Image credit: Niamh Jones
It’s moving-in day at Oxford and, after 6 weeks of being at home, the next stage of the almost cyclical academic year is about to begin. The city prepares for the influx of students; the student discount signs go up, the pigeons psych themselves up, and the kebab vans start to wheel in. It’s not a particularly emotional day—after a few terms, the process of moving in and out every term feels normal and becomes as monotonous as walking to Tesco. People greet each other and a brief exchange about the vac occurs before everything becomes as it was 6 weeks ago.
As my sister drives off, I take in my surroundings; they’re familiar and it’s as if I never left. Still, while hauling my bags upstairs, I can’t help but feel weird. For the next term, Oxford is my home, yet I’ve just spent 6 weeks in what I also consider home. There seems to be an expectation that we transition smoothly between our two lives, but sometimes it’s not that simple. This clearly creates an odd dynamic between who I am at home and who I am here in Oxford.
At the end of the term there occurs a divergence of students, where each individual returns to a different environment. Some of these environments may vary less than others, but nevertheless, the experiences of many students vary significantly to life at Oxford. These can be small things, such as sharing a bathroom again, or having more free time. For some people, their environment in the vac can negatively affect them. Some people, for example, have to return to unsafe environments. Others have to leave behind groups they feel wholly themselves around. Even for those whose environments are not emotionally damaging, a range of factors differ greatly from the university experience.
There is, to an extent, economic disparity between the experiences of many students, especially at Oxford, that are lived both during term time and in the vac. Many people go from having their own space to sharing a smaller one. Similarly, for many students, uni has been the first time that they have had their own disposable income. Many of these environments can very quickly impact the ability to work or relax during vac which, considering the academic expectations even beyond term time, can be a massive cause of stress. It seems to be a minimal concern of the university. Maybe it’s not their responsibility, but considering the recent access efforts and the idea of university as being a place to level the playing field, not considering students’ lives beyond term time seems like a reductionist approach.
Even for those who can continue academic work, there are likely to be some effects; it can be strange to transition between contrasting environments. Those who need to work lose much of the time available for rest or revision compared to those who don’t. Understandably, it’s a crucial part of the student experience and enhances our view of the world. Still, it surprises me how little it’s talked about—it’s okay to get overwhelmed by the whiplash of moving back and forth.
The thing is, people adapt to their environments, and having more than one environment doesn’t change that. We will all exhibit varying extents of our personalities around different people—that’s normal! However, moving between home and university so frequently seems to amplify these transitions, which makes it hard to navigate life sometimes.
When I return to Oxford each term, it’s almost like I’m shedding my ‘home personality’. I could describe it as a butterfly coming out of its cocoon—except with the grace of a penguin trying to fly. The change between my two selves can almost make it appear as if I am two separate people; the me I am in Oxford is not the me I am at home. Who I am at university may make different decisions to home me. My personality in Oxford has to be different as it is expected to live in a completely different set of circumstances, with different responsibilities and hobbies to fill my time.
Moving to university is indisputably a huge change for most people, and change can be scary. What makes university more difficult is the attempt to balance two aspects of your life, because it’s rare to want to leave behind one part altogether. Everyone has different extents to which they wish to balance their lives. Still, most people have experienced pivotal changes in relationships, be they platonic, romantic, or familial. Most of us have lost touch with people we grew up with and it’s a melancholy experience. There are people back home who shaped me as a person, and there are people here who will shape me and my future. The question is, will they meet? Will the two worlds collide, or will they be kept separate? I’ll find out, of course, but it’s a daunting period of my life that’s transitional in nature and who knows about the future.
I suppose my point is that university is hard. It can be extremely lonely; it’s a hugely important stage of our lives, and the first major transition into adulthood for many of us. After all, it’s not easy to do, especially with the pressure of making these years the best of our lives. We will all balance it in different ways, but it’s okay to admit you’re struggling. I assure you, you’re not the only one.