The Response: Oxford Life and Culture31st January 2014
Amazing, life-altering, the best few years of your life. All of these, I’m sure, are words you’ve heard used to describe the university experience. Film and television tell us that we’ll meet our soulmate on the first day, while everything we’ve seen in prospectuses and on open days is – for obvious reasons – belligerently positive. But what happens when you’re finding that student life really isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be?
Oxford is probably more prone to this anticlimactic feeling than other places, thanks to its fairytale punting-and-poetry image. Of course, there are many other things about Oxford life which make it a wonderful experience, but sometimes the reality is hard to deal with.
The problem isn’t isolated to us; Glasgow student and blogger Floraidh Clement recently wrote the piece When You Don’t Love University: A Big Big Big Deal on her blog Floraidh’s Uncensored Pen: “The predicament I wish to talk about is something I’ve been made to feel ashamed is happening, as it goes against the societal grain… University has not been the most fantastic, exhilarating, life-changing experience I was promised it would be.” She makes it clear that, while university life has some hugely positive aspects, there are also low points that nobody ever prepares you for.
Some of these are obvious: homesickness, exam stress, anxiety over fitting in, and the huge amounts of debt which most of us are in. But there is something else which remains unspoken, and that is the shame which Floraidh identifies. After all, if you aren’t enjoying what are supposed to be “the best years of your life”, that doesn’t bode well for your post-university existence.
A major issue, especially for first-term students, is the social side of life. While friendships can occur instantly, more often than not they emerge over time. But in the first few weeks of term, when everybody seems to be talking like they’ve known each other for years and you find yourself on the edge of the crowd, it can be incredibly tough. This isolation can be especially acute if you’re uncomfortable with the expected social activities for first-years.
A student at the University of Liverpool told me “basically at my uni, Freshers Week is all centred around drinking and if you’re not into getting wasted every night then there’s nothing to do.” Even when alternative activities are available, there’s a sense that, in order to fit in, you have to go out and drink. On top of that is the concern that friends from home will slowly start to slip away; the only time I cried last term was when I had an argument with a friend over Facebook. Having shunned the opportunity to socialise with people in my college, only to end up cut off from old friends, I was left feeling isolated and unhappy.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. The pressure for it to be amazing just makes people feel like there’s something wrong with them if they don’t love every second, and lonely because they can’t talk to anyone about it. Oxford students can, I would argue, feel this with particular intensity. Any attempt to explain my general ambivalence over the whole thing tended to be met with: “But you’re at Oxford! How can you complain?”
It’s true that we’re all incredibly lucky to be here, and there are many who will never have the opportunity to even go to university, let alone this one. That doesn’t mean anyone should be made to feel ashamed if they aren’t completely in love with the whole thing. Yes, university is an experience in itself, but it’s also a means to an end. I don’t know about you but I have big plans for when I leave, and I’m pretty excited to get on with them. Livvy, a medical student at Cardiff to whom I spoke, feels a similar way: “I’m not at uni for the sake of it; I’m here because my life will be better afterwards when I’m qualified.”
The truth is, like every other part of life, university has disappointments, boring bits, and low points. Sometimes we need to talk about those without feeling like the party-pooper, so let’s stop telling everyone they ought to love it and listen to them if they’re struggling.