Interview with...

Rachel from St Benet's Hall

What’s your background?

I’m middle class, but my parents come from working class backgrounds so that has influenced how I was brought up, if that makes sense. I’m from a state school in Somerset

What made you want to apply to Oxford?

 I always got told that Oxford was the best university since I was little, and then when I started to get As in school, I thought that I could actually apply. I found Human Sciences in Year 11, and realised that was the exact subject I wanted to study, but it doesn’t really exist in the same way at other universities, so that was a massive motivation to really work hard on my application. I wasn’t really sure what other degree I would want to do if it wasn’t the Oxford human sciences course.

What college did you apply for and why?

I applied to Hertford, because it just seemed really friendly when I visited. I was worried about not fitting in at Oxford, so having a college which was literally just nice and friendly was the most important thing for me. I also got so many freebies at the Open day, so that helped when I picked it. But then, after interviewing at Hertford, but having my second interview at St Benet’s Hall, I got accepted at Benet’s! It was all good though when I got to Benet’s, because it is such a friendly college.

 Did not getting into Hertford jeopardise you accepting a place? I know for me I was really crushed

To be honest, my interview at Hertford was not very good but I actually really enjoyed my interview at Benet’s, so I was not really bothered at first about getting pooled (which was also helped with me being so shocked that I actually got in.) I started getting more nervous about Benet’s when I started researching it, especially not being a religious individual, I thought it was a really weird idea me ending up in such a religious place. At the end of the day though, I don’t think it ever seemed an option to me rejecting a place from Oxford, whatever college it may be.

 That’s very interesting, I certainly considered not accepting my place and then the thought of Oxford overrode that but that was the general Oxford idea rather than college specific. I am happy at Benet’s but I haven’t experienced anywhere else so it’s difficult to really say.

 When looking into your college did you look into the financial aspect and has money been a concern now that your at St Benet’s where battels etc are different?

I was worried about how much money I would spend on facilities that I did not know what they were like, and whether there will be additional costs as well in buying more things I would need. At least at Benet’s, there is not that much information online about rooms, and there is the same price for whether you have a massive room or a small room, which makes it more difficult for students with lower income to be able to pay a lower price for a less good room (which is something students can normally do at other unis.) With all the meals being catered, and no catering option (which is cheaper), this also made my battels more expensive than the average Oxford student. I think that I found a way to manage this, not eating out and eating in the hall as much as possible. It does make it more difficult though, having less freedom over where you want to spend your money at university.

 I think surprisingly the meals in hall do create a community feel and probably save money and time in terms of cooking for myself but I think the more expensive battels have sometimes concerned me in other social situations, especially because the meals are quite inflexible so sometimes I’ve paid for my meal but I still have to get something else and then the costs really adds up.

How helpful were your school in applying

My school was supportive about me applying, and I was lucky that no teacher ever told me I shouldn’t give it a go. I think the main issue was the resources, since no money was spent dedicated to getting students into Oxbridge. My school generally gets one or two students into Oxbridge for the past ten years, so I was really lucky that there were teachers aware of the application process, and also what I was applying for was not completely unheard of. I think that my school was good at encouraging me, but overall, I was on my own a bit with learning about the application process. The main struggle I had with my school was other students. A minority of students had to interview for what they were going on for, let alone undergo the whole admissions test and Oxford interview. It is a unique experience, and I think I found it particularly hard not having many people to talk about it to who understood.

Did home situation make t difficult to study

I have a busy house, being one of 4 children. This made it difficult to study at home, since I would constantly be asked questions, there would always be noise coming from somewhere, I would be expected to give people lifts places. In the end, I would stay at school for as many hours after school as I could, and I would spend my weekends going into town to spend the entire day at the public library. My home situation definitely has made it difficult for me to study, and this has been even clearer to me during lockdown.

