“So, how’s uni going?”
I imagine this question evokes the same kind of intense existential anguish as being asked how you’re dealing with the inevitability of ageing and the long parade to the graveyard. Being asked how you’re feeling during what are, according to some ominous jury of teachers, older siblings, and some random man on the tube, the best three years of your life, triggers a fair amount of self-reflection in the space of a ‘Fresh Prince’ record scratch.
So, you’re probably wondering how I got myself into this situation: one personal statement, two admissions tests, three a-levels, and four interviews later, you’re finally allowed into the most prestigious university in the world. “Isn’t that where [Percy Shelley/John Locke/Nigella Lawson] went?” they ask; “you’re going to meet the next prime minister!”, they say. So you spend your summer re-reading ‘Brideshead Revisited’, just to, you know, brush up on your picnic etiquette. This time next year, you say to yourself, I’ll be lounging under the shade of a weeping willow and reading Walt Whitman wondering if it’s repressed sexual tension in the air or just the smell of strawberries.
This time next year you are doing nothing of the sort. Your essay on Walt Whitman was ‘poorly researched’, ‘naïve’, and ‘quite frankly, Ben, unacceptable’, and the closest you’ve gotten to ‘Howard’s End’ is falling over onto the cheese floor on Park End Wednesday. Unspoken sexual tension has been replaced with very much expressed PDAs outside Fever, and the smell you get walking outside Tescos after Thursday night Bridge is most definitely not strawberries. Far from Nigella’s midnight croissants, you’re faced with the Sophie’s Choice of Hassan’s or Solomon’s at 3AM on a Monday night.
With the effects past eight weeks of your life slowly spreading across your eyes like a mumps epidemic, you desperately try to think of something – anything – you’ve actually done with your first term in the city of dreaming spires. “Oh, I’ve just been trying to settle in, you know, such a big change,” you say, like a liar: as if the only thing you’ve spent time settling into isn’t chips and gravy and a single bed. There was, of course, that one time you signed up for auditions in first week of Michaelmas term, only to find you actually have to learn a monologue, and the less said about your foray into college rowing, the better. There’s a definite anxiety of originality considering people like Rosamund Pike and Sir Matthew Pinsent were also kind of up for extra-curriculars, too. This can, of course, be hugely motivating (they had to start somewhere, right?) but the pressure to carve a path of that magnitude, to start a fledgling career that will lead you, if not literally to the stars, pretty damn close – looking at you, Edwin Hubble – can often feel suffocating.
We all got here because we’re ambitious people, but it’s easy for that ambition to become unfocused in such a jungle of opportunity: who knows, you could start up volleyball and become a gold medallist, or start student journalism and mingle with a future Pulitzer winner, but there’s an immense amount of pressure to commit and do something, and something big – surely someone made friends with Theresa May whilst she was at St. Hughs? With so many opportunities for networking, acting, debating, and so many examples of achievement across the centuries the sense of “why not me” can easily mutate into “why me at all”, and next thing you know you’ve unsubscribed from all the mailing lists you joined at the Fresher’s Fair, and you’re unable to tell an inquisitive Uber driver literally one interesting thing you’ve achieved at the single most interesting place on the planet.
This all raises the, perfectly logical, question of: why not just do something? Why not just do something indeed. Lots has been said about the odd phenomenon of “Oxford Time”, where a day feels like a week, a week feels like a day, and a term feels like you’ve been at university since shortly after its foundation in 1096. Oxford Time can also leave you feeling suspended in a limbo of opportunities, where you’re so saturated with things that you could be doing that your limbs seem to stop functioning, and you just sit in bed for what Oxford Mean Time tells you was half an hour, but what your watch tells you was half a day. The anxiety of influence coming to somewhere like Oxford – and, I imagine, the other one – is as well-known as the different time zone. There is, however, definitely something to be said for gazing up at the ceiling of the Rad Cam knowing it’s the same ceiling Lewis Carrol looked at as he dreamed up Wonderland (with, perhaps, the addition of opium) or Hugh Grant stared at, pushing back what I can only imagine to be a perfectly permed quaff, then looking back down at your essay on the historical variation of the Coventry dialect and feeling like they were at an Oxford that was decidedly different to yours, yet worryingly the same. Did Tolkien ever have to deal with a college-wide gonorrhoea outbreak? Did Rachel Riley ever compulsively check Oxlove looking for RR @ O? Did Margaret Thatcher ever wish she’d joined the Oxford University Paintballing Society instead of the union?
Existential anguish aside, I’ve been having really quite a lovely time. But under the deep psychoanalysis that occurs anytime literally anyone asks me how it’s going, I can’t help but wonder if ‘really quite a lovely time’ can be reconciled with the ‘best three years of my life.’ Starting Oxford is like being one of those tourists that mill about outside the Rad Cam (you know the ones that walk on the grass when there are signs up in literally eight languages saying not to) suddenly being allowed in, then looking up at the ceiling, taking a few pictures, and being told you’re only here for another seven terms, make the most of it. Knowing what kind of student you’re going to be is like the moment before your matriculation photo, where you’re not sure whether you should smile, smoulder, or go for the dignified, stone-faced stare down the camera lens, but you know that, whatever you do, this photo is supposed to capture an important milestone in your life, and the pressure of deciding which face to pull means the next thing you know, the flash has gone off and you end up looking like a mildly constipated hyena. Perhaps this very article is a product of that exact feeling…
Safe to say, this is all rather a lot to process under the socially acceptable time constraints of human conversation. So when you’re aunt/friend/Uber driver asks you the dreaded “how’s uni?” your brain automatically chucks out a “Oh yeah, it’s really nice! Having a great time!” which, of course, you are – aren’t you? Sure, you may not have been invited to Brideshead yet, but you managed to make it through last Bop without passing out for once, so who’s the real winner here?