As ‘Freedom Day’ passes, and with my first year at Oxford drawing to a close, I have found myself reflecting upon my first year and thinking about how my experience is going to compare to that of the incoming freshers. From Freshers’ Week, to locked-down Hilary, to sunny and open Trinity, every memory of first year has been shaped by the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.
Just like any fresher who came before me, I felt anxious about starting university but this time round there were added questions surrounding the potential impact of restrictions on college life. Worries about making friends and living a few hours from home were worsened by fear of having to isolate and not be able to meet as many people as I’d hoped because of social distancing rules. I was concerned that weeks spent in isolation, particularly at the start of term, could mean that I would be left behind and struggle to integrate later as social groups were forming.
I received countless emails from College before arriving at Oxford, explaining to us the concept of the ‘household’. This meant my social life would be limited to the nine people who were randomly allocated to the same corridor as me. Since you could only socialise with your household, there was a certain sort of pressure placed on the cultivation of these friendships. I was immensely lucky to get along with the people in my household almost immediately – they are still some of my closest friends. However, not everyone had the same luck. Some people became isolated if they didn’t particularly click with those next door to them which is an inevitable and unfortunate consequence of limitations on the people whom you could socialise with.
As expected, the restrictions shaped my Freshers’ Week experience. October saw the Rule of Six being introduced, hospitality venues closing at 10 pm and the introduction of the tiered system, with Oxford moved to Tier Two by the end of the month. In comparison, the 2021 freshers won’t have any of these limitations in place, as the current situation stands. Rather than nights at the college bar, Bridge, and Plush, as next years’ cohort will experience, our evenings were spent mostly in our corridor, where we played tipsy card games and watched horror movies. On the one occasion we did go out the Rule of Six meant that we were split across two tables, a less-than-ideal situation when you’ve only known each other for three days. Even at our Freshers’ Formal we were sat within our ten-person bubble, away from the other households – not that we knew any of their names anyway.
Compared to other colleges, however, we were relatively lucky as our JCR was kept open as an indoor social space, enabling us to safely socialise with other households – a privilege that some colleges did not offer. This helped me to branch out beyond my own household and was a reminder that social life stemmed beyond our corridor, though in any normal year, we would have met these people a lot more quickly.
As necessary as the restrictions may have been, I felt as though they delayed the making of friendships and therefore memories too. I only met one of my closest friends in college, for example, in Seventh Week of Michaelmas because she was outside my household and spent numerous weeks in isolation. It may not have taken that long for me to meet her in any other year. Now that I know a lot more of my year group in college, part of me does yearn for the Freshers’ Week that we never had for that exact reason, particularly as terms at Oxford are short enough anyway. I’m sure we could have all made a lot more memories and met those who turned out to be our friends a lot more quickly.
Perhaps to those who had a ‘normal’ Freshers’ Week, my experience seems reminiscent of a quiet night in, missing the drunken mistakes and clubbing until the early hours of the morning that defined it for them. While part of me wishes that I could’ve had that experience, I actually found my own Freshers’ Week to be a lot less intimidating than how I imagine the alternative to be, because I met people on a smaller scale and the household system allowed for the formation of a tight-knit group which I now cherish.
Yet, that doesn’t mean that I am not more than slightly envious of the incoming freshers. Hopefully, they will not know an Oxford in lockdown and can enjoy a flourishing social life that is both safe and enjoyable, not only with those in their household but also with others, both within and outside of college.
Covid restrictions defined my first year at Oxford and though I have many incredible memories from the past year, I am personally very excited to experience a more open Oxford. However, I wouldn’t discourage a 2021 fresher from knocking on the door of the room next to theirs – a card game and a conversation can go a long way.