Do you think this is something not really addressed or understood at Oxford? I certainly found that my tutors during lockdown still expected the same level of work from me even though home has never really been a conducive place to study. My family too found it difficult to understand how it might be difficult

Definitely! I remember a lot of the times even before lockdown, tutors discussed the holidays as a dedicated time only for study and free time and relaxing, without recognising that there is a lot more going on at home which meant this was simply not true for me. When lockdown happened, and then a load of tutors said ‘its basically no different to working in Oxford’ when the only time I had genuine quiet to write my essays was between 1am to 7am. The short 8-week term system exists so that students have more time to study in the holidays, which is an important part of doing well on your degree. But when you do not have a good place to study in the holidays, because the colleges do not offer any additional accommodation, this is when home situations directly impact the quality of the degree. If in order to get a good grade in Oxford you need to spend the holidays revising, then there needs to be more consideration from Oxford as to how significantly home situations can affect your ability to work.

Yes I totally agree! I think that the idea of working at home in holidays is really skewed to more affluent families who can afford bigger spaces and childcare for other siblings etc. I really elide on public libraries etc to revise at Christmas but of course that just wasn’t possible in corona.

How has your background affected your experience at Oxford such as Freshers?

I felt very left out and insecure during Freshers. It was like everyone was constantly talking about things I genuinely did not understand at all. Whether it was people talking about their fancy schools which everyone knew the name of, studying Latin, living in London, or just some intellectual debate on a topic I never heard of. It did not take long for me to feel like the dumbest person in the UK, let alone in Oxford. Even beyond the subjects of conversation, I felt there was a huge culture clash when I showed up. It is hard to explain, but every time I spoke, what I was saying felt out of place in the conversation, even when I understood what was going on. It felt like I had to adjust to all new social norms, which mostly contradicted what I was brought up with. Freshers left me with massive Imposter’s syndrome, and was probably my least positive experience of Oxford.

I found that too, I found the whole process really exhausting and I don’t think I really showed who I was because I wasn’t sure if that was a good version to present, I also found it difficult to talk about because everyone at college was so desperate to make it welcoming so I kind of felt like it was just me. Do you think college could have done anything to address this like mandatory welfare check ins?

It was so exhausting, and I remember thinking that I was the only person experiencing it and the complete odd one out. It is hard to talk about because I can’t remember many incidents of anyone being nasty or disrespectful to me, and nobody seemed to have a specific problem with me, but it just felt like I did not fit in at all. When people are trying so hard to be nice and you still do not feel comfortable, it feels like your fault, and therefore it is something that you should not concern anyone else with. I definitely feel like more can be done, given how common it is! Mandatory welfare check ins would definitely be a way forward, where there is a space made in the day to talk about it, and so students do not have to ‘make a fuss’ or anything. Just making it more clear to students that this is so common, so you feel less alone going through it.

What about day to day?

Being in Oxford and studying in Oxford, it started feeling like I was finding my place a lot more. While what I was learning was difficult, and my essays were difficult and time-consuming, I could do it (or at least just as well as other students.) It became clearer to me that while I can’t do intellectual conversation, and while I could not understand Oxford culture for the life of me, the imposter’s syndrome started to die down a little bit. I think that tutors vary in their judgement of how you talk about your subject. All of mine are universally picky about how the essay is written, but when it comes to speaking about it in tutorials, I was happily surprised with how they still respected my opinions, even when I did not always present my opinions that eloquently when I speak. It felt that the content of what I was saying was more important with how I presented it, and that meant that my background did not affect my experience in the tutorial system.

How have you found college life especially functions?

To begin with, I thought that college life was really weird and posh. Especially at Benet’s, where there are so many traditions (and often of a religious kind), college life felt like somewhere I was completely out of place of. However, when it came to Lockdown, I found myself missing college life, with all the prayers in Latin and even having to dress up in formal wear for 3 dinners a week. I think my background did make me feel out of place in college life to begin with, but it changed quickly when I had stayed in college and got used to it. I think that it just took me longer to adjust.

Me and Rachel on Matriculation day

What has wider university been like e.g clubs/societies?

I am in Climate Society, and I felt like my background had never come into play in this society. I felt like I could participate, and could be helpful, and could give my opinion, and my background had nothing to do with it. There are lots of spaces in Oxford like this, which is worth remembering when feeling out of place here.

Are you self-conscious or embarrassed in some situations e.g accent, dress etc?

