To understand the vector that my higher education took; perhaps you need to understand which vectors it DIDN’T TAKE.
Allow me to go back to the age of 18 when I was in 6th year of secondary school at Madras College, St Andrews. The setting is autumn-time; my exam results had been returned and I’d attended all the talks/seminars on applications to universities via UCAS. Now it was time to come up with a short-list of places to attend. I knew fine well that my strongest urge was to attend the University of Edinburgh to study Chemistry: the other choices I planned to include were just backup fodder.
Until I had a conversation with my father: “(Name of a family friend) was wondering if, with the Higher grades you got, you’d be applying to Oxford…?” [Loaded pause]. “…Sure, I could do that.”
Or words to that effect. In all honesty, I’d not considered myself to be of a calibre to apply to the most prestigious universities in the UK (and quite possibly in the world): Oxford & Cambridge. I was already adamant that Edinburgh was where I wanted to be. Yet here was my father telling me that he thought a degree at Oxbridge was within my reach, and he would encourage me strongly to do it. My family doesn’t usually step in to “strongly advise” me in my life choices; when they do I respect their pointers.
So, I did. I booked a spot at an Oxford open day that month, I sorted out my UCAS application to include this choice. I got the paperwork in gear. I started to get excited by the thought of applying to Oxford and trying my hand at the best university I could find.
I visited Oxford…and was entranced. The high sandstone college walls and iron gates looking onto pristine manicured lawns and quadrangles. The narrow alleyways at night-time, lit by the amber glow of streetlights. The screets of bicycles chained to railings, lamposts, or stacked in multitudes at the railway station. I walked through the iron gates into little worlds cut off from modern society, trapped in a beautiful timeless antiquity. Oxford was a magical realm, without a doubt. I absolutely loved it.
Of course I was invited down for the interview(s) at the college of my choice. I stayed in a room with a brown carpet and musty odour. I ate dinner by candelight in the gothic hall of Oriel College, waited upon by mutely deferrent servers.
The first two interviews seemed to go OK. I answered the questions or got to the right answers eventually. The third and final interview was pretty brutal: I went to Lincoln College and I believe I was interviewed by Prof Atkins, author of the infamous student textbooks “Physical Chemistry” & “Inorganic Chemistry”; and I didn’t leave feeling very happy at all. I took a bus to the nearest swimming pool and paddled lengths furiously, trying to bring myself back to a sensation of calm.
It took a while for the letter to come back, but when it did I found a rejection. On one level I just shrugged off the mantle of expectation and defaulted happily enough back to the original gameplan of Edinburgh. On another level, I’m still slightly stung. It’s hard not to take a rejection by a world-leading university personally. Listening to people much further on – both the Oxford rejects and the Oxford alumini – I don’t think I would have suited the Oxbridge experience, I put too much emphasis on life outside of the academic coursework. Besides, people I know had a grim time in that fiercely intense environment, I wouldn’t have wanted to trade places.
Could I have received an offer from Oxford, but rejected it for Edinburgh? Unlikely. I don’t think anyone would be crazy enough to turn out an unconditional offer from Oxbridge: I would have been perfectly happy to accept the offer without pause, knowing what it could do for me.
Though, the application to the university introduced a word into my vocabulary: Oxfordian. I use it as an adjective to describe places that strike me as similar to the Oxford-town I walked through. It also is a term for people who are alumini or students of Oxford, a category forever apart from me. I had planned to try my luck at Oxford when it came to phD time for several years, though at the time of writing, my thoughts lie with America instead.
Oxford remains in the background of all my academic life. I wouldn’t say it was a major influence any more, but…just be aware of that fact.