Reflecting on my year in Oxford

Oxford University can be a dark and lonely place, mired with stress and loneliness. Photo: Getty Images
Oxford University can be a dark and lonely place, mired with stress and loneliness. Photo: Getty Images
It's coming to the end of my first year at Oxford, and as I sit here at my battered old desk trying to summon up the energy to finish writing my thesis, I have been reflecting a lot on the past nine months.

When I first learned I would be studying at the University of Oxford, I must admit the usual stereotypes floated through my head. Oxford, in my imagination, was an old, golden city of dusty towers and well-thumbed books. It was a holy place of sorts, where my heroes J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had dreamed up Middle Earth and Narnia while drinking wine in the Eagle and Child. I thought of students punting on the river, munching on fresh strawberries, or cycling up myriad little paths of the city.

And in many ways, the city and university have lived up to these expectations.

But I have also found that Oxford can be a dark and lonely place, mired with stress and loneliness. Oxford is also a city with a horrific history of white supremacy and obscene elitism, and to an extent, these problems haven't dissolved.

In late 2017, MP David Lammy obtained admissions data showing that as many as 16 Oxbridge colleges failed to offer any places to Black British applicants in 2015. So many of my friends have experienced first-hand the elitism and racism inherent in this place. Groups like Target Oxbridge, which provide extra support to Black African and Caribbean students, and various student campaigns are attempting to enact change, but there's a lot of work to do.

There is a distinct lack of support for students struggling with their mental health. Part of this issue arises from the infuriating mix of red-tape and bureaucracy one has to wade through in order to get any sort of help.

Applying for extensions, for example, on account of one's mental health issues is a deeply difficult and convoluted process. A medical certificate from one's doctor will not suffice; instead, one has to outline in detail the exact circumstances of one's mental health issues to a nameless, faceless person in the Proctor's office.

My time at Oxford has, unsurprisingly, been inextricably intertwined with my experience with the Rhodes Trust. Initially, I was worried about being branded with the stereotype of the ''Rhodes Scholar'', an over-enthusiastic, manically driven, constantly networking American dreaming of permanent residence in the White House. But quite frankly, no-one really cares if you're a Rhodesie or not.

I've embraced the Rhodes community and I've found friends I know will stick around for my whole life. There are too many to name, but you know who you are.

In many ways, I am not the ideal Oxford student. I am far too messy and chaotic, and I have no doubt my parents would be deeply disappointed to learn of the multiple occasions I have been in trouble with my college, department, and the university Proctor himself, from losing library books to missing ''very important'' university ceremonies on account of being desperately hungover.

From the heights of the peppermint-coloured Radcliffe Camera to the depths of the fluorescent-lit Gladstone Link, the University of Oxford is jam-packed with more books, articles, ancient manuscripts than one could read in a lifetime.

This university has the resources, the talent and the capital to push one to the utmost academic limits. But ultimately, I've found Oxford to be hands-off for the most part.

Self-motivation and an internal drive to stick to schedules and work solidly and consistently is imperative for flourishing here. And I must admit without the stress of constant deadlines and the pressure of lecturers constantly checking in with me, I often find it hard to be motivated.

And then we come to college life. I'm at Trinity College, one of the older and more ''traditional'' colleges at Oxford. When I was first placed here, I was somewhat apprehensive about whether I would fit in at such an ancient and elite place. But the MCR (Middle Common Room) is home to an incredibly encouraging, welcoming and progressive graduate community.

I will forever cherish the memories I have of marching in the Oxford Pride Parade with my rainbow-dressed college friends, engaging in massive snow fights on the back lawn, drinking too many pints in the beer cellar, and gathering together on the comfy old common room sofas to watch Love Island.

My time at Oxford has also been studded with glowing opportunities, from meeting Ronan Farrow to listening to Dave Chappelle, Jon Stewart and Billy Joel speak at the Oxford Union. Oxford University has also surprised me with its seemingly unending array of idiosyncratic (and quite frankly, ridiculous) traditions and customs. There is a distinct Oxford jargon; a language peppered with strange words such as ''battels'', ''bop'', ''sub-fusc'', ''cuppers'', ''entz'', ''mods'', ''hack'', and ''seccies''.

Students wear academic dress to exams, with the colour of the carnation pinned to their lapel indicating which exam they're sitting. Matriculation is a strange ceremony wherein people in odd dresses garble on in Latin for about half an hour.

But in the quiet times, when I am not plagued by essays or an omnipresent sense of dread, I enjoy walking around Oxford and discovering all the hidden, small delights this city has to offer.

Sometimes, my friend Gregor and I will buy a sandwich from the little convenience store on Walton Rd, before wandering along the canals in the cool blue evenings. Sometimes, I skip lunch at college and head to the Covered Market, where I can explore all manner of little shops and stalls. Other times, I ditch the library and go read my books in the park, stretched out under a beech tree.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to study here in Oxford. But I would be lying if I said living here was easy. I can't wait to head home to Aotearoa for a blessed three weeks, where I can rest and spend precious time with my brothers and sisters.

And when I return to Oxford, I shall keep in mind the words of another Oxford alumnus, J.R.R. Tolkien. ''All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.''

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.


'Greats'. The Greats are the thing.

Jean may not be aware that we have schools in Dunedin taking considerable Government funding and at the same time are able to protect the blood line of their schools through preferential entry to children/grand children of old boys/girls. This is hardly an open playing field and no different to entry criteria she outlines at Oxford.

Goodness. They sound rather Aryan, Philright.