Spotlight on students: Alice Dunn

alice dunn

I read a lot of books growing up, as most people studying English here did, but stopped entirely in my early teens – a mixture, probably, of lack of time, when I was in the ballet studio six days a week, and the uninspiring GCSE syllabus. It was only when I had to take some time off from school at the end of Year 11 that I began reading again. I spent countless hours that spring and summer with a book in my hand, and ‘young adult’ books turned into those by authors I was discovering for the first time, the likes of Ian McEwan and Virginia Woolf, having picked up copies of Atonement and The Waves in a charity shop by chance. By the time sixth form began, my choice of A-levels had changed completely from sciences to humanities.

Oxford had never previously been a goal of mine, and coming from my local comprehensive, it felt somewhat unattainable. I owe a lot to the wonderful outreach programmes Oxford has to offer students from state schools, without which I don’t think I would’ve realised how exciting the learning here was, nor that it was an opportunity that was really open to me. I was worried about potential financial barriers, but the generosity of Oxford’s Crankstart scholarship actually made the university much more accessible to me than any other. I felt so instantly at home in Oxford when I stepped out of the train station for the first time, and I met some really inspiring students and tutors who encouraged me to apply and helped me develop my application. I started reading about ideas of innate human evil in post-1945 literature, which I wrote a short dissertation on for an Extended Project Qualification in Year 12. It’s a topic I’m keen to continue exploring.

I’m only one term into the degree, which has gone so quickly – I’m told this is characteristic of the experience of Oxford terms! It’s been enormously exciting for me; the course has been wonderful, and the endless number of books and libraries to choose from has been a welcome change from the limited selection in my small home town. I’ve found it such a luxury to be able to devote so much of my time to reading and learning, a lifestyle which Oxford is completely set up to facilitate. I spent my first week here in a bit of a haze, overwhelmed with gratitude, a feeling which has remained all term, and I hope doesn’t fade as the degree grows inevitably more difficult!

I chose Oxford, in part, because I wanted the opportunity to study Old English literature. Despite the high expectations I had before arriving, the course has managed to exceed them all. I’d never learned a language with case before, so it’s taken me some time to adjust, but I’ve begun to find the translation a really satisfying experience (now that it doesn’t take me all day!). With such limited prior interaction with it, I don’t think I anticipated the depth of the literature of this period. The Dream of the Rood, the first Old English poem I’ve ever studied, has been wonderful for proving just how fascinating and complex it is!

I was always adamant about how important the study of English is, but I don’t think I realised how central it was to just about everything until I arrived here. Something that absolutely drew me to English as a subject was its relationship to other disciplines, such as history and philosophy, which are big interests of mine. This term we’ve grappled with huge concepts through literary texts, and the broadening of thinking that the course inspires has only served to confirm in me simultaneously the importance of the subject and how right I was to choose it. I feel endlessly lucky for the opportunity to study a subject which I love so much. There have been a few too many late nights while I try and find my footing with the workload, but it remains work that I really enjoy, even at those times when I rely a little too much on coffee.

My love for Oxford goes beyond the course. I’m a bit of a museum dweller, and being just opposite the Ashmolean, with free passes to the exhibitions, has been a great form of procrastination, albeit educational! My college, St John’s, also houses the Robert Graves collection, which, thanks to the wonderful librarians, I’ve been able to spend a couple of hours poring over with a friend. I’ve also taken up rowing on a very casual basis, which I was very delighted to discover is free!

We manage to pack a lot into the short terms, but in the week since Michaelmas ended, I’ve realised how much I have yet to do and discover. I play the cello, and took ballet very seriously until a couple of years ago, both of which I hope to continue with next term. The only problem is time! However, if there’s anything I’ve learned about Oxford students in my first several weeks, it’s their astonishing ability to juggle a long list of extracurriculars and academics!

Alice is a first-year student at St John’s College.