Image Description: Two Bubbles separating two groups of individuals
1. THE ARRIVAL
The day had come – after a year of personal statement revisions, nervous interview mumbling, pointless revision, and finally, the A-Levels fiasco, you are here. You are an Oxford student, following in the footsteps of famous and universally beloved alumni like Charlies Xavier, Nigella Lawson and the actual Mr Bean.
But of course this year, 2020 – about to join the ranks of 1968, 1989, 2001 and 2016 in being depressingly momentous and important – is no ordinary year. This Freshers’ Week was unlike any that had been experienced before, namely because none of its nights would end with you vomiting outside the taxi rank or drunk-dialling the second year you just met at The Four Candles with unfiltered protestations of love. No, this Freshers’ Week was subdued and serious. If it were a person, it would be an angry librarian coming over to your desk, their mouth in a thin, disapproving line, wondering if maybe you could ‘keep it down a bit as other people are trying to work.’
This is disappointing to be sure, but, you think, perhaps you can make the best of it. Perhaps it won’t be so terrible. You care about other people; you understand that the university doesn’t want you to have a bad time, it’s simply that in light of current events – namely a spiralling global pandemic – it would be more difficult to have a good one.
So, face mask on, you unloaded your luggage. Parents can only spend a limited time in college, in many ways a blessed relief because any embarrassing nosiness is now curtailed by official time restraints. Your room might be surprisingly spacious, it might be a sad dark box. Whatever the case, as you sat on your bed and stared at the wall you get that sense of excitement that’s been so promised: a new era is beginning, three whole years of your life that you can shape into anything you want.
But then the hugs end, the door closes, and the family car pulls out of your college. A strange sense of nervous uncertainty takes hold – what on earth are you supposed to do next?
2. MAKING FRIENDS
In any other year, this would be much simpler. If you don’t like the people who happen to end up on your corridor, it had never been easier to find people with similar interests, whether in sports teams, societies, or on social media. In the hazy pre-corona days, making a friend was as easy as sitting next to someone in hall and inviting them to the pub if you thought they were alright. Not anymore.
Practices vary by college, with some being remarkably lax, others dictatorial in the amount they allow their students to mingle, but chances are you are stuck with the other freshers on your staircase or corridor or, as the college likes to term it, with your ‘bubble’.
You might like your bubble-mates. You might hate them. Either way, you have to accept that, regardless, these are the people you must consider your friends. They are the only ones who you can invite to the pub or persuade to audition for the college acapella group. Clinging to each other out of pure necessity, and in some cases genuine affection, you will survive.
Now, at the end of the week, you have probably managed to establish a reasonable connection with your bubble-mates. Perhaps in a non-corona world, you would not have stuck together as tightly as you now need to, but in the end it doesn’t matter as you don’t really have a choice.
3. MEETING NEW PEOPLE
“But it’s impossible to meet new people!” you cried. “What about The Bubble?”
Well, never fear, young fresher, for your JCR is determined for you to broaden your horizons and put on some fun, socially-distanced activities for you to meet your fellow undergrads.
This might have taken the form of a strange ‘speed dating’ event, where everyone was masked up and seated two metres apart. In your enthusiasm to meet more than the seven people on your corridor, you forgot the logistics of what it means to wear a mask and attempted to communicate with someone on the other side of the room at the same time.
“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”
“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”
You were shouting, and everyone else is too. Only in 2020 has lip reading finally been acknowledged as a valued form of communication. You left with a sore throat from all the yelling, but you met that nice girl who did PPE – but what was her name? Lizzie? Lisa? Under the mask she could have been saying anything.
You might have decided to abandon social distancing entirely and run around invading other people’s bubbles in your desperation to expand your social circle. But don’t let this be you. There are three, or maybe four, whole years left in this city to meet new people. Freshers’ Week isn’t the be all and end all for your social life, as many older and wiser students will be quick to remind you.
4. HAVING FUN
The clubs are closed, the JCR can only do a limited timetable of activities, and the pubs are shutting at 10. So once 10.05 rolls around, what on earth are you supposed to do for the rest of the night?
You might have decided to go back to your kitchen and have a small party there. The drinks were flowing, the dance moves popping, the ABBA turned up – and now so have the porters, saying you can’t be disruptive past 11pm.
All right, the kitchen sesh is out of bounds. Why not take the party outside and go for a bit of a walk? So out The Bubble goes, shivering slightly in the sudden autumnal chill, for a wandering tour around the sights of Oxford. You might have chosen to have a classic photoshoot in the amber light at the Rad Cam, or perhaps ran up and down the empty Broad Street with hyperactive glee.
But the walk can only last so long. Energy was flagging, and it was hard to spot things in the dark. You could be looking at New College, or Balliol, or Magdalen. By the time you get back, it was still only midnight. After a tired but friendly chat in the kitchen, you decided to give up and were in bed by 12.30.
It’s been a surprisingly restive Freshers’ Week.
5. THE PANIC
Oh no. You’ve had your first meeting with you tutor, and they’ve already set you an essay and an enormous reading list or problem sheet. “I’ve only been here three days!” you may have cried indignantly, but are secretly glad for something else to do that isn’t going up and down the Tescalator with The Bubble.
However, this secret gratitude can only last so long. The struggle of finding your extensive set of books on SOLO is proving impossible – why doesn’t it like any of your keywords? Why is this book in German, and how am I supposed to read it? – and you seem to have forgotten everything you ever learnt at school during the mindless months of lockdown – what’s an introduction? How do I integrate exponentials? WHY AM I HERE?
Then ensues a panicked chat with your college parent. “Help!” you wailed over your messaging app of choice. “I don’t understand this tutor at all and I think they’re going to hate me!”
Back comes the reassuring reply: “Oh, yeah, they’re awful. Every essay I wrote went down about as well as a turd in a kids’ soft play with them. Good luck!”
6. RISING TO THE CHALLENGE
As Freshers’ Week comes to a close, you entered your final stage of grief over its tragic half-life: acceptance.
Despite all its outward promises of freebies and binge-drinking, at its core, Freshers’ Week was about opportunity: the opportunity to meet new people, explore new interests, and present a different version of yourself to what everyone knew at school. With the current restrictions, these opportunities have been severely curtailed and it is hard not to feel miserable about it.
But that doesn’t mean they have gone away entirely. There are still sports to play, online JCR meetings to attend, and socially-distanced dates to be had. The world does not end with The Bubble, and we Oxford Freshers should be extra glad that the college and tutorial systems give us far more scope for freedom than a regular university.
So a big thank you to the JCR committees and college administrators that have done their best to make this Freshers’ Week as good as it could be in the circumstances – your efforts don’t go unappreciated. And to all my fellow Freshers – time to get to work! But maybe one more go around the Tescalator first…
Image Credit: Susannaanas via Wikimedia Commons