Sandra Hernandez Chang

sandra hernandez chang

Photo by Faith Wong

I thought I had to fit in to the ‘Oxford way’ if I wanted to be happy at Oxford University.

I thought I had to live, laugh and love a study-tube day routine. When I didn’t, I worried I wasn’t made for Oxford and that Oxford wasn’t made for me. I was terrified I’d bound myself for three years to the wrong place. But there are many ways to live in Oxford. You can live in the centre, walk winding ways to tutorials between dreamy spires. You can also explore one of the multiple other lifestyles that Oxford offers.

It was when I moved to Cowley that I started to properly appreciate Oxford. I first came to Cowley at 7:30am on a depressingly week-bound Wednesday. I was hungover and felt as stable as drool. I had to make multiple stops on Cowley Road to collect my leaking edges. I thought I was going to faint multiple times on the walk there.

I didn’t realise then, but the slow waking up I witnessed in Cowley Road stayed with me. Shop owners pausing mid-movement, cigarettes at sunrise, chairs and tables unfolding onto the street. Cowley Road is the first place I felt echoes of the Mediterranean where I grew up. The centre’s High Street is laced and strung up by the movement of people always on their way to something. I missed meanders and pauses. Even more, I missed feeling comfortable in my imperfection. With a flickering head, I felt surprisingly calm on Cowley Road’s sidewalk.

I moved to Cowley in my third year. I wake up, bike to the centre listening to music (Dominic Fike), feeling like everything is beautiful. The centre is now beautiful because it is like jumping into a rare-fish aquarium (I’m no longer drowning, I’m free diving!). I know how lucky I am to bike into a tutorial with an expert in the field. I feel genuinely lucky talking to peers who were up all night researching the niche undiscovered corners of Hamlet’s hair routine. The spires are beautiful.

When I moved away from the centre, my mind finally felt free enough again to crave creativity. When I am calm, everything else explodes in colour. I realised I was in a city rife with people who wanted to talk about the creative stuff going on in their brains, and I dug into it. I found care in people’s ideas. My friends and I struggled through the utility of our work as art. We tried to push ourselves to tackle what we thought was important in our work: racial justice, identity, marginalisation…. I don’t know how far we achieved this, but we struggled through it, at least. And together: in small living rooms late at night, taking turns questioning ourselves and each other. We were bound by our proximity and our worries; and also, by our relief at finding friends who listen with kindness and understanding. In Oxford I have encountered bodies of people packed with strength and gentleness, side by side.

This isn’t limited to the student body. My professor Nandini Das is a very busy woman: she is a bit of a hero for scholarship on migration and race in the Early Modern period. She also took up Mandarin mid-term. Nevertheless, she found the time to calm me down when I was panicking before finals. And in those late-night living-room panics about the importance of art, professors like Nandini Das were much needed figures of hope: we pointed to academics who had been carving paths in academia before we knew what identity meant.

There’s no point idealising Cowley. But it fits me a hundred times better than the centre. And there’s Marston, and Hinksey; Jericho, Summertown, Headington. There’s probably a number of different ways of living in the centre that I have not considered. I guess my main point is that it is not one Oxford that one has to fit into. I wish someone had told me at the start: if the spires aren’t for you, ask around for a different Oxford. Oxford is rich, in more ways than we know.

I graduated this year. I completed a BA in English Literature and Language. My college is Exeter. I grew up in Spain, and moved to the UK to study English Literature a few years ago! I am half Spanish and half Korean.