Oxford. What sorts of images does that word spark? College lawns, gorgeous buildings, and Pimms? Blossom trees and ball gowns? As a second year here, I’m aware that I do fit various clichés. You’ll typically find me sitting outside with a book in one hand and a coffee in the other. I’ve been punting, organized picnics, and played croquet (once, badly). I’ve dressed up in sparkle and sequins for balls. I cycle around the city wearing fifties cotton frocks and velvet blazers. And yes, I have a record player, too.
So why do I get so irritated by the way Oxbridge is portrayed in the media? Why do
this article on the ‘fairytale’ experience of Cambridge and the film
The Riot Club leave a bad taste in my mouth?
Perhaps because the rather evocative image I sketched out is only partial. It’s a few pretty details stitched in among lots of hard work, late nights in the library, a careful eye kept on finances, an occasional sense that I’m not smart enough to merit being here, and one big dose of frustration at the shortcomings of this place. Because, for plenty of us studying at Oxford, it’s less
Bullingdon Club and boating dinners – more ‘oh god, another deadline!’ and ‘do I have enough money to last this week?’ And it really doesn't help that the outside image has barely moved on from
There are a hundred and one different ways of doing ‘the Oxford experience.’ Some students spend the summer break working as a waiter or cleaner in their colleges to earn enough money to tide them over or pay off overdrafts, while others can afford incredible holidays — with a fair few of these more affluent individuals genuinely not realizing that an endless cash-flow and easy lifestyle isn’t a given for everyone.
My own ‘Oxford experience’ has been colored by many things. I attended a tiny rural comprehensive state school and moved two years before college, but had over an hour’s commute each way to get to school and back. When I arrived here, I didn’t have the ready-made social groups my peers from private schools had (Westminster, for example, sent half of their class to Oxbridge the year I applied). I felt so unsure of myself for nearly the whole first year, convinced that everyone else had access to some magical, better version of the university that I couldn't reach. I’ve since realized that it’s OK to love some aspects of student life here, while acknowledging that others leave me stone cold.
But I’m glad for all those shades and depths personal to me. Each challenge made me work harder, look for further opportunities, and navigate this place in the way that felt best for me. It meant exploring the city and the people beyond the university and doing Oxford on my own terms. I now occasionally dip into that more ritualistic side – saving up for a ball in the summer, jumping in a punt on a warm Sunday – but most of it falls outside of that enclosed world.
I increasingly learned to love my surroundings when I moved from halls into a shared house, spent more time hanging out in cafes, had afternoons of trawling thrift stores, sought out interesting people, focused on relishing my studies rather than using them as a measure of my self-worth, and appreciated the value of time spent on my own, whether for reading, cooking, or wandering around museums. There’ve been other serious personal, academic, and professional issues and commitments to tackle, but I’m fully aware of the privileges at my fingertips: All that potential and possibility to be found. I want to continue seeking them with some sense of joy, and a sprinkling of confidence in going my own way