I thought getting into Oxford was a dream come true – I couldn't have been more wrong

Jenna Hawkey

When I got into Oxford, I envisaged debating with like-minded people, joining the Oxford Union, dining in the grand halls and learning to row. The reality was one big social, financial and intellectual struggle.

I was intimidated by the cultural divide. During freshers’ week, one fellow student told me he’d spent his summer shooting on daddy’s estate, while another had been reading in their drawing room. Coming from a very different sort of estate myself (though thankfully with no shooting), I didn’t realise life like that existed outside of a Jane Austen novel.

I was used to walking barefoot around a Cornish fishing village and all of a sudden I was having to wear a gown, ribbon and heels (my first ever pair – thank God for Matalan) to exams. I once told a tutor about my birthday spent at a Cornish “meadery”, where the waitresses go barefoot and it’s frowned upon to use cutlery to eat your chicken and chips. “In Oxford, Jenna,” he sniffed, “we have restaurants.”

It seemed as though most students had something to prove to anyone who’d listen: what school they’d been to, what books they’d read, what their dad did for a living (MP was a popular one) and which endangered species they’d saved on their gap year. One of the lads on my course would remind people on a daily basis that he’d been to a state school, as if he needed some kind of medal for getting in to Oxbridge. We had very little in common.

I also struggled academically. Having always kept up with the pace at school, going to Oxford very quickly highlighted my intellectual limits. I discovered I was chronically slow at reading, and it would take so long to get through the reading list that I’d stay up all night writing my essay the night before a deadline. It meant I was missing three full nights’ sleep every fortnight.

I also had no idea how to construct a decent essay. My first assignment was 6,000 words long because writing literally everything down had worked just fine at school and I’d never been taught any different. I was admonished, and started telling myself I was only there to fill some kind of state school quota.

At the end of the summer term, I watched the third year students with their noses to the grindstone, stressing about their finals. I was already working that hard in my first year. I was at maximum capacity and it wasn’t sustainable.

There was also a gaping financial gulf. I couldn’t afford to socialise. While everyone else was eating out at their restaurants, I was living off Tesco blue-stripe chicken nuggets. I couldn’t go out to celebrate people’s birthdays and even “Formal Hall” – three courses for about £6 – was too much of a stretch. A trip to the Alps at Christmas or a ticket to the college’s famed summer ball were simply out of the question. I felt so isolated.

The highlight of my year was when my home town club, Redruth RFC, came to play Oxford in rugby union’s fourth tier, and a handful of my school friends came up on the supporters’ coach. That two hours of “normal” familiarity felt incredible.

Oxford for me was a surreal, nightmarish world where the weeks went by excruciatingly slowly. I crossed off each day on a chart on the wall, counting down to the end of each term.

After my final exam, I kicked off my black one-inch heels and walked the half-mile back to college barefoot with a huge sense of relief. “That’s it. I’m done.” I got a 2:1 in that first year and completed my final two years at a very welcoming Exeter University.

My time at Oxford has held me back more than it helped me get on. It burned me out and knocked my confidence to the point where, 13 years on, I’m only just gaining the courage to really challenge myself and push my intellectual comfort zone at work.

I sometimes look back through my essays and tutors’ comments and wonder what might have been. But I’m sure that if I’d pushed on to complete my Oxford degree, it would have been at the expense of my mental health.