Is the ‘vac’ really a vacation?

Sometimes it’s okay to just stick your middle finger up at the reading list, writes Julia Alsop

Source: Pixabay

Somewhere around fifth week the thoughts of home first enter your mind. You’re slaving over an essay in the early hours of the morning, but you can’t help feel you’d be much comfier in your cozy childhood bedroom rather than your damp student accommodation, complete with a single bed whose springs pop and poke you, damaged by the enthusiastic relations of previous occupants and their guests.

Your college bar is great (and cheap) but your favourite haunts back home are where you had your first legal drink, and your student loan is quickly disappearing down the slots of the games machine.  By the end of eighth week, even Hassan’s cannot satisfy your culinary needs like your mother’s home-cooked meals can. Being home at the end of Michaelmas means Christmas food, warm nights in or nights out in your hometown, the pure joy of no deadlines and all the free time gained from not having to work, right? Wrong. Alas, this is the Oxford life – you don’t get the pleasures of being able to relax.

Eat a mince pie, have a glass of fizz, but remember – on the other side of the vac there are collections. Who wants to return from a perfect Christmas only to realise that instead of catching up with your friends in the college bar, you have to sit a handful of collections? This taints the whole holiday period. You can’t win. Either you’ll do plenty of work but end up missing out on Christmas markets and mulled wine, or you’ll indulge in wintery festivities with the guilt hanging over your head. Collections are the peculiarity of Oxford that contributes to making it so infamously taxing a place to study over other institutions: they limit your ability to truly unwind.

Even if you get over the burden of revising for collections, or scratch the itch of guilt at not ‘getting ahead’ on coursework, there’s still that little voice at the back of your mind that whispers “hey, you know that one day you’re going to leave the Oxford bubble and need a JOB? Your degree alone is not enough to fall into your chosen profession.” Oh. Then you’re flooded with more panic when you realise that you should probably be applying for internships, vacation schemes, and work opportunities. There are few things more anxiety-inducing than the festive buzzkill of repeatedly filling in your GCSE results and details of your stint working in a local pub, hoping that it will somehow satisfy the requirement for being hired by a prestigious international business.

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“Isn’t this the same situation for students at other universities?” my mother said when I explained the rant I was producing. Eight week intensive terms, no reading weeks, and termly collections aside, it honestly is. Most ambitious students will apply for an internship or so in their time, and feel the pressure to revise last term’s material, knock off some of the new reading list or write chunks of dissertation in advance of term.

But does the universality of stress make it somehow okay? Why is there a culture of prestige to burning out or having a very precarious work-life balance? I accept that it is no less easy in the working environment and that it is necessary to work hard on internship applications and academic work. But there’s something to be said about questioning a university culture that exhausts students, where people fall into periods of depression and anxiety over the competitive workloads and ambitions for professional success.

To develop as a young adult, and a future professional, it is just as important to enjoy the festive time with family, and to not feel guilty over making memories (eurgh, I’m so cliché). You need good mental health in order to thrive, and currently Oxford does not do well at suggesting to its students that rather than become an overworked zombie, sometimes it’s okay to just stick your middle finger up at your reading list and enjoy the time off.