‘Is catatonic boredom your usual facial expression?’ asked my tutor in our first meeting. This is not how I expected this occasion to go; I used to be the bright-eyed, most enthusiastic pupil at school and yet, looking around the room, I was the only one lacking in head-nodding and fake laughter. Then again, I had not expected to be kidnapped by third years on my first night and taken to an ‘after party’ where I’d be forced to play extremely complicated drinking games. No, sitting in the study of a leading scholar with a splitting headache on my second day of university was not exactly what I’d prepared for.
Needless to say, in glossy prospectuses and formal presentations, the realities of student life are somewhat neglected. You hear the words ‘hard work’ but you don’t expect this to mean every single book for your first essay to be taken out of the college library on the fourth day of Freshers’ Week, meaning you sneak around the desks to see if anybody has abandoned one in the hope that they ‘just forgot to put it back’. Really helpful advice would be some indication that the most valuable skill in your first week of Oxford is being able to recover from a hangover by nine ‘o’ clock in the morning because, it seems, everyone else can…
I had also heard the phrase ‘work hard, play hard’ bandied about by students at open days but had never realised this sometimes means at the same time. Walking past a third year in a club with three drinks in his hand who leans over and slurs ‘I’ve got an exam tomorrow morning, ha ha’ revealed the truth about the mysterious interview process; they’re not looking for someone who works the hardest but someone who can still work the hardest after a night out. It suddenly became clear to me why I’d been chosen over people I considered far intellectually superior to me; as I was handed another Sambuca shot, two of my elder college-members looked at each other and said ‘I think she’s got potential’.
So even if I wasn’t the first to rush to the college library, I learnt quickly that at Oxford there is always another way. In this instance there are at least 99 other libraries to try within a two mile radius, as well as the marvellous creation of the ‘e-book’. My expectation was that everyone would take things very seriously and, looking around the eager faces of the other freshers, this appears to be true. But take a look at the attitude of the second years and I am reassured that this place is not another world of people and expectations at all. The first pearl of wisdom my college dad gave me was ‘History is not a real subject. Politics is not a real subject. I went to four lectures last year, one of which I didn’t make it to, actually, and I got a 2.1’.
Though I still have every expectation that the standard at Oxford will be higher than I could even imagine and the workload even further beyond comprehension, it seems as if, more so than I would’ve thought, people stay in one piece. And they do it with a drink in their hand and a smile on their face.
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