Class of Spectra: Saloni Patel

Saloni Patel, Law, Jesus College, Oxford (2014-2017)

How would you describe your ‘Oxford Experience’?

It was a time of intense challenge and yet the time of my proudest achievements. It was my greatest learning experience and yet I rarely fully understood course topics. It was an instance that raced by and then, a period that dragged slowly. A paradox. However, amidst all these contradictions Oxford never failed to surprise me.

For me, Oxford is best described as a place of surprise.

Aged 18, the first surprise was being confronted with the reality that I was a minority. Being a through-and-through mainstream girl I wasn’t used to being unusual. Having never perceived a tangible difference to my life, I’d never really deliberated upon what it meant to be an Indian girl. The Oxford environment gave me this recognition, but it also prompted this exploration. Living with a dual identity can be a struggle as you try to stabilise yourself in competing winds.

Oxford showed me that racial identity isn’t binary, and nor is it a spectrum on which you decide where you sit between Indian and British. Rather it’s an appreciation of the complimentary – as well as conflicting elements – between the two cultures, and the discernment that it is for you alone to define your cultural identity. At Oxford there was no prescription as to what it meant to be Indian, and instead I was greeted with vast diversity in interpretation of what this label represented. These open communities meant I could engage with this heritage without fearing that I was going to be wrong, that I was going to be too Indian or that I wasn’t going to be Indian enough.

Whoever you are – if it’s right for you, it’s right. Everyone will have something that makes them feel different but one of the things I love the most about Oxford is that there is a space for everyone, and if there isn’t you can make it. I was different and it surprised me; it surprised me because I embraced it.

Oxford is buzzing with a myriad of societies and groups, giving you the opportunity to develop existing skills, acquire new ones, and to surprise yourself with what you’re capable of. Throwing myself into these extra-curriculars meant I could see value in myself outside the sole structure of academic success. In an institution which is synonymous with academics it was surprising – in a liberating way – that what I found was an identity away from exam achievement. Even more significantly, Oxford gave me the power of agency.

On arrival at Oxford I was excruciatingly quiet. Perhaps this was because of socialisation, a good woman is a good listener? Yet through the tutorial system where with small class-sizes you’re forced to speak up, and by being surrounded by so many supportive people who wanted to hear what I had to say, Oxford gave me a voice.

Voice isn’t just about volume; it’s about conviction and assuredness, and when the emphasis is put on you developing your own thoughts and asserting your own opinions, as opposed to rote-reciting others’, these things come naturally. Oxford surprised me because I found myself in positions of leadership and roles of responsibility, all from the girl who couldn’t be heard.

Finally, Oxford surprised me because it wasn’t the answer that I had imagined. I thought achieving a degree at Oxford would prime my life, and after this last obstacle, life would be stable and secure. After all Oxford is one of the most established markers of success. Instead, Oxford showed me that struggle isn’t something to avoid but to relish. In life there is no magical finish line, there is constantly learning to be done and progress to be made. There is no fact or event which will launch you up a ladder of success. Rather you’ll encounter many a slippery snake as you realise that success isn’t a fixed standard, it constantly evolves and grows, as you do. There will always be loose ends but accepting this and enjoying life as it comes rather than striving towards the next milestone will make your success sustainable.

Oxford is full of surprise. Whatever your background Oxford will be new; it’s a melting pot of personalities, perspectives and people. Embrace change, welcome difference, and Oxford is the place for you.

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