I sat there on my first morning in class, heart pounding, as I realized there was no way I could keep up with the work. I would fail here. I would have to leave Oxford almost as soon as I had arrived …
That was day one at Oxford and I’ll finish that story during this episode because, of course, I did find a way to stay on.
I studied Theology at Mansfield College, University of Oxford, 1994-1997 and those years had a huge effect on the rest of my life. In this episode, I’ll talk about some of my experiences of the city, my lessons learned, and give some recommendations for where to visit if you travel to the city of dreaming spires as well as some books to read along the way.
* The dream and the myth of Oxford
* Don’t play by the rules. Play your own game.
* Discovering the reality of class and hierarchy within a hierarchy
* What do you really want?
* Losing my religion but not my spirituality
* Always be learning
* Decadence and discipline
* Recommended books featuring Oxford
The dream and the myth of Oxford
The dream of Oxford was conjured for me early on when I read Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. He writes of Christminster, a fictionalized city of learning based on Oxford, “a city of light … the tree of knowledge grows there.” Of course, the split in society between ‘town and gown’ is portrayed as well and the book is actually a tragedy, but Jude equates Christminster to the New Jerusalem, a place to aspire to, and that’s what caught my attention.
I read Jude during my GCSEs (aged 14-16 in the UK), and I was pretty obsessed with Jerusalem, having traveled there in my teens for the first time to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I also went back several times in my gap year before Uni. In my head, the magic of Jerusalem and the magic of Oxford melded together into a possible future.
So, did my dream turn into a reality?
“I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all like an opera.” W.B.Yeats
(1) Don’t play by the rules. Play your own game.
Getting into the University is a challenge in itself, and my experience shaped my future, so let’s wind back the clock even further to when I applied.
There are different routes into Oxford. You can take the entrance exam. You can be offered a conditional place based on exam results. You can get a scholarship e.g. for sports, or the Rhodes scholarship, which is how Bill Clinton came to Oxford.
I was never going to get in by any of those routes. I was achieving academically at school but not at the genius level you needed for the exam. I was at a technical college for my A-levels because I wanted to study psychology and the only place I could do it was at Filton Tech in Bristol. I left my private girls school in order to do that, and studied Psychology alongside English Literature, Classical Civilisation and also took an Outdoor Education certificate.
I was at a private girls school, Redland High in Bristol, because of an academic scholarship I had won, but I didn’t feel like I fitted in there. My Mum did an amazing job of bringing me and my brother up but we didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t grow up in privilege. I remember when I left Redland, the headmistress said to me, “You won’t get into Oxford if you leave this school.”
That comment stuck in my mind and made me want to achieve that goal even more. Perhaps her words were actually the thing that drove me to achieve it. I’m a Type A personality and achieving goals is what I love to do. I write something down and then I try and achieve it. So, I think I made the decision quite early on that I wanted to go there.