“Feeding them to the lions”: Access burnout and guilt

Aged 17, I sat through a morning’s worth of application talks in the medical school lecture theatre, having been driven down to Oxford on a total whim for the last September open day. Undeniably terrified, but quietly fizzing with excitement, I diligently wrote down every plummy word that fell out of the presenting tutors’ mouths.

One academic made a flippant comment about applications being considered in the wider context of a student’s personal background. “For example, achieving A*s, As and Bs at GCSE is quite impressive if you’ve had little support from your family, come from an area where not many people get into higher education, and your school doesn’t have a great track record with GCSE results – compared to if you went to, say, Magdalen College School down the road, where grades like that are a bit more… expected.”

Well, duh, I thought. Of course grades like those are more impressive if your school can’t afford textbooks or tiny revision classes, or you don’t have your own desk at home or quiet space to study. I smiled down into my notebook, underlining this a few times – maybe the fact I couldn’t afford a several-hundred-pound preparation course for the medicine entrance exam, the BMAT, wouldn’t be the end of the world after all.

To me, this contextualisation made complete sense. The rest of the room did not agree. This seemed an attack on their privilege – yet another thing  handed to the benefits generation, to some council estate urchin who was about to steal their hard-earned place. All so the yearly admissions statistics didn’t offend some middle-class lefty snowflakes!

Sweat pricked up my back and my face burned red as I sank down into the seat. My inevitably-contextualised application and I wanted to crawl into a hole and die. I felt like I’d suddenly had a scarlet ‘C’ for ‘charity case’ sewn onto my shirt, like a council estate Hester Prynne, and that every time I opened my mouth, my accent would make it glow brighter and brighter. I’d stick out like a sore thumb, I was sure – not admitted because of my academic ability, but to make admissions statistics look a little better.

The initial creeping sensation that I would never truly belong at Oxford, that I would always be present in body but never quite here in spirit, has slowly wrapped itself around me like a particularly insidious ivy. Over the last 3 years, it has grown tighter with every incidence of classism or event missed because I couldn’t afford it, grown tight to the point where I sometimes struggle to find the motivation to do any access work that is genuinely motivated by passion and not solely to fulfil the required hours of volunteering for my Crankstart scholarship.

And I’m not the only one for whom the cracks in Oxford’s exterior are starting to show. I’ve collected 39 responses from working class and BAME students who do access work at Oxford, to see whether my complex feelings towards access work – feelings of responsibility towards incoming working-class applicants, but simultaneous guilt that I’m feeding them to the lions – is just my anxious self or a more widespread phenomenon.

One anonymous response has summed this experience of ‘access burnout’ up for me.

“In first year, I was fresh and ready for change, I was a force constantly pushing. Yet as time went on, I ran out of energy, and I began to resent that everything fell to students, and that these students themselves were not supported. I felt very guilty about this, like I owed it to my roots to help people like me, yet at the same time I had no one to help me.”

Don’t get me wrong – Oxford’s generous bursary schemes, the Crankstart scholarship especially, mean that doors I didn’t even know existed have been opened. I now know what hummus and falafel are, and how to use posh cutlery, and I’m lucky enough to be taught by three amazing female medical tutors who are all as lovely as they are brilliantly clever. But it’s still difficult to shake off that feeling of being the ‘state school kid’, here on some tokenistic fluke, a symbolic statement of generosity by the University.

It’s still difficult to shake off that feeling of being the ‘state school kid’, here on some tokenistic fluke, a symbolic statement of generosity by the University.

For a while, I managed to convince myself that I deserved to be here just as much as anyone else. I quickly threw myself into access work, passionate about encouraging other underprivileged kids from the North East to realise their own capabilities, but lately I cannot shake the guilt of feeling like I’m leading lambs to the slaughter. It’s difficult to explain the unique loneliness of unbelonging to those who don’t instantly get it – and even more difficult to try and explain this to a prospective working-class candidate.

How do I explain that in freshers’ week, allegedly the best time of my life, I felt like I was lost in a foreign country? I was baffled as to how everyone else had turned up with pre-made networks of friends running through multiple colleges, and how people had heard of one another’s schools. I felt that even though I’d gotten the grades, I simply didn’t have that ‘renaissance man’ factor – I don’t have an additional grade 8 in cello or speak Latin. How do you look a working-class candidate in the eye and say, nobody will ever fully understand you here, and frankly, you won’t ever fully understand anyone else? Oh, and you’re definitely never going to be able to afford the ski trip.

Others have shared this sense of alienation. Another Balliol student told me:

“Even though I didn’t really understand it at the time, looking back to freshers it felt that conversations with certain people would only go so far until they would kind of drop me. I remember being at a constant state of confusion because I didn’t know about the private school networks they were talking about, or the kind of lives that went along side that kind of wealth. I also remember someone asking me what my parents and being really surprised when I said they were a builder and a retail worker after this person had talked about their parents being play-writers and actors, and they squirmed a bit and asked ‘how did you end up doing English then?”’

