Cherwell

Grad student: Oxford fails to accommodate perspectives it invites

A protester holds a sign aloft at the Oxford Love Rally on November 2, 2016.

One term into a graduate programme at Oxford, I don’t know if I’ll ever run out of green meadows to stumble upon or intellectual resources to explore. But Insta-perfect libraries and a #1 World Ranking mask too-little discussed truths about this place: the financial burden of a social life here is unacceptable. Colleges and departments are failing to accommodate the perspectives they invite in. Students are hurting, yet they have little way to voice it here.

In sustaining such exclusivity, Oxford is perpetuating the prejudices currently miring the UK, US, and beyond. It is time this entire campus community make a deliberate effort to recognise the quiet struggles of so many here, to reflect on how we can alleviate them, and to come to grips with what a failure to do so implies for our larger global community. It is time we force Oxford to change.

From the baptism into pub-ism and, for the first time, experiencing problems like having to choose between a lecture with a prime minister or a debate with parliamentarians, the first few weeks here were bliss. The Rad Cam, Port Meadow, the rivers, the little boats that live on them: you can’t dream this charm. But my fellow grad students—inspiring, excited and grateful to be here, insanely diverse—won, hands down.

hands down. Nothing gave me more optimism for the coming years than listing all the different countries from which I was meeting people. The genuineness I sensed in many. This is exactly why I came here. But as I came out of the post-Freshers’ fog and the rhythm of the place started to emerge, I began having doubts about whether that harmonious melting pot would hold up.

Three weeks in, the diversity of the crowd at college events had withered. At my building’s first fire drill, I realized I had never even seen half the people who lived there. I repeatedly heard about the glass wall existing here between East Asian students and everyone else—and I heard of no one doing anything about it. In class discussions, I watched intellectual challenges be taken as personal attacks. I sensed people holding their tongues.

And as I began talking about some of these observations with others, I realized I wasn’t alone in making them. I began wondering why.

In doing so, what initially struck me as fun tradition, confidence, or high expectations on the part of the University began to look a lot more like ignorance, insensitivity, and more than anything, a missed opportunity to create an inclusive, empathetic environment.

Most of this, it seemed, manifested in college.

Many college-sponsored freshers’ events involved alcohol. The cultural divisions may have cemented from the start.

A new acquaintance told me that, in her college housing, pyjamas were not to be worn in e common room. At a college-sponsored workshop on formal dress, a student asked whether he could wear his tuxedo in place of a black suit without a stripe on the pants, under his robes, as sub-fusc. He hoped to avoid purchasing another suit. “Well,” the administrator responded. “I suppose… but I’ve never seen that before.”

A student who showed up to my college’s photo without a jacket was subject to embarrassment, in front of dozens.

The assumptions this borderline aggressive attitude toward dress makes about a student’s financial situation have no borders at this university, which sits on a £4+ billion endowment. College dinners are expensive. “You can’t even enter the dining hall at lunchtime unless you buy your own,” a friend pointed out. “Even the mindfulness class my college is holding this term costs money!”

Said a student in my department, “You pay $26,000 just to get here. And then you have to pay for everything.” Nearly everyone in her course is attending the Trinity Ball, which costs £200. Pocket change. She’d rather go back and see her family in the US (and perhaps save some money in the process.)

Unfortunately, not even the classroom is exempt from callousness. A friend of mine, who speaks English as a second language, had asked his professor during a lecture if they wouldn’t mind defining complex terms as they went along. He was having a hard time following the logic without them doing so. The professor suggested a dictionary and continued.

A non-white political science grad student pointed out that nearly every text assigned in his course thus far was written by a white person. His professors, he says, have been unreceptive to his criticism of the syllabus and he has thus taken it upon himself to bring an alternative perspective to class discussions. When asked if he’d recommend the program to others, he’s on the fence. In any case, he would warn them about this.

In both cases, the dismissiveness is disturbing. Most concerning, though, is the lack of institutionalised space for voicing these hardships, let alone for working to anticipate and avoid them.

In contrast to the many of them in my undergrad institution’s orientation program, neither my college, my course, nor those of any other graduate students I’ve spoken with, held mandatory workshops aimed at cultural or socioeconomic diversity awareness for graduate students. (There were several well-publicised, optional events around gender diversity, and I commend that.)

