Like many colleges, our front entrance has a door within a door. This is presumably to make it less heavy, easier to enter. Each collegiate community has thought to shrink down its imposing façade, its inner doorway a welcoming thing, a simpler mirror of its outer opening. The congruence strikes me because it reminds me of my imagining that once you are ‘in’ a place like Oxford, you are supposedly ‘in’: the daunting days of aptitude tests and interviews should ease. Now, on the inside, we are tucked snugly in stone stairwells and miniature wooden worlds. In the last week, each time I’ve walked past that wooden gate, I can’t help but think – how funny, how untrue.
We all talk a lot about access now, and that talk began with getting in. But what we are just beginning to broach is staying in. How it feels to be a student of colour, to be trans, to be working class and keep feeling on the outside during your time at Oxford. I am going to speak about my own experience of mental illness here. Or there, because as many of us have painfully learnt, to this university, ‘here’ and ‘mentally ill’ are often words that cannot coexist.
This door is the threshold for tea in a friend’s room, for a still moment on the piano, for a night at a party in a safe space. And this is a boundary I am not allowed to cross. Visitors from around the world can, members of other colleges can, friends and family from home cities can, but as an accepted member of this college, I can’t. And I wish I was the only one left out in the cold.
As someone who has suspended multiple times, this university’s inflexible and inconsistent approach to disability still staggers me. Understanding that every case of mental health is individual, it sometimes seems odd to have such an icy, blanket approach. I do appreciate that there is the issue of being fair across the board, but that often feels like this university’s poor excuse for offering the bare minimum to the mentally ill and recovering.
What scares me is that I am known as being one of the lucky ones because my college has waited for me to get better. I have held on to my place tightly. I worked hard for it and promised myself that I would not allow my disability to devastate a lifelong dream. But now, tied to that place is a shadowy sensation of guilt, a scraping gratitude that leaves me bowed from the waist, curtsied to the floor. They have waited for me; I now have to prove that I’m the next Oscar Wilde just to justify their faith and patience.
Despite how I may sound, I am genuinely thankful for how my college has kept me on the books. In many respects I feel that they have bent over backwards to help. I equally believe that putting disabled students in a position to receive the time and support they need should be normalised rather than the exception, or something for which we should feel indebted. This is the constant conflict we face: can we openly acknowledge that the handling of these cases can still be harmful to students even if they aren’t letting me go, even if I’m still inside?
And yet, the reality is that I’m still left on the outside of the inside of this institution. The gate looms higher than it ever did at interviews. It becomes hard to reimagine your home as somewhere forbidden. Upon hearing my plans to live privately in Oxford this year, college staff expressed deep concerns, particularly with regards to the impact I could have on other students. It would be nice if colleges could see their disabled students as an asset, not a contaminating influence. We are not a burden.
Much more needs to be done to make welcoming suspended students less of an oxymoronic idea. Academic support for returning to study, the potential for access to college to sustain social lives and a more flexible all-around approach are all measures that are long overdue for an institution that prides itself on being cutting edge.