Behind the BNOC

Behind the BNOC: Babbling with Becky

For my last column interview, it was a lovely sunny day right before our JCR guest night formal, and I had sat on my blanket for the past three hours trying to finish an essay before remembering I had an interview. Luckily, my interviewee, Becky, was not only a sunshiney personality, but equally as in love with the sun, so we sat down on BNC New Quad to have a chat surrounded by the sounds of croquet and parents. 

Oxford is often romanticized in movies and books, and with the rise of social media, the large number of accounts covering life at Oxford has thousands of followers, many of whom are people hoping to spend just a bit of time in the “city of dreaming spires.” Becky posts one photo every day on her Instagram account, @observingoxford, trying to highlight the small parts of Oxford life. 

Becky is no stranger to life at Oxford. She did her undergrad at Worcester, where she is now doing her PhD. She also did a Master’s at Cambridge, taking time off to help run her family’s business during COVID. When she returned to Cambridge in 2020, she realized that work-life balance could be hard to strike in such an intense academic environment. “It sometimes felt like there was no room to do anything but exist day to day, and it is so easy to forget just where you are…I said, ‘I need to take this in more.’” So, Becky did just that: using her interest in photography to make an account that allowed her to do something outside of her degree, focusing on the little, often-overlooked parts of Oxford.

Becky’s search for a daily picture took her to different colleges, making the “city come alive.” I noted the focus on surroundings and architecture in many of her posts—it seemed like the photos were less curated and more of a snapshot as Becky went about her day. She confirmed that “it was meant to be a photo diary”, saying that “what I love about my account is that every day I’m forced to take the time to look for something beautiful.” With videos covering things from formals to scenes studying at different colleges and libraries, we see a view of Oxford that feels quite serene.

Becky says she gets many messages from prospective applicants thanking her for the role that the account played in encouraging them to apply to Oxbridge. She says that it is one of her favourite parts about running the account, especially when she also initially felt Oxford was almost unattainable. When applying to do her undergrad, she was told that she had a 2% chance of getting in. Her low expectations let her truly enjoy being at Oxford for the sake of being there, not for the sake of attending university. I was one of those applicants; when I got in, her account was one of the reassurances that I would be going to a large university with many things to do (and some very pretty spring flowers!)

By both romanticizing the place and emphasizing how accessible it really is, the account has certainly brought a positive impact on the way Oxford is portrayed. Being able to share aspects of Oxford demystifies it a lot, which we agreed was absolutely necessary to improve diversity. “When you tour the city of Oxford, it’s just walls. You often don’t get a chance to see it from the inside. Posting snippets from life as a student hopefully makes it more accessible in peoples’ minds”. Becky emphasizes that helping to give people the “belief that they can go for it” is something that gives her huge joy, and she has started mentoring for a summer mentorship program.

Yet with the benefits the account brings to future prospective applicants, there is a downside. Becky prides herself on being honest towards the Oxford experience. At times the large audience of her account, many of whom don’t study at Oxford and will likely not have the chance to do so, has put some pressure on her to appreciate everything and not mention the more challenging parts. “It’s a difficult balance to strike… people will say, ‘You’re lucky to be in that position, I would do anything to be there.’ And you’ll feel guilty because they’re right, but I also don’t want people to feel like they’re lesser because their entire Oxford experience wasn’t necessarily all sunshine and rainbows.” Everyone struggles at times and Oxford challenges even the most prepared student. 

I asked how different the Oxford experience was as a postgrad; it feels like the postgrad-undergrad divide was much larger than it should be considering how they both share colleges. In response, she says that time as a postgrad makes Oxford feel more like a home this time as she lives here throughout the year. She quips, “It’s like having a job. It’s probably less immediate pressure overall, and I definitely don’t miss exam season!” Becky feels that although it can be trickier to meet new people, there is more of a work-life balance: she can take weekends off now and mainly spends them exploring the city. “Oxford really comes alive when the undergrads are here,” she said.

All in all, our two hours on the grass gave me a newfound appreciation for both Oxford and the way Becky tries to portray it. It was a wonderful way not only to appreciate my last interview of the term, but also of where I am and how I can enjoy even walking outside. As I go into a panic studying for exams, the fact that we’ve somehow made it to such an important and beautiful school has certainly made it easier to parse my degree, and the fact that kind people like Becky are documenting it to show others is truly heart-warming.