There’s something I’ve wanted to share for the past week, but wanted to take the time to properly sort out how I wanted to share it! Last Thursday, I went back to visit Oxford for the first time since leaving more than three years ago, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences in me and my life from then to now, and the role that Oxford played in making me the person I am today.
On Thursday, August 20 I took a bus from London to Oxford to spend an afternoon of my trip across the pond having lunch with one of my former tutors and to revisit the place where I spent my three years of undergraduate education. It was a rather gray and drizzly day, one of the few of the trip (I really lucked out with the weather!) but really, that’s how much of the year at Oxford was, so it felt natural. When I got off the bus on the High Street, it looked exactly the same.
Brasenose College is very central, located just off the High Street with one of the four college walls actually running along the street. My room in my first year was in a newer block overlooking the shops. Theoretically I could have walked down the stairs and out the door to go shopping, but that door was always locked as all students and visitors had to go through the lodge which faced Radcliffe Square instead. From there, you entered the Old Quad of Brasenose. I went in this way to poke around – luckily the porter in the lodge recognized me, because the college grounds are closed to casual visitors.
My room and those of my friends in first year actually faced either onto the street or into the New Quad, with most Old Quad rooms reserved for older students, tutors, and academic and other offices. Keep in mind that the New Quad was itself many centuries old!
Much of my life centered on my college, as it does for many Oxford students. My group of close friends were all at Brasenose, and I was a coxswain for the college boat club, so although there are a few thousand undergraduates per year at Oxford, most of my socializing was in a group of about 100 students per year at Brasenose. In the first year, I even had most of my tutorials, or teaching hours, within the college walls. It was only in second and third year that I had most of my teaching outside college, especially because in one of the main areas of history I studied I was taught by a specialist at another of the colleges. And of course, I ate outside of college a lot.
Then and Now
Poking around Brasenose, it was nice to see where I used to live, work, and play with my friends. But it was also a little surreal. I was the only person strolling the grounds save for two construction workers repairing a window, since it’s August and school is not in session. I looked up at certain places and remembered events in my life that had happened there, big and small, good and bad. It was odd to be there alone, staring in silence, but it allowed me the time and space to think about how much I’ve changed since I was last standing within those walls (not on that grass, though; you’re only allowed on the grass in summer term, and I’m not kidding about that.)
When I came to Oxford, I had just turned 18. I was excited to start a new chapter of my life in such a historic place, to study history, a subject I had always loved, and to meet new people and discover new places. I thought that by putting myself in such a different world to the one I had left, I could ‘be the person I wanted to be’ and not necessarily the smart and talented, but also shy and anxious, girl I had been in high school. It didn’t take me long to realize that the saying ‘wherever you go, there you are’ is very true. Even though I was in Oxford, I was still me. I couldn’t snap my fingers and suddenly become a complete extrovert. I also couldn’t just decide that I liked things like clubbing and loud, crowded parties, although I tried my best to. Luckily, in the first week or two I was there, I made a group of close friends who saw right through my facade and continued to see deeper over time, and who accepted me for who I was no matter what I was going through for the next three years. Because of them, my life was changed for the better, and I’m lucky to be able to say that six years later, despite an ocean between us, I am still close to most of them.
One of the highlights of my trip to the Lake District was getting to spend five days with my dear friend Elli, who encouraged me to embrace “second degree” fun and was a wholehearted participant in both hiking and eating adventures. Elli was one of those Oxford friends who took me just the way I was. We did History together, were trashed together, and played many silly games with our other friends over copious amounts of wine. She also helped me get through some pretty dark days, when I was struggling with anxiety and my eating disorder. On our trip, I looked up at her the first night when we were eating dinner, and wasn’t sure why she looked a little surprised. When I asked, she said it was because she wasn’t used to seeing me eat normally (and it wasn’t even normal – I was inhaling a lot more food than a normal person, especially one my size, after that 18-mile day!) But she said it was a wonderful kind of awe, and that she was thrilled to see me so healthy and happy. When we were back in London and saw our other friends at tea, many said the same thing. It was amazing to me how different I seemed to them, but then it shouldn’t have been. I’ve felt different as I’ve changed for the better in the years since Oxford.
When I was at Oxford, I was still stuck in the mindset of having to be the kind of person who follows along a specific path in life, laid out for them mostly by the expectations of others. Going to Oxford helped to open up a whole world of other possibilities to me, but it’s only in the time that has passed since that I’ve actually embraced those possibilities. I’ve acknowledged that my priorities – health and happiness, friends and family – may not be the priorities I had in mind at 18, when my idea of success was still shaped by those external expectations, instead of my own idea of what a good life might look like. Having lunch with my old tutor, he also remarked on the dramatic shift he perceived in me, and in a strange way, even though I’m at the point where I rely on my intuition and what I think will make me most fulfilled to make decisions, having these people who knew me well and watched me struggle acknowledge the change really gave me a sense of satisfaction. I was a little more at peace knowing they thought I’d put my feet on a better path.
I will always be grateful to Oxford for giving me the chance to study history in a meaningful way, the opportunity to break out of my sheltered New England bubble, and the chance to make some of the best friends I’ll ever have. It’s also the place that forced me to grow up and to confront many of my deepest-seated fears. After leaving Oxford, I continued to grow, and I finally managed to get past some of those fears and anxieties, while recognizing that others might not be such bad things. Returning made me see just how far I’ve come. Before, I was nervous about not knowing what was coming for me. I wanted to be able to predict everything life would throw at me. But that’s not how life works, and I get that now. Honestly, I can’t wait to see what happens next.
Do you think that returning to a place you used to live can help you see change in yourself?
Was college was a formative experience for you, or did you grow and change more after college?
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