I have not always been the biggest fan of Oxford University. I have often thought that if I was to write about it, I would be having a right go, lampooning the privilege, the access failings, the ugly residue of the old world. But now I am stunned to find myself writing about how tough a time it is for Oxford students. Half of us do not know we are born (and a gentle reminder to some of the woke freedom fighters reading this – that applies to you too). For many people around the world, the effects of this crisis will be far more visceral than most of us can ever imagine. And yet, we are hurting right now. At the end of the day, a huge chunk of our lives is at university. While we are here, fatuous though a lot of it honestly is, some friends become family. Girlfriends and boyfriends might turn out to be the one we’ll spend the rest of our lives with. So, with the Vice-Chancellor indicating that Trinity term will probably take place remotely and the government advising people to stay put, the night of Monday 16th left a lot of final year students suddenly feeling adrift.
Last weekend down by the river, as a torrent of students poured out of the city, you could feel worry in the air. Back at home on Monday night, a storm broke with hail and thunder. My mum comes home from work, she’s shattered. She’s admin staff at a secondary school and spent the whole day taming chaos. And she’s frightened too, for her own mum, who has a lung condition. My little brother has no idea what’s happening with his GCSEs. He’s trying to act big, but I can tell he’s nervous.
Dad comes in, as always very late in the evening, his inbuilt rant kettle coming to boil on the drive back. He’s a veteran of 2008 and steeled for a recession. There’s no new business coming in and he’s very worried about how we will cope if his wages are cut. He’s not direct about it, but I’m an anthropomorphised cost to him now – with my unfinished masters and a growing pile of rejection letters. I start to feel small, an inconvenience. Without a Trinity term to go to the lack of certainty about my future now seems very real. My student’s airs and pretentions – the poetry, the jackets, the cigarettes and soul records – are melting away before the spectre of what happens next.
And it’s the same for everyone. Social media reads like the Book of Revelations and the messages are flying in. On top of not knowing what’s happening with their degrees, everyone’s family is in meltdown. One friend’s parents are arguing over whether to bring his sister home from uni in the north, and his asthmatic Dad may even try to get to France, believing he has more chance isolating there than at home. Tumult in that house. Another one pops up, she’s at risk and stuck in isolation in her college. There are deep problems at home, and all her friends have left town. She’s utterly alone. While others worry about the practical things, one mate is saying goodbye to his new girlfriend. She’s going back home overseas while she still can, maybe for good. His first romance, he worries, obliterated overnight.
I’m quite lucky at home in Stevenage, with friends I have known since before I can remember. They’re working lads who will take the brunt of this if things go south, but they are the ones picking me back up like they always have. But for a lot of finalists, their entire social lives are at Oxford, and they’ll be thinking of lost moments with the people that matter. The new people they’d give anything to spend more time with. The people they’ve known the whole way through, proper goodbyes cut dead – the things they needed to say still unsaid. The people they forgot and wanted to get to know again, now probably always a regret. It’s going to take a bit of coming to terms with.
We will cope with what is happening because that’s the only thing we can do. We will support our families and help others too, I’m sure. We will get used to the situation and the isolation. But right now, it must be said, the mental health of the student body is reeling from a sucker punch. And that is why it’s going to be important to touch base.
Let your mates know they matter, get the silly Skype calls in, keep dropping your weird memes. A lot of people will be feeling pretty dark in the coming weeks but staying in touch will really help. Because the people in our lives help make us who we are, and we’re not going to lose them, even if, for the minute, we only get to see each other’s mugs on a screen.