College review: Magdalen

Source: Daisy Jowers

In the tradition of these things, I’m going to start by telling you some highly irrelevant facts about myself that will make me seem unrelatable, have absolutely no bearing on what else I have to say, and which you could have guessed from the mere fact that I’m writing this article.

I didn’t spend the whole of Lower Sixth wondering what college I was going to apply to. I always knew I was going to apply to Magdalen. (Well, I toyed with the idea of New, for about ten minutes, the day before I sent my UCAS form in. Then I remembered that New College don’t even have one deer park, let alone two.) If my tutor’s word at Prelims drinks is to be believed, I am the first person to ever turn up at interviews and say, ‘I like it here, it reminds me of home.’ Of course, it did this because the room I was staying in was single-glazed and freezing cold, and the food I had eaten in hall the night before was filling, but strangely unsatisfying, both comfortingly similar experiences to my years at boarding school. I’m a member of OUCA, but I’ve never voted Tory. Since coming to university, I’ve accidentally said more than my fair share of things that have been completely out of touch with the real world, and I’ve been on the receiving end of quite a lot of banter for it.

But you see, all of this doesn’t matter. Everyone lives in a bubble before they come to university, no matter where they’re from. And all that happens once you get here is that the bubble gets bigger. We’re all shaped by who we see and who we talk to, how their lives have been before they smashed into ours. That my friends call me out and laugh at me when I say things like, ‘I thought everyone had done at least a year of Latin,’ is why I’m so glad I’m at a college that brings people together from all around the world, from all walks of life, and shows us all that people don’t have to be exactly the same as you to become your best friends.

I’m proud to be at a college where nearly one in five of this year’s freshers came from areas with low progression to higher education. I’m proud of how much more diverse Magdalen is now than it was when I arrived, and I’m proud that we realise that we’ve still got a long way to go.

Every college has a reputation, and they’re difficult to change, when they’ve been building up for nearly 600 years. In the past, blue-blooded and blue-tied Magdalen alumni have filled up the front benches. The walls we live inside have been the final playground for kings, princes, and a viceroy. But that isn’t what makes Magdalen special. Run down the Wikipedia page of any of the old colleges and you’ll see exactly the same story. What makes Magdalen special is what’s here now.

I could talk for hours about the beautiful architecture. The 15th century Cloisters I live in. The 18th century ‘New Building’. But you can look at photographs and watch videos of those on our Facebook page. Once we’re allowed out of our houses, you can come and look for yourself. Even for people with no interest in studying at Magdalen, there’s almost nothing I could recommend more than a springtime stroll around Addison’s Walk. Sit on the stone bench at the far gate to the Water Meadow. Watch the sun beam down on the Great Tower. Try to get the infamous deer to treat you with anything even marginally more affectionate than utter contempt. There’s one doe who will eat crab apples out of your hand, if you’re lucky. If you’re really lucky, she’ll do it whilst your whole family are there. They’ll think you’re Dr. Doolittle. You’ll forget you’re in the middle of a city. But there is one thing I can recommend more; because the beauty and tranquillity of the grounds don’t capture what it’s like to live here. 

For starters, first years live in what, I think, is the only Magdalen building neither listed itself, nor built on listed land. The Waynflete is a 60s monstrosity, right on top of a Sainsbury’s Local, and it is the furthest thing you could imagine from beauty or tranquillity. Every October, 110 nervous eighteen-year-olds arrive to find two parking spaces, a complicated, automatically-locking double door system, and five flights of stairs with only a questionably-safe service lift. It’s in this building, with its putrid green paint, that what makes Magdalen starts to happen. Awkward adolescents talk to each other; and they all realise they’re way out of their depth, even the ones who had met someone of the opposite gender before they arrived. Everyone meets people who talk in accents they’ve never heard, of things they’ve never considered, with viewpoints so dramatically different that you wouldn’t even know if you were looking at the same thing. The weeks, the months, the years, go on, and you talk to more and more people. You see more of the world, and see it differently, all inside a college that’s been exactly in the same place since 1458 (we don’t talk about 1687-8, it was a rough couple of years).

Everyone talks to everyone because once you’re here, where you’ve come from doesn’t matter. What matters is where you are, and where you’re going. Magdalen is rich. Not St. John’s or Christ Church rich, but rich, nonetheless. It has its advantages. Everyone lives in the same accommodation because we all pay a flat rate, unlike other colleges where they grade their rooms. Everyone is given a book grant, and a travel grant, and an internship grant. Everyone can apply to the Student Support Fund if they’re running a bit low on money, and the scholarship system is generous. Magdalen have enough to make sure that everyone can afford to do what they want to do whilst they’re in Oxford, and it goes a long way to helping people sit side-by-side. At Magdalen, money doesn’t matter, because there’s a lot of it to go around.

It’s easier to feel like you belong in a place that actively accepts you for who you are. In a place where you’re not the only one who looks like you, who’s come from where you’ve come from. And here, I could talk about how we fly the rainbow flag every February and June, or our gender expression fund, that we’ve just elected our first female president, or that 31.5% of our freshers are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. But really, that would be to give the college too much credit for doing things that should be expected of any modern institution. These things are progress, and, like the funding, they definitely help. But we’re not Wadham, or Worcester. We don’t have the best access statistics in the university, but we know this, and we’re working on making it better.

Every college has a reputation. Ours isn’t quite as clever as Merton. It’s not quite a sporty as Teddy Hall. It’s not quite as impressive as Christ Church. When people ask us where we were at college, we won’t be able to say, ‘the House.’ But then again, that’s a bit like turning up in fresher’s week and saying, ‘oh yeah, I was at School.’ You think you sound mysterious and coy, but actually, you just sound like a knob. When you come from a college whose name is pronounced completely differently to how it’s spelt, you learn to value clarity, you don’t want to make things any more confusing. Magdalen is home, and it’s home to people whose lives would never have crossed without it. I can’t wait to go back and see all of those people again.

Readers- I’ve a secret. I came to Magdalen because I expected it to be full of people like me. I didn’t want to leave my nice, safe, boarding school bubble. I’ve been here for two years now, and I am so glad that that isn’t what I found. Magdalen is full of clever, sporty, and impressive people. Magdalen made me realise that ‘people like me’ isn’t about where you live, or where you went to school, it’s about what you value. It’s about who you are. And everyone is better for their bubble being a little bigger.