In the final week of my first year at Oxford, I volunteered to give a group of year 10 students a tour of my college. They were keen, engaged and curious. We covered the basics first: what is the social life like, what is your timetable like, how does the college system work? Towards the end of the session, one of the students asked me: ‘What are the bad things about Oxford?’
The question took me by surprise. When giving tours and answering admissions queries, one tends to focus on the positives. ‘It’s difficult for me to say,’ I replied weakly. ‘I’ve had a great first year,’ was the best I could come up with on the spot.
I thought about it afterwards. I had had a great first year; that was not mere lip service. I had attacked Oxford with the voracity of a captive animal suddenly released, and my first year was characterised by its variety.
Rowing might be a popular target for jokes and jibes among students, but the opportunity to learn to row, for free – in a real boat! with a real coach! – is not one that I would ever have had at home. I had acted, too, in both an Ancient Greek comedy and a modern dystopia. I was involved in all kinds of voluntary projects. I went to concerts and discussions and film screenings and lectures that I saw advertised. I even played croquet. I started learning Hebrew for no reason at all, except that I thought it would be interesting. I had met the most incredible group of people – from all kinds of backgrounds, from all over the country, from all over the world. I had been astonished to find out that Oxford was so much fun, and I revelled in the fact that I seemed to fit in, like I had never fitted in anywhere else.
And then there was the work. Fortunately, it was never a chore for me: I genuinely adore my subject. The phrase ‘challenging but rewarding’ has never been so apt. It was a steep learning curve, but I loved the pace, the constantly renewed challenges, and seeing myself improve week on week. The more I learned, the more I wanted to learn. Waking late on a Sunday morning, enjoying a generous college brunch, and working through the day in one of Oxford’s many quaint coffee shops became my routine.
I am aware that this is not a universal experience. There are, of course, bad things about Oxford. It’s an expensive place to live, college life can be isolating, and the intensity of the short terms can be exhausting. I have seen people pushed to breaking point. Sometimes the leaden weights of prestige and expectation can feel more like burdens than a stepping stones. The beautiful buildings are not always sufficient to annul the stress and the fatigue that can hit at any time. Learning how to navigate those feelings is tricky, and the Oxford experience can feel overwhelming. However, I have been positively surprised by the support system in place. It is an infallibly accepting community. Everyone knows that Oxford is demanding, and – at least at my college – there is an expansive network of people who are eager to support you in any way that they can.
I fell hard for Oxford: the city and the University. It is difficult to focus on the negative aspects of Oxford life, because for me, the University continues to represent a land of opportunity. Oxford is variety, diversity, tradition and change. For me, it’s a lifeline: Oxford is the antidote to my relentlessly mediocre hometown. From matriculation to trashing, my excitement has only grown.