How do I explain to applicants that they will be questioned about their parents’ professions, and that their answers will lead to similarly raised eyebrows? And how do I bring up that people will wince when you talk about the realities of your home life? As one anonymous student explained:

“I felt like I was judged by my peers – not explicitly because I was working class, but because I was doing working class things. People reacted very strongly to things I just … didn’t deem that big of a deal. I mentioned in passing once bathing out of a bucket because my Dad was doing up the bathroom, and my friends averted their gaze – they didn’t know how to respond. I hadn’t even anticipated it being uncomfortable.”

This sense of alienation doesn’t only exist in the social sphere, but in the academic one too. You’re to keep up with everyone else’s workload, even if they arrived with far more experience, confidence and cultural capital than you. But you’re also not to be too disappointed when you don’t excel like you did in school – after all, what did you expect? One 2nd year PPE student told me:

“I remember a friend of mine said to me when I was upset about my prelims marks, that it ‘didn’t matter that I didn’t do well because I am from a state school’. This just made me feel worse, as if the crippling imposter syndrome and feelings that I wasn’t good enough to be at Oxford weren’t bad enough.”

I’ve heard comments like this myself, too, and it just reinforces my own sense that this system simply isn’t made for me. I can’t access the top, and I shouldn’t get above myself with ideas about how to get there – I should simply be grateful for the fact I’m here and am allowed to pass.

But as a white woman, I am never going to understand the minefield of talking to young BAME candidates about whether they can fit in here. As one Black student told me, “There is no universal fraternity at Oxford. It’s a dangerous lie to sell to BAME students, who will likely face significant ostracism within the university at the very least.”

She continued, “I have wondered, when speaking to Black students and parents specifically, if advocating to Black applicants is a responsible use of my voice. Black students at Oxford are ubiquitously subject to vile antiblackness, which is a difficult enough truth. Difficult to live it, and certainly difficult to relay to young Black children the fact that we are subjugated so intensely. Is it entirely ethical to advocate, on Oxford’s behalf ultimately, to Black applicants? With the knowledge that, if accepted, they will be matriculating into a system that has no regard for our welfare or our trauma, knowing how that can affect your health and happiness? The question plays on my mind.”

I can’t access the top, and I shouldn’t get above myself with ideas about how to get there – I should simply be grateful for the fact I’m here and am allowed to pass.

Another girl told me that “Other South Asian and Muslim girls have asked me about my experience at Oxford, and I tell them that sometimes it takes a while to find your people, but once you do the community is really supportive. What I really want to tell them is to run for the hills and apply to a London uni if you want to be around other Muslims or South Asians.”

So much of the university’s access and outreach model relies on current students being candid about the struggles they faced in applying to Oxford, but their narratives seem to always be tied up neatly with a bow once they arrive here, their struggles suddenly fixed. I’ve grown tired with the way they seek to paint me as some plucky young chancer who only sought to get into Oxford to prove wrong the #haters who didn’t believe I could do it. My greatest achievement is capped at having gotten myself a place here, and I should be satisfied with the fact there’s no room to go any higher.

There’s also the implication that hardships students faced whilst applying suddenly don’t exist anymore now they’re here, feeding applicants a blanket narrative of the homogenous Oxford student, all equal in their ability to thrive both academically and socially.

But this is a dangerous lie, and one that seeks to alienate the individual by teaching them that any difficulties or structural inequalities they face are, in fact, their personal responsibilities. You simply need to work a bit harder, and you mustn’t complain – after all, no-one likes someone with a chip on their shoulder. With Oxford terms only lasting 8 weeks, it is an absolute farce to act like our home environments and socioeconomic backgrounds have no influence on our ability to succeed after we matriculate.

One mathematician told me that his biggest struggle has been the need to work during vacations.

“There’s a strong culture of “paying keep” among my friends and family at home. I remember needing a £750 deposit by January of first year for a house and I simply had to work a full-time job and an additional part-time job in the evenings. My friends were able to find a deposit without working, whilst I failed my first collections because I lacked time to revise properly, and started second term with an inadequate foundation, which caused further problems – maths is so cumulative.”

I’ve also encountered complex financial struggles while at Oxford. Working class students are taught to feel an extra sense of gratitude, of being forever indebted to Oxford’s great pearly-white marble hand for lifting us out of the slum and placing them up a few rungs on the social mobility ladder (which, for BAME students, also plays into ‘white saviour’ tropes). Surrounded by more wealth than we have probably ever seen in our lives, it’s no wonder that we often feel it would be cheeky, ungrateful, or ‘too much’ to ask for extra financial help when struggling. ‘Jokes’ I’ve heard from college welfare staff that ‘students just fritter away their money’ and ‘can’t handle responsibility’ simply reinforce everything I’ve ever been told about the poor being to blame for their own poverty, which, when coupled with a vast sense of alienation from my middle-class peers, means I’ve often been far too embarrassed to ask for money when I’ve needed it.

