’
And yet all of this opportunity for reflection has led to a fair amount of pondering and consideration. To assume every moment was wonderful would, of course, be folly- nothing is perfect. And yet, on the most part, it has been fantastic. Why? Was it fantastic for the reasons I expected? (Spoiler: Not quite.) And were my expectations at the beginning of term similar to my expectations at the end? To answer these questions, I’m indulging myself with this blog post. I hope you find it interesting.
Disclaimer: As ever, my experiences are specific to myself, my choices, and my study of Ancient and Modern History at Merton. Other students at other colleges studying other subjects, and making other decisions, may have very different experiences. So please, when I get excited about poetry, don’t let that put you off.
Oxford Is Amazing!
The University of Oxford is composed of colleges, but what exactly are colleges? I’d be tempted to argue they’re a subset of the university which is self-governing (as this is the description that makes Merton the oldest- take that Univ and Balliol!), but I think perhaps more usefully we can consider them as communities. Merton College, my home from home, is a beautiful space with stunning gardens, incredible food (more on this later) and a wonderful chapel/choir. But what has made it so incredibly inviting is the community, and the people that make the community up.
I was incredibly worried about making friends at university- at home I have a very tight knit bunch, because the amount of people I share much in common with is exceedingly small. And yet, on arrival at Merton, I found that I got on really well with almost everyone I spoke to. I suppose it makes sense- to narrow it down to History and History-adjacent subjects, 1997 people applied to Oxford. Only 389 were offered places. Only 11 actually ended up at Merton. In order for us to end up together, a lot of similar life choices and decisions must have been made. But it was more than that. The people I’ve met and befriended seem to genuinely ‘get’ me; they’ve inspired my enthusiasm, encouraged my interests and made Merton feel like home. It’s been one of the absolute highlights of my first nine weeks to forge such intense and genuine friendships so quickly.
(Eight of them also agreed to play Dungeons and Dragons for the first time without any hesitation when I asked if they’d be interested. When even mentioning you play is an action only taken at the risk of social ostracisation, do you realise how amazing that is?)
Of course, the thing you come to Oxford for (or, at least, I’d certainly hope it’s what you’ve come to Oxford for) is the academia and good golly is it fantastic! As well as having a vibrant and engaging community of fellow students to learn from (and trust me, I’ve been taking every opportunity to learn from my amazingly knowledgeable peers), you also have access to some of the most incredible minds in the country, if not the world. I had a reading list a few weeks ago for Ancient History where my tutor was cited, as was the gentleman who’d given us an induction talk to the Faculty. One of the other writers was an honorary Fellow of Merton (and was planning to visit the week after), and another had been the tutor of my tutor, when he’d been an ungrad. To be able to bridge the gap between page and person is an incredibly electric sensation, and also a huge privilege. I really can’t stress how fortunate I feel to be able to interact with such inspiring and amazing people. Even nine weeks in, I feel that they’ve truly expanded the way I see the world.
As wonderful as all the Fellows and tutors are, the major resource I dip into at Oxford are the libraries and these deserve a little bit of praise all on their own. Oxford has 104 libraries- ONE HUNDRED AND FOUR. Back in Blackpool, there are five libraries within a two mile radius of my house. In Oxford, there are at least 9 libraries within a 0.2 mile radius of my room. The provision is absolutely stunning and it means that in nine weeks, I’ve only been unable to get two books- and that includes very obscure anthropological texts on the Cantonese Opera. (If you’re wondering, it’s surprisingly interesting.) The libraries also all have the amazing benefit of being utterly beautiful. I mean, is this not heaven?
As a final note, the food is phenomenal. No wonder the Hobbits eat so many meals when Tolkien was writing them at the same time as eating Merton’s delicacies.
Oxford Isn’t Entirely Perfect
One of the things I love about Oxford is how much of a bubble it is. You become cut off from the rest of the world, trapped within a land of poetry and Oxford vernacular (anyone fancy the bop at the pav in 4th week of Hilary?) and very different social cues. Now, as I spoke about in my earlier post on an anthropological perspective on first week, this is useful- it initiates everyone into the world of Oxford University very quickly. You forge a new community based on the requirements of this new space, so even if you’re talking with someone from an entirely different world to your own, you’re both functioning as equals within this new world. The danger, however, is that it’s very easy to forget that Oxford isn’t the entire world, to end up floating away amongst the Dreaming Spires. Keeping grounded is difficult- indeed, it’s something I’ve struggled with and, on occasion, resented having to do- but it is utterly essential in order to not just remain humble, but also to remember who you are.
I think it would be enough to say that there is an incredibly small (one or two people at maximum in my experience) who don’t realise this need.
Now a big thing I think that occurs when you go to Oxford from a state school is the question of class tension. There’s a perception amongst some that Oxford is filled with snobbish Etonians (i.e. our current Prime Minister, if you can bear to think about him) and that people from a working class background will be singled out, made to feel unwelcome. This is certainly not my experience- in my main friendship group of six, for example, there’s an even split between private school and state school students. College wide, whilst I will admit that there is certainly a skewering towards high middle class students, certainly there are efforts to be inclusive- the first meeting of the Junior Common Room committee at Merton this year saw the creation of a Social Backgrounds rep to ensure representation. (Similar roles exist for both BAME and LGBTQ+ representation)
That said, there are certain areas which could be improved, usually things that feel like they just haven’t been updated from the archaic past, rather than having been devised to discriminate. Sub-fusc, for example, has been argued to favour men (this is a fascinating article on the matter: https://www.oxfordstudent.com/2015/05/20/sub-fusc-a-feminist-perspective/). The most obvious consideration to affect me are arrival dates. The first week of each term begins on a Sunday, but arrival isn’t expected until the Thursday. As my parents can’t take the time off work to drop me on a Thursday, they will instead take me down on the Sunday, requiring me to pay extra. Of course, if I lived in Oxfordshire/London/the South, it wouldn’t be as much of an issue. I could be dropped off one day after their work has finished, saving both money and a day of their lives. The cruellest irony is, of course, that the North-South divide means on average those living in a closer proximity to Oxford wouldn’t be as affected by the extra cost.
Now, this is a very specific example, but I think it speaks to the only institutional negative of Oxford that I personally have experienced. I stress the word personally because I realise that I’m incredibly privileged compared to a lot of potential students- being white, straight, male and, although hailing from a working class part of the North and thus not as advantaged as other students, not nearly as economically disadvantaged as many students may be. Although I haven’t personally experienced other problems, I don’t doubt that there are many other problems afflicting Oxford (for example, the only minority group that seems accurately represented in Merton’s 96 person year group is that 2% of the cohort is ginger) but I do believe forward movement is being made.
Imperfections aside- and they must be considered inevitable in any organisation which was founded by a member of the Catholic Church over seven hundred years ago- Merton has been a genuinely wonderful place to live the last two months, and the wider expanse of Oxford utterly lovely. I’ve met amazing people, I’ve learnt incredible things, and perhaps most importantly I’ve seen my gaze of the world expanded- it’s now fun to take that widened perspective and apply it to the world back in Blackpool.
If you’re someone who has just undergone the interviews, or who is considering applying in the year to come, I would wholeheartedly recommend Oxford, and Merton particularly. Not only is this an incredible academic community that will challenge and complement you, it’s also a community that desperately needs you. If we are to overcome the imperfections of the university, then we need a wider range of perspectives, life stories, ideas and suggestions to achieve it. In that respect- like many, many others- you will be incredibly welcome.