Sunday, 29 September 2013

Why helping at a college open day is actually a microcosm of modern life...

Main quad, view from cloisters. Worcester college, Oxford.
Working on college (as in, my college at university) open days is always a humbling experience. It reminds everyone of their own intial explorations in Oxford, of the wonder of the setting and surroundings, and that lingering feeling that their time in Oxford might only ever be confined to a dream.

I've worked on various open days this summer, for the History department and the college. 99% of people are enthusiastic, happy, excited and have a fantastic, if busy, day in Oxford. However, I'm going to do something that people in Oxford hate; I'm going to talk about the "1%".

The 1% are the tiny minority of people who make me uncomfortable on open days. Although I'll treat then identically to all other guests, as politeness dictates, something inside me feels uneasy. I'll answer their questions, laugh awkwardly at their jokes, and walk around with them as I do with the other 99% of people, who are, by comparison, sadly anonymous.

I think the worst behaviour I saw (and by this I refer to the conduct of grown adults) was the parents who spoke non-stop on behalf of their children, to which the children would object, but they'd continue nonetheless. I think some people may have even had the idea that I could influence the admissions process in some way (of course I can't, I'm a current student!) as they sought to remind me of the great qualities and abilities their children possessed. Some parents would directly compare the relative strengthes and weaknesses of their different children in front of student helpers. Some prospective students insisted that they didn't have to worry about interview preparation, as so many people from their school had already been accepted into Oxford in previous years.

I am describing this for no other reason than to point out that all of the above paragraph is completely ridiculous, which is why I'm going on about it here. Current students DO NOT take part in the admissions decision-making process. Extra-curricular activity IS NOT part of the application process to any Oxford college. Whether your father/grandfather went to Oxford, or if, in fact, no one in your family has ever been to any university before you (like me) IS NOT relevant to those making decisions regarding admissions. Frankly, student helpers on open days do not want to hear about it. It's not making you look any better than anyone else, and obviously the only person intimidated is yourself, otherwise why would you even bother listing your own achievements? (I sense an inferiority complex...)

By the way, when I say "1%" I don't just mean people from well-off backgrounds, or people who might come from a certain social demographic or part of the country. The "1%" in this sense is the name I'm giving to all those people who make a fool of themselves on open days, due to ignorance about the Oxford application process. Hopefully, through continuing Outreach & Access events, and general awareness (perhaps even promoted by this post?) people will soon realise that Oxford is a diverse and constantly changing place. What was true of the admissions process, even one generation ago, or 30 years ago, is not true now.

Rant over. Like I said, 99% of the people, families, students, teachers, I meet on open days are lovely, genuinely interested and sincere people. Another section of the 1% is the 1 or 2 students who clearly don't want to be at the open day in the first place, but have been heavily "encouraged" by their parents/ guardians/ teachers. If you're reading this, then please bear in mind that Oxford is a real place. It's not a fantasy dream world, which people might paint it to be, it's hard work to keep up with term-time assignments, though I'm not saying that they can't be rewarding to complete, and that I'm not counting down the days until 2nd year starts!

Seriously though - and this goes for all prospective university students at this time of year - make UCAS choices based on where YOU want to go, to do the course YOU want to do. In the long run, you can live with having to go to somewhere that you'll enjoy, and temporarily "disappoint" your parents. Your parents may not be as sad as you think to see you making some well-informed, independent decisions! Do this rather than trying to persevere for 3 years or more at an institution that doesn't suit your learning style or interests.

Persuading people that Worcester college could suit their interests is my job on open days. Well actually, my job is to give a realistic and accurate description of college life, and then it's up to the potential applicants to decide whether it'd suit them. However, 26 acres of college grounds, including a lake, an orchard and the lawn on which the first ever frisbee was supposed to have been thrown (what do you mean we can't prove it?) makes my job a lot easier. It also reminds me of why I'm so happy to live there, which can become obscured sometimes, especially mid-way through terms, by work and stress.

The open days were full of some really poignant moments for me (not to mention giving me the chance to catch up with people in my year who I hadn't seen for months!).

  1. Some alumni were back for the annual Alumni weekend in Oxford. Whilst we were in the cloisters, handing out leaflets, course guides and the college prospectus I noticed two older men were skimming a copy of the 2013 prospectus. "It's all changed" said one man to the other. "Bet's it's tougher...", said the second man, "don't think I'd get in here now". Perhaps they were right.

    2. On the bus home I found that I was sitting next to another Oxford history student. Another  Oxford history student who'd also just finished helping at her own college open day. She's in the year above me. This was great, because it was like being able to speak to my future self, and ask for advice on module choices/ the general routine of second year. As everyone does in Oxford, we found mutual connections and experiences to talk about, and I slowly realised just how much serendipity was involved in this meeting. I was talking to someone who had gone to the same Grammar school as I was supposed to have, before I failed the 11+. At the time, failing that exam had honestly felt like the end of the world, but now, somehow, me and this former Grammar school student had ended up in the same place, at the same time. I guess that's testimony to the secondary school I attended, and the merits of individual effort over everything.

And I wasn't even supposed to be getting that bus...