How many thousands of blog posts this month, I wonder, will open with reflections on the horrible events on the other side of the world from the UK: the dreadful earthquake in New Zealand, followed with such tragic speed by the unimaginable catastrophe that is now unfolding in Japan. It seems almost improper to dwell on events at home, and yet there is so little that most of us usefully can do. I was thankful to hear from Somervillians in New Zealand, in response to our concerned emails,that none of them appear to have suffered injury or loss. So far only one of some sixteen Somerville alumni in Japan has replied to our messages to say he was all right; I hope that in days to come we will learn more. Meanwhile in Oxford, Christ Church college has sent contributions and offers of help to Christ Church NZ. At a Bodleian Library lunch yesterday a Japanese visitor was applauded sympathetically. How small these gestures seem in the face of such enormity, but Oxford’s many communities connected with the afflicted areas will continue to offer what they can.
And so, back home:
Six months on from starting this wonderful job, and at the end of my second term, what strikes me most is the extraordinary pace of life in Oxford. The remorseless timetable set by the government for universities to come up with new funding and access arrangements magnifies this impression; with extra meetings inserted into our schedules, striving to come up with equitable proposals before impossible deadlines. Oxford terms, however, are always compressed and intense, even without these added pressures. (It is the fact of eight-week terms as opposed to the ten weeks that are the norm in most other universities except for Cambridge, that helps us to claim Oxford is the least expensive of all English universities for undergraduates to attend. Fewer weeks of accommodation costs, combined of course with generous provision for cases of hardship, probably make this true.)
I have now met almost all of Somerville’s five hundred students, for the most part in regularly scheduled one-to-one meetings of ten minutes each. (There are also meetings about academic discipline or welfare, but that’s another story for another time.) It is a privilege to be in a position to form this composite picture of the college. Meeting the third- and fourth-year students last, before they get immersed in finals, I see real differences in maturity and aspiration that have emerged during their experience here.
Not all finalists by any means yet know what they want to do next. Some are planning gap years or internships to test the waters before settling on potential careers. Others are continuing with volunteer work, often in far-flung parts of the world. ( I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them set off to help, this summer, with the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.) Some are waiting to hear whether they have places for graduate study, in the UK or abroad, often in high-flying laboratories where they will be contributing to transformative science. One is becoming a priest, another is going to train as a nurse, another is pursuing a burgeoning career as a playwright. More common are the training contracts in big law firms or internships in industry, management consultancy and the City, with some in publishing or the media. There are those who will set out towards careers in the Foreign Office, international aid and development or the United Nations. Not a few are taking up teaching, and I am encouraged to see how popular the TeachFirst programme is with Somervillians. Politics holds out lures to others, whether they decide to go into think tanks or party headquarters; and I expect there will be one or two from this year’s finalists who eventually join the ranks of Somervillian MPs. (The College’s next Prime Minister may well already be in Parliament, of course.) Among the 19% who come from outside Britain, quite a few will return home at some stage, while others are watching the changes in UK immigration law anxiously, hoping to stay on for further study or to start on their careers. I wish this country could keep every one from this prodigious pool of talent.
A large majority of students give me a consistent impression of the College. They love it, as most undergraduates anywhere do, for the friendships they have made and the intense experience of developing intellectually. Often I’ve regretted the fleeting nature of these conversations, when I would love to continue a discussion of what they are studying, their dissertation topic or a favourite author. They themselves are often in love with their subject, and deeply appreciative of their tutors. I met a graduate at a recent graduation day lunch who told me she chose to come to Somerville because of our professor of English, whose tutorials more than lived up to expectations. She has already published several short stories and has a novel ready to go. Our students will also remember Somerville as a welcoming and friendly place that “feels like home” as some of them say. They mostly believe that this college is the most friendly and welcoming of all, a place that has given them the space to be themselves and –often– to discover who they are.
I have now met not just hundreds of students but also hundreds of alumni, and they too regard the college as in some sense home. The Somerville Medics, who met for a day of lectures yesterday; the Somerville London Group whose meetings I have had the privilege of attending more than once; the Lawyers group and the City group: all these convey a sense of ease with each other and pleasure in each others’ company that echoes their days as students, but transferred to cross-generational groups. In the summer we will be hosting a Somerville teachers’ group whose help we want to enlist in bringing into the College the next generations of brightest and most enquiring minds.