First of all, University itself is filled with new challenges and experiences, new people and new rules. Even for second years who are helping, Fresher’s week is a mixture of nervous energy and excitement, and from experience, it’s also tumultuous. After being looked after for so long by our parents, stepping out into independence can be a big sigh of relief – followed quickly by panic.The realization that we are now “adults”, responsible for our own households and finances, our own meals and shopping and goodness knows what else, can be a bit of a cold shower. The jump from high school to college is relatively minor in comparison to the jump to University.
Upon arriving here we know relatively few people, if any, and we’re essentially living with strangers for a few days until we get to know them. While we rapidly make friends and learn who the people in our homes are, being by oneself for the first time can be intimidating. And that’s just attending university in general. The University of Oxford is amongst the best in the world – surveys and rankings regularly place Oxford in the top ten, if not the top five. In fact, Oxford was tied second place with Harvard on the Times Higher Education ranking this year, trailing closely behind the California Institute of Technology. Such a high-ranking university immediately illicits fear and apprehension in even the most fearsome of freshers.
While Fresher’s week may not seem too intimidating, the prospect of your first essay and first tutorial is nerve-wracking. To be in a room with someone who is a world-renowned expert in their field, to have your work criticized by someone who probably wrote the book on the subject, and to be expected to defend oneself, is pretty intimidating. I know that for my first tutorials, I was scared – I had never had to defend myself so vocally or quickly before. And the expected workload, the jump from reading perhaps a few chapters a week as homework to reading books for only one essay, is a massive challenge. Confronted with an enormous reading list on the first week, so endless it fills you with a dull, aching sort of dread, is enough to instill fear into the hearts of nervous freshers.
And not even a skype session with your friends from home – an exercise designed to momentarily transport yourself outside the Oxford bubble – reminds you sharply of how much work you have, and how little your friends are doing. Facebook photos of them partying while you are well into your third essay rubs salt into a fresher’s over-worked wounds.
Oxford, as a whole, is intimidating for everyone and embodies the most impossible paradox – It is the one place where probably everyone in the room is cleverer than you, and it is one of the few places where you are expected to be the cleverest person in the room. While most freshers probably enjoyed coming top in their class throughout school and Sixth Form, you quickly become accustomed to an environment where you no longer come out on top on every occasion. Oxford is a lesson in failure as much as success. While you grow used to it over time, and it becomes normal, the feeling of intimidation never really leaves you. But, if it makes you feel better, everybody will be feeling in the same, everybody has some adjustment issue.
No. As only a handful of places in the UK where red chinos can be worn with impunity, I can categorically state that Oxford is not intimidating.
The university can try all it likes to force you to adhere to its draconian traditions but you still live in a world of Ginsters, Wrigley’s Extra and Alan Carr. While a “Provost” or a “Warden” or a “Gate Keeper” talks Latin at you before you can eat your dinner because it’s really important, remember that somewhere out there E4 is still showing repeats of The Big Bang Theory and E4+1 is still showing repeats of The Big Bang Theory.
If you didn’t feel gut-punched when you opened your parcel from Ede and Ravenscroft and felt the quality of your new gown, I’d wager that your Bridesheaded preconceptions were shattered at some point this week. Around Tuesday or Wednesday, you probably realised that what Waugh didn’t tell you was that when a drunk fresher vomits through your window, you’ll probably end up dragging them back to their college while they whine about how “me and Jonathon can actually make the long-distance thing work, actually” because they can “get with other people, but nothing more”. Eighteen year olds at Oxford are still eighteen year olds.
Mummy and Daddy might have abandoned you to “face the real world” but rest assured you won’t be facing it here. A team of scouts will clean your kitchen, hoover your room and empty your bin all so you can finish that Medieval commentary so salient to the future of mankind. The biggest inconvenience you’ll face is the social embarrassment when they come into your room wearing a protective masks because the beans on toast near your laptop is really starting to smell.
The university removes every obstacle from your life to ensure that you can (though you won’t) work every minute for the next three years. Your intellect will grow while your common sense rots away to the point when the most inconsequential problem seems insurmountable. The “Essay Crisis” is a great example. At three in the morning when you just don’t have time to finish that problem sheet for your 10am tute, you’ll definitely be able to heighten your productivity by bemoaning your plight on four different social media platforms, while Oxford’s homeless sit shivering on Cornmarket. “Losing my essay crisis V!!!!!!!! #Pro-at-crastination!#”
If you spent your summer watching Newsnight for fear of seeming stupid when sparring with some intellectual dynamo between the hors d’oeuvres and the fish course at Freshers’ formal, you needn’t have bothered. Your future Nobel Prize winners will probably be chewing face at Park End in second week and have blown their loan by fourth.