Until the moment I arrived at Oxford, I thought I was ready. I was the classic overzealous fresher; I diligently consulted every search result on Google for what to pack, and left home with six jars, three novelty cushions and every single pair of my shoes in tow. The rows of backpacks and boxes in the back of the family car on leaving day went from many to ridiculous in a matter of seconds when a second-year helper at my college saw them and smirked. Luckily for her and my overladen parents, I stopped just short of bringing the time-honoured toastie maker. But it’s okay: there are three stacked up in our staircase kitchenette, each one brought and regretted by my fellow freshers. The fact that we are united in our shared love of toasties means that these appliances have come to stand for what so many told me was explicitly missing from Oxford: equality.
The universality of kitchen appliances is not a sound basis for an argument and I am aware that I have only briefly tasted university life so far, but my Freshers’ Week has unexpectedly proven itself to be quite an equaliser. Having tasted the culinary delights of 40p pasta (which I meant to be very al dente) and felt someone else’s vomit hit my back in a sweaty nightclub, I emerge as a survivor with other freshers as my fellow soldiers.
Whenever I spoke about “coming up” over the summer, eyes would widen and people would instinctively begin with a parade of well-meant warnings; I couldn’t fit in here and shouldn’t expect to, because “people like us just don’t go to Oxbridge.” My industrial hometown supposedly (I’ve never checked) has the illustrious honour of the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, and the only list my state comprehensive ever topped was the asbestos count for schools in the locality. I was offered copies of The Riot Club multiple times by friends who wanted to prepare me for the next three years: I would merely be a guest in the world of Bullingdon fat cats, and should ready myself for trouble if anyone detected the slightest common twang in my accent.
Though I naïvely thought it had nothing to teach me, Freshers’ Week proved one thing to me more strongly every day: in the nerves of your first tutorial or the thrill of your first visit to the Bodleian, everyone is an equal. The distinctions between state and private, industrial and cosmopolitan, left and right have been just as irrelevant as I feared they would be important. Entering Oxford appears not to divide but to unite even the most disparate of staircase neighbours; under one university and one college crest, difficult pasts have dissolved to make way for a bright future in a new, thriving and mystifying city.
Nevertheless, Freshers’ Week was hardly easy. I am an anxious person, and there were moments when I thought the intense pace got too much. So much change in such a short space of time brought my usually level head to a point of “wobbliness”; a daytime wander into the city produced feelings of delight, while the same path at night left me sniffling that Oxford was too hard, too busy, and too different.
The most important lesson of Freshers’ Week is that everyone, no matter how confident they might look, is just as apprehensive and self-conscious as each other. Of course, I am sure that the rumours of secret societies and illicit porcine activities will come, but at least freshers’ universal bewilderment breaks down the barriers those rumours so fervidly try to perpetuate. Although I have ventured outside my college and gingerly explored Oxford’s cobbled streets, I am aware that I barely appreciate the city at all. My first week, however crazy, has at least made me excited to know it better.