As one other student told me,

“There is also an ‘invoice’ that my college sends students who are on the low-income bursary that lists the money they have been given as if it’s a bill that they owe back, but then says that it is just a reminder of the generosity of the college, even though the Crankstart scholarship listed on there doesn’t come from the college. It’s bizarre and really has the tone of reminding you how lucky you are to be there and how grateful you should be compared to your friends who do not receive financial help.”

Another student told me about her experiences asking for financial aid to support those she lives with.

“Oxford fails to recognise that throwing money at problems doesn’t solve them and that actually suddenly receiving what feels like hush money puts you in the position of either living the high life and alienating you from family and friends, or sending money home and no longer being eligible for emergency loans because you’ve ‘wasted’ the money you were given.”

The working-class idealisation of Oxford as existing on some sort of untouchable pedestal means that often, we are too scared to complain. Our place here is some sort of fluke, inherently precarious, hanging tentatively by a fine string that can be cut by the powers-that-be at any time – and the scissor blades inching closer together with every complaint. When we do ask for help, we often find ourselves mirroring humiliating caricatures of Victorian charity – the poor beggar child, having to share all the gory details of their poverty whilst showing suitable humility, gratitude and moral goodness. Welfare systems simply do not understand the delicate and complex realities that working class and BAME students face while studying here, and as a consequence they are ill-equipped to help.

But the University could be changing for the better. I have witnessed positive change, especially from Balliol Classics student (and force to be reckoned with) Andi Burton-Marsh. She’s already founded the Christian Cole Society for Classicists of Colour, carving space for others like her in a subject that is often dominated by the white upper-classes. She’s also working to make changes in our college.

“In 8th Week Trinity of this year I wrote and filed a report to Balliol College on racism and discrimination experienced in college by BAME students, primarily from academic and non-academic staff. The report was approved by the master and formed a major part of a paper from Balliol JCR and MCR which was then brought to the College Meeting of governing fellows on Monday of 9th Week. The College Meeting accepted every proposal and have pledged to implement every request in the report starting by the start of next term at the latest.”

But these changes still relied on the unpaid labour of a student. Oxford’s hypervisibility in the public eye means it is often keen to protect its own interests and image, often at the expense of silencing students, lest they ‘expose’ anything that would damage their pearly reputation. Suggestions for improvements are paid mere lip service, or laughed out of the room if college is not presented with a fully costed solution.

Oxford’s hypervisibility in the public eye means it is often keen to protect its own interests and image, often at the expense of silencing students.

As one JCR president told me, “Discussion has always been shut down. In attempting to improve sexism in college, I was threatened by the Dean about what tackling sexual assault would do for my career in the future if it was public-facing and accused of libel. [I’ve also] been told by the welfare lead that he does not want to hear problems around racial discrimination or sexual assault, but only wants specific costed-out solutions. In other words, that those marginalised have to sort out their own marginalisation.”

So – how complicit am I in a student’s future struggles and sense of alienation when selling the idealised Oxford experience? Should I feel guilty, for lying by omission?

Some feel that it isn’t the place of students working in access and outreach to burst this bubble, especially with working-class or BAME applicants, as one anonymous student argued.

“For me, access work is about giving young people the confidence and information they need to make a successful application. One example is I know many students suffer from racism while at Oxford – this is awful and it is vital that we talk openly about it, especially with prospective applicants. However, I don’t think anyone believes the solution is to put young people of colour off the idea of applying.”

Ultimately, as access and outreach workers, our role is to empower prospective students with the confidence and knowledge to make a successful application. Maybe I’m patronising these imagined future candidates by assuming their naivety of Oxford’s reputation for exclusivity. So of course, I agree – putting working-class or BAME candidates off from applying quite obviously isn’t a solution. But I also think the sentiment that these students should come to Oxford precisely to bring positive change rides on a much trickier crack in the system: these applicants must be willing to be trail-blazers, to be self-sacrificial, willing to both suffer and be vocal in their suffering so that the university can learn how to better help their next generation.

As one PPE student commented to me, “I often say to prospective students, there is a problem with underrepresentation of state school students, but that’s why we need you to apply, so we have more – but that’s kinda weird, in that it suggests they’re just here for numbers and it’s like it’s some sort of personal sacrifice they have to make to make Oxford’s numbers look better.”

I want to focus my energy on making positive changes from within, so I can say with confidence that working-class students do have a place here beyond their seat in the lecture hall, that they can truly thrive and feel comfortable. I do worry that, much like white people complaining about ‘burnout’ after a few weeks of half-arsed performative activism on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, my personal exhaustion and reluctance to do future access work is selfish, when I know that something as simple as hearing my thick Geordie accent coming from someone in an Oxford t-shirt would have made the world of difference to my confidence when applying. But I certainly don’t condemn others if their experiences mean they are unable to do access work in good faith anymore.

One student put it this way – “Applying as a working-class person is a trade-off between different values: how far are you willing to go for “success”? Are you willing to leave your old life and experience something completely new? Are you prepared to be a bit of an outsider?

It’s fine to answer “yes” to all these questions, and it’s fine to answer “no”.
It’s not fine for applicants to never have even considered them.”