Opinion

If I’d known about part-time study, would I be leaving Oxford?

I rusticated due to developing long-COVID, and I’ve now confirmed that I’m not coming back, instead doing something completely different. Then I read Danni Watts’ July article on part-time study, which she credits for her still being at Oxford. This is a response piece about how things have turned out, and how they could have turned out differently if I’d known part-time study was a possibility.

Michaelmas 2020: the term I was in Oxford

I started studying Chemistry at New College in October 2020.

I was really excited — I love science! In addition, getting to Oxford was an exercise in graft. Due to a number of reasons, I only had 80% attendance throughout secondary school. That’s twice as many absences needed to be classed as a persistent absentee by the government. National statistics show that persistent absentees like me are more than four times less likely to leave secondary school with five GCSE passes and around three times less likely to go to a Russell Group university. I thought even getting an offer from Oxford was too good to be true.

It was: I got COVID on the first day of the academic year. I developed long-COVID, which saw me get hospitalised twice before the halfway point of Michaelmas. It wasn’t possible for me to stay, so I left with the option to return in October 2021.

Hilary and Trinity 2021: the terms I didn’t think I could come back

Though I didn’t know what I’d do with myself if I didn’t come back, I couldn’t see myself getting better. With long-term chronic pain to consider too, the odds of getting through twelve standard terms were too slim for me.

This could be it, there isn’t a backup plan.

I started looking for jobs and employability programmes with that mindset of equal seriousness and desperation. I decided to weaponise everything I’d experienced as an Autistic, LGBTQ+ person and even the fact I’m an Oxford dropout.

It got me much further than I thought it would. I seem to have become the BNOC of the 1300-strong cohort on Avado’s free FastFutures employability programme. I started doing public speaking on autism in May, and I’ve even managed to secure paid gigs on my own and by being headhunted by the national charity Ambitious about Autism.

Michaelmas 2021: why I’m not coming back

That risk-taking, open approach is what led to me getting an offer to be a Year Here Social Innovation Fellow to start on the 31st. It’s a fully-funded non-traditional Master’s course that tries to get you to set up a social enterprise at the end of ten months. That means before I’d ever have gotten an undergraduate qualification, I’ll be getting a postgraduate one, and with no debt. Absolutely wild.

I really wasn’t expecting an offer. It’s up to 4 times more competitive than Oxford Chemistry. Plus the average successful applicant is 29, with 7 years of professional experience and a strong degree from a good uni. Meet your local 20-year-old first-year uni dropout with 4 years of professional experience maximum if you’re being really generous and counting my volunteering.

So now, more than thinking I can’t return, I don’t want to. I can’t defer my offer. And Oxford Chemistry isn’t going to help me with my diversity, equality and inclusion work. If anything, it’d be a hindrance due to the high workload and Oxford’s requirement not to work during term-time!

I still love chemistry. However, it’s not where I’m best placed to make a positive impact in the world. Though I don’t love being in the public eye, I belong on the stage, using my personal pain to educate and inspire others. It’s my duty.

The Long Vac 2021: preparation for September

I’ve always had a sense of impostor syndrome whenever something good happened in my life. However, in the past, I could reassure myself that I had the qualifications, such as the A-Level grades needed for Oxford Chemistry.

That’s not the case here. I already know I’ve got less education and experience than everyone else on my course, so I’ve been doing everything I can to build my portfolio and reputation across as many areas as possible. The result: working nearly non-stop, to the point where my LinkedIn account looks like a list.

On the employability skills side, I’ve taken full advantage of still being counted as an Oxford student to complete a micro-internship with KEEN Oxford and The Oxford Strategy Challenge. I mentioned Avado’s FastFutures programme–it’s a commitment for 12 weeks of 12 hours each, and I write about it too. This is all topped off by multiple Bright Network Internship Experience UK streams. (I highly recommend them all, by the way.)

Then on the arts side, I was the featured artist for the Reflection issue of The Blueprint. I also did some illustrations to market BBC New Creatives short film The Clinic. Lastly, I’m currently helping out with KEEN Oxford’s Natural History Museum accessibility project.

Finally, I continue to volunteer with KEEN London (and taking an additional strategic role too!) and work on my own public speaking, writing and artwork.

I’m not advising anyone to copy my example — it’s a problem that I need to fix. On multiple occasions, I spent over 3 consecutive hours fielding LinkedIn messages and then doing the work I actually had to do for the next day at 12am, or 6am. I worked 90 hour weeks on a slow week, every week, for nearly two months without a single day off. I lost 12kg in three, and I’m 5’5”! It caused tension with my partners, friends and family. I reached the point where I was so tired I stopped thinking of myself as a person.

It’s something that I’m working and improving on. I now respond to non-urgent messages during set hours and firmly schedule time for fun, non-draining activities such as Pokémon Unite! I’m also now in a position where I can be more selective in the work I take on, primarily doing paid gigs. This lets me work fewer hours, produce better work and make a living — a triple win!

However, all this has mostly been an attempt to avoid burning out rather than genuinely pausing. Then I read Danni’s piece about how part-time study kept her from dropping out of Oxford Law. That made me pause and reflect properly.

Alternate Hilary and Trinity 2021: if I knew part-time study was an option

Despite Law and Chemistry being very different subjects, I’m a bold person and would’ve tried to negotiate terms.

Do the lab hours have to be done in conjunction with everyone else? Can they be done online instead? Is this content really relevant to what we’re doing in a few weeks? Is there someone I can raise formal complaints to about inaccessibility?

I’m persistent and know when and how to be annoying. Eventually, I would’ve gotten somewhere, if only because they wanted me to be quiet.

I would have continued looking at my other options. I would probably have still done FastFutures. Same with the micro-internship and Bright Network experiences.

However, I would have had a more appealing backup plan. There’s no way I’d have worked as hard on any of them. I wouldn’t have applied for TOSCA. I wouldn’t have started public speaking or writing.

I would never have considered applying for Year Here. Even if I had, I would’ve been discouraged when current Fellows and alumni asked if there was the option for me to complete my degree and then apply at 24.

Technically I can if I want to, but that’s not really an option Oxford isn’t a place that’s kind to someone like me. I can’t go back. I don’t belong there.

Conclusion

Of course, there are many disabled students at Oxford who will be able to stick it out and excel. Due to reaching out, I know many who have. Danni is currently. Hopefully, there will be many, many others in the future.

Although I’m very excited about my future, there’s still a part of me that wishes I could be one of them. I’d love nothing more than to be preparing for collections, getting to go to Plush and taking part in all the arcane traditions with my friends. I want to be one of you.

However, in the end, I can’t. It’s undoubtedly true that I wouldn’t be on this path towards untraditional success if I’d known part-time study was on the cards. It’s also true that in the public-facing work I’m doing, there seems to be a preference for ‘meteoric rise’ situations and non-standard trajectories. However, the path more travelled was denied to me because I just didn’t know.

It’s worked out well for me, possibly even better than if I did choose to return. That’s only because I was able to pivot and capitalise on my niche. That won’t be true of everyone who suspends their studies.

Something has to change.

Aiden Tsen (any pronouns) is an Oxford undergrad dropout turned postgraduate social enterprise student. They freelance as a public speaker and writer, keeping their own website (aidentsen.com)