Reflections on the end of term – the end of my degree

On Monday I handed in the last tutorial work I will ever submit at Oxford, which consisted of two gobbets (commentaries) on extracts of Cicero’s Pro Marcello. My journey to this point has been a long and very difficult one, but I am glad to have reached it. All that is left for me now is to submit my thesis (which is on Roman numismatics) and sit my final exams (three in translation, one on Cicero’s oratory, two in Roman archaeology, and four in Roman and Hellenistic history).

There was a point, around three years ago, in March 2014, when I had given up any hope that I would ever reach this point. I came to Oxford very optimistic, happy to have received an offer and excited about the intellectual and social opportunities that lay before me. Then, living independently for the first time, I started to have crushing realizations about some of my childhood experiences, and thoughts would come to me overwhelmingly and unstoppably, and I felt a surging, terrifying anger, the kind of anger that would leave me physically shaking and unable to think, and which could be triggered by almost anything.

I struggled to make sense of things, and I felt terribly alone. I became alienated from my family, and moreover, I felt that students at Oxford were different to me in an irreconcilable way, and this impression was reinforced by a couple of hurtful experiences of class prejudice in my first year. My confidence was destroyed, and I had no faith that if I ventured further outward that I could find anything different.

It was hard for me to feel on top of the work with thoughts like these rushing through my mind, and by my second year, when I faced my first set of exams, it started to get much worse. I found myself sitting in my room, unable to think, unable to move, experiencing m surroundings as if I were sitting in a cinema. Then the strange thoughts started: I was guilty, terribly guilty – I had committed a terrible crime, and everyone was out to get me. These thoughts led to a series of events which ended with a brief period in hospital. As I was due to be discharged I was informed by a nurse that my college were not allowing me to return to my room, and that they would find me a B&B. After some argument on the phone by my social worker, I was allowed to return.

I was forced to take a year out of Oxford, after which I could return and sit my exams. I returned to Northern Ireland and managed to rent a room privately in a building which had once been a commune, now reduced to two elderly occupants, one of whom I am still in contact with. I read a lot of political literature at this time, as much of it was lying around the house, but otherwise lived as a hermit. I was frustrated by lengthy waiting lists to get any kind of help on the NHS. Despite what I had been told, I had to restart the process of referral which I had already undergone in England some time before from scratch.

At this point I decided to blow most of the money I had saved from my student grants on an 11-week trip in continental Europe, without travel insurance, without much prior planning, and without any kind of safety net. I was told time and time again how awful an idea this was: I did it anyway. I finished my trip with four weeks of manual labour on an archaeological site outside Naples. This was cathartic: something about being outside in the heat, working hard, with a friendly group of people who drank and played cards together almost every single evening which helped me to regulate the emotions I was feeling. I started to feel calmer, that I was on my way to something better, and felt my confidence restored.

I returned to Ireland motivated to finish my degree. I sat my first set of exams and got a 2.i, despite the disruption. At the start of my final year I was awarded an exhibition, that is, a £200 prize recognizing my academic work in the previous year. I got a summer job in Spain; the next summer I got a job in Oxford, and this summer I return there, with a promotion and a pay rise. When I left Oxford I saw a lifetime spent dealing with never ending misery stretching out before me, and the future seemed bleak. I worried seriously about becoming homeless; I thought my problems made me unemployable. As it stands I am excited to leave Oxford, and hopeful about what the future will bring.

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