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The Rooms Before Me

The first rooms that are fully our own once we leave our family homes become part of our identity and sense of self. Being able to decorate a space and fill it as you want allows for an exploration of the self that is fuelled by a limitless freedom of expression. A university room is both a private and shared space. Visiting someone’s room can give an insight into who they are, what they like and even who they want to present themselves as being. A room is therefore more than a space we occupy but a representation of the self.

A room at Oxford, a city with centuries of history, adds interesting layers to the room as an exploration of the self. Many of us occupy rooms in buildings that are hundreds of years old and have had hundreds of previous occupants. The college system even means that we often know the previous occupants of our old or future rooms. We often even walk past our old rooms on a regular basis and see a new person taking up a place that was once so personal and unique to us. So how can we make a space our own, for the brief interim where it is indeed our own, when we know that it carries so much history of so many people before us, within it?

The fact that a space already has a history and individual stories tied to it does not necessarily make it any less meaningful for each person who comes to reside within it. This plurality and layering of meanings speaks to the university experience itself. Thousands of students pass through Oxford for only three years at a time. They make memories in the city that are unique to them but also tied to the academic and social traditions that have come before them. This is true of any space – our memories and perception of it are based on and inspired by what we already know to be true of it. In this way, an Oxford bedroom does not exist within a vacuum or present itself as a blank canvas for us to fill on individual terms. It is instead a chance to add our own story to a wider and more extensive narrative. This narrative and history is perhaps what makes the Oxford experience so unique. We are 21st century students with modern perspectives and stories but by existing in this city and partaking in all its traditions we are always in contact with and tied to the generations of students who have come before us. A city is nothing more than a geographical limitation without its inhabitants and their stories, just like a room is just four walls without those who have lived in it.

But does positioning our individual stories within a greater history risk erasing the particularities of our experiences, and our identities? Is the thought of all the history which surrounds us not a terrifying reminder of our transience?

If we see our rooms as an expression of ourselves, then the thought of our transience does not need to be so terrifying. Who we are, as we conceive ourselves and project outwards, is always constantly changing and evolving, especially in our university years. Our rooms each year should therefore be seen as a space that a certain version of ourselves once occupied at a certain point in time. A box room with a dodgy sink might have been the perfect home in first year,  for a past version of ourselves. The nostalgia we have for our previous rooms,  is of the past, along with our versions of ourselves. But despite this nostalgia, it doesn’t feel like these versions of ourselves and our spaces lie in our future. We can memorialise these spaces without seeking to return to them.  

This idea of memorialisation links back to decorating our spaces and expressing ourselves. In my own experience, as I have moved from room to room over the course of the last four years, I have taken the same photos, posters and decorative pieces with me. So, even when I feel a twinge of nostalgia as I walk past one of my old rooms, I don’t experience a complete sense of detachment from that space or the version of myself that occupied it and that is because I still have the things that filled that old room. I still have the same postcards on the wall in my current room and to them I have added all the others I have accumulated from my year abroad travels. Looking at my walls, therefore, reminds me of the past but situates it within everything that has changed since then and everything that is still yet to come. Ultimately, for me, that is what space and the things we take ownership of are all about. It is more about the memories and the meanings, the versions of ourselves which are tied to them, than the actual thing itself. 

The university experience is all about changing and growing as an individual. The rooms we live in, where they are, how we decorate them, what we choose to do in them, can therefore be used as markers of this individual change. Embracing the room as a metaphor for change and development allows us to reconcile the dissonance between acknowledging that a space is ours but has also meant something different to so many others before us.

A room is much more than just four walls. It is a space of expression and personal freedom. Thinking about all those who came before us and our relation to them allows us to understand ourselves. Spaces are defined by the people who inhabit them and are therefore marked by, and themselves symbolise the change and development of each person who lives within them.

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