There are many Oxford words and concepts which friends and family at home find bizarre, but perhaps the one which gets the most reaction is when I talk about my ‘children’ and my ‘husband.’ By the end of my freshers’ week I phoned home to announce I was ‘married,’ and by the freshers’ week of my second year I was proud mother to two daughters and a son.
Sounds pretty weird, right? But actually, once you get your head around the initial weirdness of the terminology, you realise that it is a pretty effective pastoral system which adds a homely dimension to what can initially be a disorientating and overwhelming experience.
College families are basically a buddy scheme. An incoming fresher is given a college parent who is someone in the same college in the year above who also studies the same subject. Their other parent is the spouse of their subject parent, so via the other parent they also have a college sibling. If you extend the analogy further, they also have cousins, grandparents and so on. (I do have friends who really go in for the whole extended family vibe.)
The system starts before you even arrive in Oxford. The to-be fresher receives a welcome letter from their parent after getting their results, providing them with a contact who has lived through exactly the experience they are about to embark on. When I was in this position I was taking full advantage of my college mum’s insider expertise to ask her all sorts of trivial questions, and she provided me with the small but important bits of advice that an official guide doesn’t necessarily cover. And it means that once you arrive, you already have a little network of people who you can go to.
From a work perspective, having a same subject contact in the year above is indispensable. They will probably have done some of the modules you’ll be doing, and if they personally haven’t then they’ll almost certainly have friends who have. This means that they are super useful to consult when it comes to choosing options (giving the real ins and outs of the module which the faculty website might not quite disclose.) But most importantly they will have a wealth of past essays, notes, exam questions, reading lists and the like which will be invaluable for you. The jump between sixth form and university style work is real, so seeing what a (gasp) authentic undergraduate essay looked like was a great help in my first week. And actually it’s not just a one-way system: for history at least we have modules which are taken by both first and second years, so it was useful to swap essays with freshers too. Sharing is caring, after all.
Even once you’ve survived freshers’ week and that terrifying first tutorial, college parents can give you advice on which rooms to go for in college when it comes to the room ballot, to living out (a lot of my friends found their third year house through looking around current third years’ houses), to how to use the laundry system/what the best club nights are/which balls are best value for money/what to do if the light in your room stops working. Their firsthand experience is truly enlightening.
What I found particularly lovely about the college family system, though, was the social aspect. I’d genuinely count my daughters as not just some kids I’ve got to send notes to because college has told me to, but good friends. From tea breaks (a great source of information for cross-year gossip) to nights out, the age gap is irrelevant really. Through my college kids I’ve made lots of friends in the year below, which stops years becoming isolated from each other and really does make college feel like one big family (as cringey as it sounds.) As Mrs George in Mean Girls famously declared, ‘you kids keep me young,’ and I know it’ll be refreshing to hang out with my youthful college kids as the doom of finals hits the rest of my year…
Your biological mother might be a bit startled to hear she now has a rival claimant to mother, and you might not have expected to be a mother of three at the age of nineteen, but trust me when I say having a college family can be super useful work-wise, and can also provide you with a tight-knit support unit to help you through the ups and downs of Oxford life, a home away from home.