By Abigail Allan.
When I first found out that I had been offered an interview at the University of Oxford, I bought my train ticket immediately. Doing so emptied my bank account by spending one month’s wages from my Saturday job on a single train ticket – and sacrificing my ability to have some semblance of a healthy diet that month. I’d saved for months in case I got the opportunity to have an interview at Oxford. That train ticket cost the same as my mother’s monthly food budget for a family of four.
I grew up in the Black Country, more specifically Wolverhampton, one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Today, I study at the best university in the world. I spend half my time living a life of wealth and vast knowledge; the other half in a town where I spent most of my teenage years living in working poverty.
‘Poverty’ is a difficult concept to explain to my peers in Oxford. It is an intangible, slippery thing, with no single, government-certified definition in the UK. It is a complex problem that cannot be quantified into one single figure or statement. Such attempts, however, have been made. Arbitrary figures, like the £16,000 household income ‘poverty line’ attempt to provide a definition: if your income is below this, you live in poverty, anything above, and you’re ok. But poverty is relative. It can mean not being able to afford enough food to stay healthy, not being able to afford sanitary products, not being able to afford to travel to school or work, being deprived of opportunities, and facing financial fears every day. Living in poverty can also mean, as in my case, living in working poverty, where your parents work full-time but still do not earn enough to live comfortably. Above all, it means being marginalised from mainstream society.
My experience of poverty was most acutely felt in terms of food poverty, but poverty reached its fingers into every aspect of my life, forcing me to spend years darning up tears in my £7 Primark jeans so I could wear them until they quite literally fell apart. This is irreconcilable with the pressure I now feel to buy a new dress for every black tie event, which has now become a social norm in my life. Now, eating in Hall every day is a far cry from the food poverty of my past, and yet people at my college complain about hall food being ‘shit’ when we get given a three-course meal for £2.50 every night. When I came here for interviews, I was thrilled to see vegetables, a feeling which now seems pathetic and shameful, something to be hidden. My life in college now is a far cry from being put on Free School Meals during Sixth Form because I was medically underweight and unable to concentrate in lessons.
I can also recognise the nuances of my own experience of poverty. My place at a grammar school was a privilege, which no doubt gave me opportunities I would not otherwise have had. However, this does not negate my mother carefully saving to buy my uniform, or the miles I had to walk to find somewhere warm to revise when we couldn’t afford to heat the house. Nor does it negate the evenings I spent sat in my Sixth Form Common Room, eating oats heated with water whilst I tried to ignore the pangs of hunger and concentrate on my homework. Poverty and privilege are not mutually exclusive. When you experience poverty, it bleeds into the privileged aspects of your life, altering the way you experience everything.
So, how do you reconcile coming from poverty with studying at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, where you arguably now belong to a group in which you are among some of the least marginalised groups of society? For someone from a background like mine, just meeting people who were ‘normal’, that is, comfortably middle class, was – and still is – something of a jarring shock. It still shocks me when someone’s parents send them money for new shoes, when at home I wore my shoes until they literally fell apart. How can I even begin to explain poverty whilst sat in Oxford, surrounded by the immense wealth and privilege, of which we are all now a part? Privilege is inherent in the very institution, the buildings themselves, the artworks on the walls, and the books we use in our college libraries. Poverty is exceptionally difficult to visualise and imagine if it is not something you have experienced: this is especially true when we are comfortably sat in our university buildings.
Although the days of my deepest poverty are behind me, poverty is not truly something of my past. Instead, I feel as if I am living dual lives. I can’t forget my past, not only because it is something which shaped and made me, but because it is not really my past at all. My ‘Oxford experience’ cannot be parcelled neatly into distinct term times, separated from the vacations by a mark on the calendar and a journey home. The bursary I receive during term time in order to support myself is not something I use solely during term, but something which I carefully save, in order to make sure that I have enough to eat healthily throughout the vacations – and so that I can feed my family too. Whilst I buy my groceries during term time, I am constantly thinking of my family at home, and am constantly feeling guilty about how my monthly groceries bill is higher than my family’s is for three people. I am also not completely removed from my past because my brother is still living it: he is still in school, in the same position I was in two years ago, unable to buy food or a provisional driving license so he has ID, or to go out with his friends to the cinema, something which a lot of people take for granted. So, I send him money, because I want him to have these ‘normal’ experiences of growing up.
I become most acutely aware of this liminal space I now occupy when I think of who I now seem to be to the outside world. People laughingly call me middle class because I did a prestigious internship over the summer. I am of course incredibly grateful for this opportunity, but I am also intimately aware that receiving this internship – an internship which was exclusively for students living below the poverty line– was based on the fact that I had to apply for it, work hard to get the necessary experience on my CV, and perform well at interviews. I received this opportunity in part because of my years of gaining work experience by volunteering in disadvantaged spaces, because these spaces would provide me with a heated place to be for a day, and, if I was lucky, a meal, or at least caffeine and distractions, to suppress the pangs of hunger. I have always strived to get such internships and opportunities because I have a constant drive for financial security, because in no way can I afford to not have a plan when I graduate.
At heart, I feel I am still working class, but I am aware that I don’t appear that way on the outside – something which now makes me something of an outcast in my hometown. And yet, at the same time, I’m too working class to fit in at Oxford University. I’m not quite enough either way. Class isn’t something that is necessarily static, but is one component of our complex identities, a label that people apply to each other and themselves, both to define their own experiences, but also to differentiate themselves from other people. And it feels like that at this university, the label of ‘class’ is employed much more to exclude people who don’t fit into the history of the university.
The university has focused so much in recent years on Access & Outreach, which is fantastic – and I have personally benefited from access initiatives, such as the UNIQ summer school, which is what I cite as my main reason for applying to Oxford. However, there is still so much more to be done, starting with a focus on Inreach, not just Outreach. The UNIQ summer school showed me an Oxford which was full of people like me, who were poor but were keen to learn, and struggled daily to make it. But the real Oxford isn’t quite like that: everyday I’m surrounded by people from walks of life I cannot possibly image, with financial security I could never dream of. This is of course not entirely a bad thing: I have learnt so much from these people, and I understand that money isn’t everything – but it sure does help. The problem lies within the classist structures of the UK, entrenched in the university, and the lack of social awareness amongst students and even amongst staff who work in Access or Financial & Academic Support. Quite often, even these staff members do not understand the realities of poverty – but how could they, if they have never experienced it? Fundamentally, people like me will not feel comfortable in this university until the University truly understands the diverse realities of its students’ lives.
I have so often been told that people like me need to come here to change Oxford for the better in ten or twenty years time – but what about our own experiences? Living through exclusion for the better of the future, when others at Oxford have a much easier ride, is exhausting. I am tired of constantly campaigning my college and the University to make changes, only to be ignored by people who don’t understand and don’t try to understand the issues. I have now reached a point in my time here where I simply want to present people with my experience, not offers of solutions, and have them consider that alone.
It feels that Oxford is a space which is not really ready for people like me yet. But it’s not me, or people like me, that need to change. It’s Oxford. These experiences shaped me and continue to drive me: I want to learn and succeed, because I want to be able to care for my mom, I want financial security for the future, and I want to make people at home proud. I live dual lives, but they are somewhat blurred.
I’m just currently occupying space that isn’t ready for me yet.