You’re a fresher, but you’ve already been to university. You know how higher education works, but Oxford is a law unto itself. You and your peers account for about half of the University’s student population, but the spotlight isn’t really on you. Yup, like me, you’re a first year postgraduate, embarking on a second foray into university life. Perhaps you’re desperate to put off the real world a little bit longer, maybe your three or four years as an undergraduate didn’t quite quench your thirst for the student lifestyle, or perhaps you just can’t get enough of your subject. Whatever the reason, you’ve arrived in Oxford, feeling grown-up and seasoned like the existing postgraduates, yet at the same time trepidatious and uncertain like all the fresh- faced eighteen year olds unloading their lives onto the curtilage outside colleges across the city.
To be a postgraduate fresher is to be in an odd situation. We’re students, but often only for a year; we’re freshers with degrees; we’ve already experienced three or four years of higher education elsewhere, and have come back for more. It’s an interesting position from which to sit back and compare ‘normal’ university life to university life, Oxford style.
So how does it compare? Well, at my previous university, a left-wing 1960s institution, once you’d understood the difference between lectures, seminars and tutorials you had all the tools you needed to begin your university career. Upon registration at Oxford, I am presented with a vocabulary list. Little did I know, Oxford has its own language (and it’s not Latin!). Before I begin to tackle my reading list, I’ve to get to grips with the distinction between the Bod and the Rad Cam, the deans, the provosts and the proctors, and the all important difference between a bop and a ball. While I’m worrying about whether I’m accidentally going to park my battels on the curtilage, or trip up over the pronunciation of sub-fusc, I’m simultaneously trying to commit the order of Michaelmas, Hilary and Trinity to memory. I heave a sigh of relief when a panicked Google search reassures me I don’t need to know what mods, prelims and collections are. Life as a postgraduate is beginning to look increasingly attractive. I quickly learn that, no sooner have I hung up the cap and gown from my summer graduation ceremony, I’m excepted to don another gown for the scary-sounding Matriculation, which brings with its own mystifying set of terms to be memorised (and I’m still not quite sure what I’m supposed to do with the mortarboard).
Friends from my previous university are highly amused when I inform them that the gown donning does not end there. They picture me in a Batman-style cape as I sit down to dinner every night, and gape when I tell them that instead of pulling on jeans and rolling out of bed to line up outside the gym as we did for our Finals, sub-fusc and a flower is obligatory garb for Oxford students sitting papers in the dreaded Exam Schools. My friends trot out the obligatory comparisons to Harry Potter when I describe Formal Hall. I tell them not to be so crude as to reduce thousands of years of history and tradition to a twenty-first century juvenile novel, yet find I can’t resist the comparison myself when I first catch a glimpse of my college’s wood-panelled dining-hall, long benches stretching down to High Table. No more baked beans on toast or pasta with tomato sauce from a jar rustled up in a grubby student kitchen; here, postgraduates have to adapt to meals taken in the neo-gothic hall, paintings of solemn benefactors gazing down as grace is sung in Latin. This Hogwartian institution even has its own equivalent of He Who Shall Not Be Named: the Other Place, which shall not be named in this article, because you all know exactly what I’m talking about.
As I thread my way through the city’s ancient streets, I keep hallucinating I’ve seen Sebastian toting his teddy bear or young wizards in flowing robes. It seems a complete collection of clichés associated with Oxford have been firmly imprinted on my mind. The initial experience of a postgraduate fresher at Oxford does not cease to be surreal. A last-minute flick through the postgraduate prospectus before going up, and my eye is drawn to the list of colleges and their attendant descriptions. ‘All Souls’, the prospectus reads, is special among Oxford colleges because it admits neither graduates nor undergraduates. Apparently it’s self-explanatory, for the description ends there. Who, or what, are they, these souls who make up this mysterious college? Ghosts? Monks? Some sort of secret society? And what’s this I’ve heard about a silver Marmite lid? Just another example of the uncertainties encountered when making the transition from ordinary undergraduate to Oxford student.
Initial impressions of this surreal adventure on which I am about to embark are coupled with feelings of apprehension. I am daunted about walking in the footsteps of such illustrious alumni, about treading Oxford’s hallowed hallways and meandering through the city of dreaming spires on my way to a lecture delivered by a world-renowned academic. I wonder what on earth I can write in an essay or my thesis which will possibly impress somebody who lectures at Oxford. I ask myself whether originally hailing from a state comprehensive in Essex (it’s not as bad as it sounds!) means I just won’t fit in. I may be joining the ranks of the grown- up graduate students, but I’m still a small fish in a big, erudite pond.
In the weeks leading up to my arrival, I continue to discover the University’s quirks that Oxford undergraduates may take for granted, but which for me, having had somewhere to compare my Oxford experience to, seem quaint, arcane, baffling or just plain bizarre. For example, my college is considered fairly modern by Oxford standards but is almost a century older than my alma mater (The Latin’s coming along!) I am amused to learn that Magdalen College has its own herd of deer, and marvel at the fact that some colleges are still solely inhabited by monks. I am particularly excited to learn that some colleges have their own wood-panelled wine cellars; it’s certainly one step up from the sticky collection of half-finished bottles of spirits decorating the kitchen counters of other student residences up and down the land … although I am under no illusions that Oxford students don’t also have their own fair share of vodka bottles! I can only imagine how bewildering the whole adventure must be for the international postgraduates with little previous experience of British life, let alone Oxford University life. This is eccentric English tradition at its best. Never has the phrase ‘weird and wonderful’ been more apt.
No doubt I’m extremely biased, but I can’t see there is any better place to be a postgraduate than Oxford. Being at a collegiate university means there’s a ready-made graduate community, set up and waiting to meet me before I even arrive. Welcoming and reassuring, it’s a warm contrast to the stories of postgraduate friends in London, left very much to their own devices, existing as a separate entity on the fringes of their University’s student body. I’m struck by how involved a postgraduate can become in college societies and University life. I’ve only just come up and I’ve already packed my diary with things to do, see and sign up to. Somehow, somewhere, in the midst of socialising, volunteering, society-attending, article-writing and theatre-going, I must find time to squeeze in a degree. In a heady state, almost drunk with excitement at the thought of being able to plonk myself down and listen to any lecture in any subject (because I am just that cool), I have booked, double-booked and re-booked myself, filling my timetable with society meetings, social events and lectures that are not even my own.
Perhaps the very best thing about upgrading to Oxford is the chance to be surrounded by like-minded geeks. I only wish I was studying here for three whole years, rather than just one. The DPhil beckons.