What I am most self-conscious about is how I speak. I do not speak nicely, and I have a weird accent, and nothing that comes out my mouth is how I want it to sound. Oxford is very well spoken, even among state-educated students, and I think that the way I speak makes me stick out a lot. It is also often a first indicator for intelligence in society, so I feel like, even if it is internalised prejudice, that I stick out as least intelligent in a conversation. In Oxford, where intelligence is so clearly valued, this often led to a lot of situations where I felt at the bottom in a social situation. It also seems to be an open invitation for a lot of people to talk down to you as well, which only makes it more frustrating.

I’m really sorry to hear that because that would make anyone feel awful, do you feel like the Oxford stereotype is true to some extent and have you felt pressured to sort of change yourself to fit in?

I think it is true in many ways. Even though private school students make up 40% of the uni, it feels like the private school stereotype dominates across. I felt like I tried to change a bit when I showed up, but found myself struggle to participate in conversation and realised that even if I did not fit in so much, cheesy as it is, being myself was always the better way forward. I am also lucky at my college, that people do not judge me, and so it became easier to be comfortable just being the same. But definitely, when you first show up, it feels like there is not space for you at the university the way you are, and this can make you think you do not deserve to be there until you change.

Do you find these experiences difficult to talk about with the majority of people?

I find these situations difficult to talk about with people who do not relate, because often it feels like you are asking for sympathy, which is not what I want. I do think though it is surprising how many people have imposter’s syndrome, even if they are privately-educated and well spoken. I think that most people in Oxford relate to feeling really stupid a lot of the time, and this spreads across all backgrounds. I found my experience at Oxford also improved a lot when people started being honest about how out of place they feel, and the insecurities they have.

In terms of talking about background, this is something I have found difficult talking about. I come from a middle class, white background, from a supportive school and a supportive family. I am so so lucky and so privileged, and yet when I show up in Oxford, I can feel completely inadequate. It is hard to talk about how when you are in the Oxford bubble, your background suddenly means a lot more than it used to. At home, I have nothing out of the ordinary that will hold me back, but at Oxford, it feels like there is a lot more going against me. It is hard to talk to people at Oxford about why it is so hard being in Oxford coming from a state school, but it also hard to explain to people at home why you feel like the bottom of the pack when you are so lucky.

Do you find it difficult to talk about this with your family? My own background is really similar but sometimes I find it difficult to explain how I feel because I don’t think my parents always fully understand the clash because its often less a bang and more of a whisper if that makes sense?

Yes definitely! I feel like my parents think I am just complaining about nothing because I need something to complain about. I also think when I complain about feeling out of place because of my background, when my parents worked hard to give me a good house and supported me a lot through the whole process, it felt to them like I was criticising them. It was like I was complaining about Oxford culture, but they would just hear me complaining to them about why I wasn’t sent to a private school or how bad my home situation is. All they would think is that I am complaining about nothing, and how I should not be complaining when I am so lucky to be in the situation that I am in.

You’ve got it in a nutshell I think, sometimes when I complain or make comments I think my parents feel quite bad. My grandma actually seems to take is particularly harshly because she’s from a very working class background from the north of England so weirdly she sees me almost as a traitor to those roots and then to complain about it on top just adds insult to injury.

Do you find/think that colleges differ?

Definitely, definitely, definitely. And I think that colleges matter the most for students coming from a lower socioeconomic background, yet seem to be given the least attention in this group of students. It is so important to try and learn about the student culture, what the financial situation is at each college, the state/private school divide and the general college ethos. Different colleges have different priorities and different ways of doing things, and this is the kind of thing that could have a massive impact on your experience.

It is also important to decide on whether you want to have a simple college experience or if you want to be a trail blazer. Both are equally acceptable, but you need to recognise whether you would enjoy being in a minority of people from your background, and have to put pressure on the college to make suitable changes, which could have a positive impact on the future of the college. But you may also prefer the ease of having a college that has already adapted to your background, and already welcomes a mass of students like you there.

