Being estranged in Oxford: we have more work to do

Image Credit: Jiahui Huang (CC-BY-SA-2.0)

For those of us without a home to go back to over the vac, Oxford can be a lonely place. The estrangement report, undertaken by the SU this summer, has offered many people an insight into what life is like for people like me. This report pointed out some really important things.

Firstly, that estrangement isn’t as simple as it sounds. Estrangement is a word with which I found it difficult to identify. I lived with my mum most of my life and I feel so grateful for the fact that she managed to care for me and my siblings. She did this single-handedly, whilst also coping with her own mental health struggles. She has bipolar, a condition which, as well as bringing incredibly difficult times, also brings very happy ones.

So, using the word ‘estranged’ is something which fills me with guilt. However, following a bipolar episode during my time at university, I was kicked out of home. Now I am allowed back, and our relationship is in many ways just as it was before, but I have learnt that it is better for my own mental health to remain apart. I still visit my family sometimes, but what once was my home no longer is. I now spend almost all my time in Oxford.

From as early as I can remember, my mum has struggled with her bipolar. I first realised how bad it was during one particularly bad episode when she was rushed to hospital and we were nearly taken into care. I remember at this time, curling up in my bed, doing everything I could to forget, and just crying. I wasn’t the oldest of my siblings, but, with my other brothers having autism, I was the one who had been tasked with the responsibility. At age 12, I was already sick of being the adult.

“However, often I feel like I am the lowest priority for the accommodation office.”

Now I study here at Oxford and I feel incredibly proud of doing so. However, having grown up as a young carer, the sudden jump from having to be responsible and care for others, to having to care only for myself was something I was not expecting. Going back home for the vacation was difficult, but so too is staying in Oxford. Cutting off ties with much of my family and choosing instead to stay in Oxford was something which was not easy, but it was necessary.

Now when my mother has further bipolar episodes, I feel even more guilty. Guilty that I’m not there for her. Guilty that my younger sister is left in the same awful situation that I was once in. Guilty of my concurrent self-assigned status of ‘estranged’. But still unable to go home.

My college does a lot to help me with my situation. I get a room during the vacation. However, often I feel like I am the lowest priority for the accommodation office. As the wealthy summer school students are given priority over rooms, I am moved about from room to room, never being able to make one place my own, and never being able to make one place my home. Instead, I am left feeling like I’m constantly living in a hotel.

And staying in Oxford out of term-time is a very lonely experience. When other people go home to their families, it can be hard to remain stuck in Oxford. The Christmas is particularly tough in this sense, and being bombarded on social media by pictures of pets and families – cosy, Christmassy and by the fire – reminds me that I am here, on my own in my small and depressing Oxford room. This is why it’s so important for people to check up on their friends who stay in Oxford throughout the vacation, and why it’s so important for college to reach out and offer support to these students.

With this comes the added problem of not being able to easily leave Oxford or the suffocating environment which comes with it. This means that term never seems to end and the intensity begins to erode at your ability to cope with the Oxford workload. Having become estranged in Hilary term last year, I struggled with the Easter vac, and found that my mental health was at an all time low come trinity term, just as I was preparing to sit my Prelims. This led to me becoming unwell, resulting in a short stay in A&E, which inevitably had an effect on my ability to study for my exams. Whilst I had support from the college welfare during my stay in hospital, once I had come out, there was an expectation for me to pick things back up the as if nothing had happened. My tutors were helpful and supportive, but the pace of Oxford life meant that I had very little time to stop and gather my thoughts at what had happened to me over the last few months.

“Due to our unfavourable circumstances, estranged students like myself have worked hard to secure our places at Oxford. We cannot be ignored any longer.”

The announcement of a new bursary to help estranged students struggling to afford to stay in Oxford is a massive step forwards. With many estranged students being unable to lean on parents or guardians for financial support, it is a change which is necessary for preventing students from dropping out of their course.

One question that must be asked of this new bursary scheme is how students are to go about applying. Many people who identify as estranged do not do so openly as it is not always safe for them. This means that they will likely not register themselves as estranged on student finance, and therefore, there must be a different way of allocating this bursary than just according it to whoever is registered as estranged on student finance. This requires that students must be able to self-declare as estranged.

Looking more widely, another issue that needs to be looked at is how to best tackle isolation and loneliness among Oxford’s estranged student community. One idea set to be explored following on from the report is that of grouping estranged students together into one house or accommodation. This will allow students to interact with others in similar circumstances to themselves while also going a long way to helping students build a sense of ‘home’ when they otherwise have no place to go. The university must also ensure that provisions are in place during the vac to ensure these students get the help they need, and that they are able to access welfare when in need during this time.

Finally, it is important for the university to act on this report as soon as possible. Every day that it’s not acted upon will lead to more estranged students struggling, increasing the threat of them dropping out of university altogether. Due to our unfavourable circumstances, estranged students like myself have worked hard to secure our places at Oxford. We cannot be ignored any longer. And if we are, then not only do we lose out as individuals, but so too will the university, which will see the loss of talented students to unnecessary financial and social barriers.