Getting used to uni is hard enough. But things get complicated when you feel like you don’t fit in Oxford may be celebrating a record 69% intake from state schools, but this is often not much consolation for working-class students who feel they very much are in the minority. Within in a week of arrival, we had already become acquainted with the glaring gap of class difference. Now halfway through our first year, we would like to share our experiences as state school, first gen, working class students at the University of Oxford.
For Nell, being working class for me specifically means growing up having a household income that amounts to less that the termly Eton admission fee. It means relying completely on a maintenance loan that I know I have to pay back without any financial assistance. It means growing up in a council flat, on a council estate. It means being the first in my family to go to university. And it means attending an underfunded, Ofsted rated ‘requires improvement’ state school that never expected my admission to Oxford.
For Kiran, it means coming from a household which has always had one breadwinner, working daily 12 hour-shifts on minimum wage in order to provide for their family. Having one parent that works non-stop, and the other who doesn’t know English, it was unsurprising challenging to gain any insight or advice when applying to university, let alone the unique admissions process Oxford uses.
For us, not having a lot of money affects our daily lives. We budget our loans, being weary about spending it on luxuries like Solomon’s, when we know in the back of our minds we’ll have to pay it back. The pressure to buy ball tickets, union memberships, fancy dresses, and other expenses is felt ten-fold since we appreciate that this money is meant to be spent on rent, food and other living costs. We recognise that not everyone who is middle-class has parents willing to provide for them financially. We understand that middle-class students are not a homogenous group, but our experiences just appear to be very different from the majority of people around us. The lack of relatability we feel to other students here is disheartening.
However, for us the material differences are only the tip of the iceberg. The fundamental way in which our experiences differ is a cultural one. Unlike many of our peers, we don’t have multiple school friends attending Oxford, giving us an automatic connection and the comfort of seeing a familiar face. For us, we feel as if our admission here is anomalous. Similarly, being first generation university students, we didn’t have any guidance or insight into what to expect. Half the time spent reading for essays is spent looking through the dictionary, because we are unfamiliar with so much of the vocabulary used. And we still don’t know what the difference between black and white tie are.
One factor which makes our experience as working-class students at Oxford different is the role in which our parents play in our education. Frankly, they don’t. This is not and will never be the result of laziness. For some of us, throughout our whole experience within the education system, our families remained nothing but perplexed in such a way that any attempt to engage within it was met with intimidation and confusion. The whole notion of us attending university is something our parents are still becoming accustomed to. Their lack of knowledge surrounding the culture of university and the whole etiquette surrounding events such as formals and how one should interact has left our parents thinking it would simply be best not to attend events such as the Freshers’ Formal, explaining that “It isn’t our sort of thing.”
From the point of receiving an offer from Oxford to finally achieving the grades, working class students experience constant questioning by their parents as to why we did not apply to a university close to home. It is only now that we realise that this results from a lack of understanding on many parents’ part on the significance of the University of Oxford. Regardless of feeling like our experiences here are largely unrelatable, we know that there are many other working-class, first gen, state school students that can relate, who feel different and imposturous. But it is important to remember that we are not alone. We are not imposters; we are breaking barriers, adding flavour to Oxford and being nothing other than deserving of our places here.