From what I’ve observed, when diversity discussions have taken place, advertisements for them have been relegated to the depths of weekly bulletins or list-servs most don’t receive. Ads do not only get people to the talks. They reflect what the university believes is important. They indicate what Oxford thinks we should care about.

If colleges and departments are to foster meaningful growth and relationships, they need to accommodate all different backgrounds—ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic included. What I’ve so far seen as a graduate student suggests there remains much to be done.

Despite all of this, there have been some encouraging signs. In my meeting with my college’s new master—she’s taking the time to sit down and learn from all new students—I shared many of these concerns with her. She seemed both genuinely disappointed by much of it and determined to get to work.

In Seventh Week, she helped organise a black and minority ethnic (BME) student discussion (in which I took part), aimed at understanding these groups’ expectations coming in and how they held up to experiences so far. It was a good conversation involving students, masters from three colleges, and a diversity officer.

But whether the proceedings from this meeting will translate into action remains to be seen. Moreover, some feel skeptical, even marginalised, by this top-down, researchdriven model of change, to begin with.

Said one individual who took part in a BME discussion, “It is frustrating to see the administration using students of colors’ experiences as data, but not treating us as creative individuals with ideas for responding to our experiences. Students have been voicing their experiences and strategies through activism like Rhodes Must Fall, but the focus groups seem to try to bypass that.”

When I started writing this piece, I felt the need to qualify it. These critiques might be nitpicky. Maybe I haven’t been here long enough.

Maybe the perfection of so much of this place makes the trivialities stand out. But, in surveying others, that’s fallen away. These are not trivialities. One term in, it’s clear that Oxford can do better. And I believe it has to.

The year 2016 made its message loud and clear. Our world is as globalised as ever, but that mixing of people has little bearing on how diverse crowds get along with each other. And as enlightened as we might think ourselves to be in this respect, we, the Oxford community, may not be all that different. In these times, how Oxford chooses to address issues of community will be a reflection of how it morally situates itself relative to the rest of the world.

The other side of that humility is just as urgent. History has it that many future global aders—be them political, academic, artistic— will come from this place. Here, they will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to network, and they will learn lessons about respect, acceptance, and the value of difference from those who instruct and evaluate them. If we fail to capitalise on these opportunities here, we’re not doing our ailing world a favor.

In contrast to what our various administrations seem to assume, continuing to say how diverse this place is does not mean students will be automatically be harmonious with, or understand, each other. Owning three suits and having thousands of dollars of disposable income for social activities is just not reality for many.

Not all students enjoy alcohol, or being around those consuming it. Simply because they proved themselves worthy of admission, students with weaker English can’t just Google how to compete, without working twice as hard as everyone else. And the perspectives of old, white men are not the only ones that matter.

Unravelling these assumptions will not only be an administrative project. The fact is, Admissions has done a spectacular job of crafting a global graduate demographic, and much of the effort to transform that demographic into community will need to come from the the demographic itself. Us.

A growth in our collective consciousness of the diverse opinions, needs, and concepts of home that come along with an international student body, is, perhaps more than anything, what is needed. Yet at the same time, the structures that organise us exert profound influence on that consciousness. The University, colleges, and departments need to create far more space for the reflection and demands that will achieve a culture of inclusivity.

Let’s start by vastly increasing public discussion on the Oxford experience. Colleges should hold mandatory diversity workshops at the start of each year for new graduate students, administrators, and faculty, alike, and all three groups should take part meaningfully in the workshops’ design. (Whether new or old, everyone should have to participate at least once.)

As students, let’s supplement those with alcohol-free open mic nights, giving those the opportunity to express, however they see fit, the feelings with which they’ve no doubt Skyped home, filled journals, and written songs.

Last November’s incredible ‘Love Rally’—attended by hundreds outside of the Clarendon building—can be our model. Though the event aimed at fostering post- US election unity, by amplifying an attitude of respect, inclusion, and acceptance, from the center of campus, went far beyond that.

But most importantly, let’s act on the truths that come out of this. What sort of community do we want to have here? How is the University fostering or obstructing it? If graduate students aren’t getting to know each other, what are we missing out on? What is the world missing out on? When it comes to community, I hope 2017 brings deliberacy.