When I was younger, I preferred to look forward to the future rather than reflect. Every New Year’s Eve I would diligently write my resolutions for the year ahead. Common occurrences included ‘learn how to do the splits’ and ‘get long hair’, their repeated appearances are a testament to my inability to reflect.
A term at Oxford does not usually lend itself to reflection. With eight weeks of hectic schedules and a desire to get the most out of the Oxford experience, there is hardly time to think about what that experience has been. However now, with term winding down, and a long stretch of socially isolated summer ahead, there is hardly anything else to do but reflect.
But what does it mean to reflect? Is it a measure of progress, something that can be quantified and compared? Or is it a ‘spot the difference’, a what’s changed between now and then? Or maybe it’s something more obscure, something personal, and different for each individual?
On reflection, my own definition of ‘reflection’ has changed this past year. From the quantified to the obscure, the very notion of reflection is what has changed in me most this year.
It’s easy to notice the quantifiable changes from year to year. Whilst both now and this time last year, I spent the majority of my time housebound, one due to a global pandemic and the other due to exams, that’s where the similarities end. I am different. I’ve found new friends and lost old ones; PPE is now more likely to mean personal protective equipment rather than the subject I was hoping to study next year; and I’ve grown half an inch – shocking I know. But these obvious differences aren’t what it means to reflect. I may be smarter than this time last year but what have I learnt? I may be taller, but how have I grown since the nervous fresher of 9 months ago?
My first year undoubtedly has not been what I expected. Beyond just a Trinity gone missing, no amount of student room scrolling, or fresher group chat member stalking could have prepared me for what Oxford would be. It has been both so much more and so much less than I expected. Far more about personal growth from the experiences the Dreaming Spires have to offer, and far less about competition and comparison.
Ironically, I do not think that the biggest effect Oxford has had on me has been an academic one. However, I have learnt more than I would have thought. I have learnt how to be a better friend and a better person; I have learnt how angry I can get at apparent injustices, but now know how I can channel that into something positive; and I have learnt what matters to me, and what I want to become. Most importantly, I have learnt that change and growth are slow, and they aren’t just marked by achievements.
A year ago, I valued myself for my academics, my achievements, and my awards. Now I value myself for something more. In a university full of high achievers, achievement doesn’t distinguish you. Whilst I used to aspire to be like the high achievers: the sportiest and the smartest, what I aspire to now symbolises achievement in a different way. The people at Oxford who inspire me aren’t those with a blue, or a first, (or a spouse!) it is those who are more than that. Those who are kind to people, and spend their time solving injustices, caring more about an achievement which improves someone’s day rather than improves someone’s CV. The change in the person I want to become, is how I know, on reflection, that I have changed for the better.
This realisation is why reflection is important. It’s not about making comparisons, wondering if your grades are better, if you’re more likely to make a certain sports team, or if you’ve grown half an inch taller. It’s a personal change, not a performance. Taking the time to reflect isn’t something that’s part of the syllabus, but it is something that life at Oxford has made me learn.