Oxford really is that idyllic. But like most things in life, it’s all about the people.
I have met some truly wonderful people this year. Gadding about this beautiful sandstone city, rambling around Addison’s Walk, nervously attending tutorials, rowing through hypothermia (and hypochondria), nursing beers at the Turf, dining under flickering candlelight…it wouldn’t have been the same without these kindred spirits.
I came seeking an ‘Oxford Experience’ beyond the libraries (which, true to form, I did not set foot in except when Instagram called. Stained glass + vaulted ceilings = hashtag bonanza). I expected to have to wade through the nerds to find people on a similar wavelength. To some extent this was true. The intenseness of some students is startling, particularly amongst those coming straight from Oxbridge undergrad. The effects of the pressure-cooker environment are pretty obvious: seething stress and anxiety, intellectual combativeness, constant showmanship and outspokenness. Many people are also (admirably) just incredibly engrossed in their work, so seem to function on a different (slightly distracted) plane.
And yet, most people here are very down-to-earth. They’re keen to socialise, travel and switch off from their work, which makes for a ‘vibrant postgrad community’ (the brochures, like Shakira’s hips, don’t lie) and fast friendships.
It can be difficult to maintain perspective.
One of the most challenging things for me was learning to tune out the white noise of other people’s stress and insecurities. I was intimidated from the get-go; told that this would be the ‘most stressful year of my life’, that the BCL drove my college mum (a 2nd year graduate student) to take up smoking, and that it ‘breaks’ people.
I am an incredibly impressionable person. Case in point: I devoted a year of my life to worshipping the Miu Miu coffer bag because it was the ‘It Bag’ of 2006, and it was only when I emerged from the bunker of the fashion blogosphere that I realised how hideous it is (basically a puckered heap of loose elbow skin). More recently, I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of kale and acai, chia seeds and kombucha. Like an idiot, I’ve paid money for coconut water.
My point is, I get caught up in hype very easily. So it was a struggle not to let the ‘BCHell’ horror stories become a self-fulfilling prophecy, particularly when everyday conversations with classmates would be peppered with barbed remarks like, “I love having coffee with you because the lack of work you do makes me feel so much better by comparison!” and, “You seem to be taking it easy…haven’t you been out every night this week?” (as though I were a recidivistic teenager and not a postgrad attending the occasional wine and cheese event. On a scale of 0 to party animal, pretty sure I’d be Nigel with the brie).
I had to constantly remind myself why I was here – for the cultural experience, to meet people, and to try new things. Of course the academics mattered, but my aim was to challenge myself through the process of the Oxford tutorial system (to be bolder and more creative) rather than prove myself through grades.
Passion can take you far.
I realise that this is the subject of just about every high school career counselling talk (and that I’m sluggishly slow on the uptake), but being here in Oxford has really opened my eyes to how far passion can propel people. That people will put in ridiculous hours and mental effort, do their best work, and ultimately achieve amazing things, when they genuinely love what they are doing.
Like watching Jiro speak about having grand visions of sushi, or Bill Cunningham tirelessly snapping shots of well-dressed New Yorkers (I’m coming off a doco binge), it has been inspiring to see friends complete DPhils on esoteric subjects, wax lyrical about dung beetles or economic development projects, and make progress on pain relief for cancer patients…all because they feel it is their calling (or at least, speaks to them).
Being here at Oxford has forced me to think critically about what I want to do, as I realise that gusto is the most important ingredient in producing things of value.