I think that’s a really interesting point you’ve raised. I certainly felt a bit upset when landing at Benet’s because of the financial cost was so much larger than at Brasenose and university is already expensive. Do you think that Oxford should try more to make the colleges more of a level playing field especially in terms of financial obligation so that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds aren’t so disadvantaged?

Definitely, and the fact that it isn’t means that their whole ‘colleges do not matter’ line is completely redundant. It is unfair, and it is a system that does not exist at any other university. At other universities, you can decide to have a small room with a shared bathroom between 10 people, with self-catering and 30 minute walk from lectures, and you would be asked to pay a lower price for it. The college system means that students pay for a random set of facilities, and it is so difficult to compare the finances between the colleges. This is only made more problematic when pooling takes place, where suddenly you are expected to pay so much more where you either reject your place or you pay so much more. It is problematic that admissions is so closely related to how much money you have to pay. It would be fair if the financial situation was the same across all colleges, or there was clearer financial information about colleges and the admissions system was separate to the college you choose. This is something completely not addressed by the university, and its not okay.

What do you wish your college did better/what do they do well

My college has a pretty poor number of state comprehensive students within. I wish it welcomed more students from different backgrounds, just so it feels like you stick out less coming from a less well-off background. My college, however, is so friendly and welcoming. It is such a community, and makes you feel at home so quickly which is something that is very appreciated.

Do you think colleges would do better to be more equal across the board rather than having colleges that cater for certain demographics e.g Mansfield has a higher portion of state school students than others, Wadham is well known for its LGBTQ community?

Yes I think so! I think that while it is great that Mansfield has a great state school community, and Wadham welcomes the LGBTQ+ community, it then leaves other colleges predominantly private, white, hetero and cis, and just across the broad privileged. These are the colleges which becomes problematic, and also reduces the pressure on the college to adapt for minority students. Having equal colleges means that all colleges will be equally able to cater for all groups of students, and also make a positive culture in the colleges.

What do you think of access at Oxbridge, are there any non college facilities e.g clubs/societies that help?

I think it is pretty poor. I didn’t get any access from Oxford at my school, and I am not sure exactly how much access work is being done. I also do not think enough is being done to help students adjust to Oxford. I do not think my background massively affected my application, but it does massively affect my experience at Oxford. The Class Act Campaign at the SU, though, is a massive resource. You will also find that there are lots of campaigns at the SU, which you can find on the Oxford SU website, which are so so useful.

I agree, I think the SU is not properly utilised because there are so many resources there that I wish I’d known about in freshers that were just not made available, do you think Oxford as a university should be more communicative with the various student bodies to make information as easily accessible as possible?

Yes! I think the university, societies and the SU actually do make resources for students but they are so deeply hidden, and sometimes you have to even ask about it to get sent it. Talking to one of the leaders of the SU campaigns, and I sent them a resource I got sent about the campaign, they had not even seen it before. It is so hard to find these resources, and it is genuinely such a shame when such amazing information and help is out there. Access is not just about having this information, it is about making sure students can easily get this information, which currently they can’t. Just a singles email to students with all the resources on it, will make all the difference.

How can it improve?

Start addressing the culture clash for students when they show up, and also putting more honest information out there, especially about the differences between colleges, so that applicants can make informed decisions.

I certainly feel like now I’m in Oxford, it’s difficult to criticise it without feeling like I’m betraying them in some way, but despite that do you think JCRs should try to be as upfront as possible about things so people don’t feel isolated with their concerns?

Definitely, and JCRs play an important role in that. Things can improve in every college, and the students know better than anyone what needs improving. I think it needs to be less villainising when you criticise your college and the university. I love Oxford, and I love St Benet’s Hall and I love the people I have met and I would not have made a different decision about going here. I have no regrets. But the university can improve to make my experience better, and it is unfair that anyone’s experience is made worse as a result of their background. I think as soon as we start being more honest about our experiences here, improvements will be made, but also students coming from these backgrounds will realise that their experiences are not isolated, are not their fault, and they have the right and have the space  to bring up these concerns and make a change in the system as a result.

Is there any advice you would give to applicants from your background before applying

Really look into the college. I would also recommend reaching out to people from a similar background as you when applying or before you show up to Oxford, to make the experience less lonely.


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