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Reflections on the life of a mature student

I think we find ourselves in a particular state of searching after finishing secondary school. Even if we have an idea of what we want to do or who we want to be, the world is suddenly splayed out; enticingly undefined and filled with endless opportunities. And we – released from a more or less fixed position in the static social infrastructure of the school – crave a new function, with new perspectives, new inputs, and new outlooks. 

As a mature undergraduate student, I think back on that openness and wish I had gone to Oxford right after secondary school. It is a place abound in perspectives, impressions and possible identity markers. Yet, through all its newness, Oxford is fine-tuned to the strategies of secondary school; you will find ample room for intrigue, social positioning and sporting, all mechanisms for a budding sense of self. And like secondary school, Oxford is a breeding ground for competition. With public collection prizes, gowns for Firsts, BNOC spreads in Cherwell and everything going on at the Union, establishing, and perceiving yourself as part of, a student hierarchy is fairly easy. 

I think Oxford must be a wonderful place to be a bit immature, arrogant and naïve, a wonderful place to think that the most important thing is to be desirable, or to know a whole bunch of people, or to be the best in your class. Youthful arrogance and naïveté come with such a distinct drive to shape yourself into a certain kind of person. And for that mentality, Oxford sets the stage. You’ve got the best of the best, fighting alongside you to be the brightest, the most interesting and the most dynamic person in every room.

And as I’ve grown older, things have grown so much more… complex. What a cliché! I remember so vividly looking at older people and thinking ‘You’re so boring! So defeated! Where is your hope, ambition and sense of adventure?!’ I knew in my heart then, that it was all so easy. ‘Just tax the rich, take to the streets and text him that he’s cute!’, I’d think. Adults are fucking boring man; I’ve known that for ages. Yet, the older I get, the more intricate becomes the composition of true confidence, and of a good and worthy life. Nothing that remains to be fixed will be quick or easy to solve. And that pessimism, or the remnants of young impatience, makes me miss so dearly exactly the naïveté and arrogance of youth that thinks that snogging someone at Atik will make an existential problem go away or make me a certain kind of person. In a sense, I hoped my youthful rebellion would last longer. And I think that Oxford, with all its traditions, hierarchy and quirks, is the perfect place for youthful rebellion.

There are, however, a lot of aspects to student life – and life in Oxford in particular – that are hard to appreciate or even perceive if you arrive straight from secondary school. Through the lens of a couple of gap or professional years, I believe the mature Oxford experience might therefore be just as rich as the blue-eyed one. 

From within, it is hard to notice the comfort of coexistence that comes with school and university life. What we experience during a day is always shared with fellow students, be that an annoying tutor, an untimely fire alarm or the stress of an upcoming exam. These experiences would be fundamentally different to process on your own, void of conversations in the hallway or shared glances of suppressed laughter in a lecture. The comfort and relief of complaining and having the other person actually understand what you’re going through is a privilege granted by the commonality of university experience. For me, it took a gap year of working and travelling to notice, miss and appreciate the comfort of that co-existence. 

A related aspect of university life that might be negligible to the privileged eye is being surrounded by people who are inspired and interested. Oxford is swarming with people who share your particular interests, people who wear their passion on their sleeves and people who are at the top of their field. Here, strong beliefs come from people who know how to argue for them; people who challenge and who want to be challenged. And, without trying to sound trivial: that is so rare. Of what might be said about the ‘real’ world, it is full of uninterested people adverse to anything new, nuanced, or challenging. You can definitely find inspiring communities, workplaces, and hobbies elsewhere – and you probably will, after Oxford – but they are found, rather than provided. 

Without experience from mundane or professional life, it is also hard to recognise that university is surely the time to make mistakes. Sure, marks matter, but at no point will you have the opportunity to experiment with topics, takes and styles like at university. At the workplace, you’re performing and producing. If you submit your work late, you might be sacked. Meanwhile, you’ll never be expelled for not submitting a tutorial essay, or for delivering a poem for your International Relations analysis. I think that coming straight from school might obscure the fact that university is not the time for producing and hitting the mark, so much as for experimenting and nurturing your creativity. 

Maturity, or just time away from studies, highlights the many privileges of university life, enriching the student experience. Yet the most valuable thing I bring with me from not studying is the separation of academic achievement and self-worth. Primary and secondary education is a decade-long training in striving for praise. Personally, academic achievement constituted the foundation, walls and windows of my self-worth until I was thrown into the void that is the gap year. I rebuilt it with blocks from all walks of life. I think mature students, to a larger extent, extend their self-perception beyond student life and body. Therefore, Oxford is, in a sense, less crucial to our identity. We already have lives and identities from our own post-secondary school-era elsewhere. I would love for Oxford to be my whole life, the way the impressions and intrigue of youth make a setting all-encompassing. However, as an older student, I am forced to see my time here for what it is: something so transitory, and only ever a small part of what makes me, me.

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