Fostering inclusion and diversity
Husna Argandiwal (History, 2019), Access Rep
One of my earliest interactions with Oxford was a group of its students coming to talk at my school, one of many initiatives at my state-comprehensive to boost our university admissions rate. At the time I remember thinking ‘why on earth would anyone waste their time doing this?’ – the entire presentation see-sawed from complete silence on the part of the crowd to a barrage of questions directed at the university students within the general realms of ‘how rich are your parents?’ and ‘is everyone at Oxford posh?’, questions that the university students answered with surprising ease. Now almost six years later and in the position of those same Oxford students, I understand why they were so enthusiastic about encouraging us to apply.
An undeniable truth about Oxford is that it has an elitism problem, reflected within its demographic. Each college has chosen to tackle this issue in their own way, but as someone intimately involved with the outreach work at Hertford, the effort expended by the college to support prospective students from marginalised groups stands Hertford in a different stead to the more traditional colleges.
Outreach work at Hertford varies. My main role as Access Rep consists of assisting potential college ambassadors in their training and recruiting said ambassadors for outreach events. In pre-corona times this would have meant tours around our college and talks in the Baring Room. In the corona period, we have had to adjust to online Q&As and Zoom presentations, changes that our ambassadors have adapted to remarkably well.
But there is a constant need for innovation, as the needs of prospective applicants change. Thus, outreach work is not limited to traditional Q&As but is manifested in other forms as well. Social media has been a big focus for those of us involved in outreach: it’s one of the easiest ways to reach prospective students, as such informal forums do much to de-mystify the college. The JCR has set up its own Instagram, so prospective students can see what college life is like from the student perspective, whilst the Humans of Hertford page (set up by yours truly) provides valuable insight into the diversity of experiences and stories within Hertford. Even college staff have gotten involved, with Desert Island Discs providing a rare look into the minds of those figures that students are sure to interact with in college.
I mentioned earlier that I now understand why university students take time out of their day to help prospective applicants, and that’s because so many people at Hertford have some experience of benefiting or interacting with outreach work. There is an almost cycle of positive experience, as the older students assist incoming freshers and prospective students, who then inherit and later pass on this culture of encouragement. It’s this culture which I think drives the outreach work at Hertford. The accommodation office is constantly churning out new outreach opportunities, but these would not have the impact they do were it not for the participation of the students. The truth is that to de-mystify the college, to encourage people from backgrounds that are less represented within Oxford to make that first step and apply, students need to interact with other students, especially those that can relate to their own experiences.
This is where the JCR reps come in: BAME Rep, Wom*n’s Rep for women*, Class Rep etc. All roles play a part in the initiatives pertaining to their field of expertise, and they serve as figures for people in college to turn to as they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. My own work as Access Rep has highlighted to me the time and effort Hertford puts into increasing access to university for disadvantaged students. I’ve benefited from schemes and initiatives that have made my time at this college so much more comfortable. Indeed, I remember spending much time trying to decide which college to apply to. For me, it was Hertford’s large proportion of state school students, the diversity of its student body, generous bursary and cheap rent that drew me to this college; my college peers have given similar motivations for applying. Of course, it must be acknowledged that financial burdens are one of the main obstacles for poorer students in applying to top universities. By providing a bursary, by subsidising rent, Hertford ensures that poorer students can enjoy university in the same manner as their wealthier counterparts, levelling out their experiences to create a less stratified community. The characteristics of Hertford laid out earlier would simply not exist were it not for Hertford’s outreach efforts, which easily demonstrates the importance of such work.
Back when I could give tours, my talking points wouldn’t just be about Hertford, but about Hertford’s history (yes, very characteristic of a history student, I know). This history is not just about stuffy men in suits though. The Tanner scheme is a shining point in our history, as an initiative that did much to level the playing level between state and privately educated students. Hertford can boast being one of the first colleges to admit women. Every year LGBTQ+ month and Black History month are celebrated, with JCR members and the college getting involved in events.
Consistently Hertford has stood at the forefront of change, serving as an example for the rest of the university. If our status as a progressive college is to remain, the necessity of outreach work cannot be diminished, and effort must continue to be spent on bringing marginalised communities within the Hertford fold. As more institutional change occurs within Oxford, I am confident that Hertford will continue to foster the environment of inclusion and diversity it is so renowned for.