Bleary eyed and bawling, a new group of students will find themselves thrust into the confusion and terror of Oxford University this October. Having passed through the group stages and achieved their offer, they’ll realise with dismay that the real contest begins now: the relentless pursuit of relevance and self-esteem in a place almost perfectly designed to destroy both.
The pond is infinitely large, and you are a very small fish. You realise that in Oxford the achievements that meant the world to you and your family mean nothing to a world of top tier athletes, bona fide savants, and Nobel Peace Prize winners. Your friendly performance of Chopsticks is replied to with a maniacal seizure of virtuosic savagery, as if each note hammered into the piano represents another nail in the coffin of potential Big Name on Campus (BNOC) status. You are dismayed to find out one of your closest friends has already set up an NGO in Thailand – Et tu, Cecilia?
The real contest begins now: the relentless pursuit of relevance and self-esteem in a place almost perfectly designed to destroy both.
The tyranny of expectation doesn’t just touch the academic and co-curricular side of things either: if we couldn’t get a blue, or a first, maybe we’d get a spouse. Obscure poetry references would increase desirability rather than garner weird looks, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of political meme pages would be funny, not concerning. Yet we end up cursing in disgust at the shamelessly desperate Oxloves pining for a fit, tall, sporty, naughty, curtained, thick, partner. “How could intellectuals be so shallow!”, you cry, as you furiously search Tinder for a match you can imagine getting off with sober. Imagined dates discussing Sartre or Foucault fail to occur, replaced by Bridge nights to be forgotten. It is with regret that you realise the only romantic difference between Oxford and other universities is the class of accent you hear bellowing out at 1am.
When I came to Oxford a year ago, it was potentially the case that some these of these thoughts – and more – were swirling around in my head. Most of us came from an environment in which we were already seen as clever or talented, and felt comfortable as our identities were both built up and reinforced through the constant praise we received for our efforts. In hindsight though, was it such a bad thing to start from a comparatively clean slate? Perhaps the tragedy arrives in not relishing the opportunity to become nobody again, to become free from the shackles of expectation, instead copy pasting our school attitudes to our life in university. And of course, everybody desires the sweet serendipity of finding a soulmate, but surely we can’t expect the tragicomedy of teenage romance not to get in the way.
The dissonance between fantasy and reality can be comedic but also painful
The dreams that the entrants to the Dreaming Spires have of their time here may differ, but almost nobody arrives without some pre-conceived notion of what their experience will be like. But in attempting to already chart our progress before we arrive, we set ourselves up for inevitable failure. The dissonance between fantasy and reality can be comedic but also painful, and the false belief that we can satisfy ourselves with the next achievement or relationship leaves us grasping at a contentment that seems to fall away. The tendency for over-achievers to discount their current achievements and relentlessly pursue new ones, coupled with a fearsome academic programme makes it perhaps a bit easier to understand why the university has such a problem with mental health. Of course, this is not to say we can’t have certain ambitions for our time here that we work towards – achieving a first, joining certain societies, becoming, shudder, a Union hack – but when these ambitions become assumptions rather than hopes only misery can follow.
So, if I could speak to my fresher self a year ago, I’d tell him to calm down. I’d tell him, yes, that guy who seems to know the entirety of maths is scary but that maybe he won’t be so intimidating once I get to know him. I’d tell him that relationships are difficult and no, going to university doesn’t turn you into James Dean. I’d tell him that I’m not the only person struggling to adjust and to think of others who are too. I’d tell him friends can come and go, so cherish every interaction while they happen. I’d tell him not knowing what’s going to happen is part of the magic. And then, naturally, I’d tell him the answers to 2019 Prelims.