Every summer vacation the students of Oxford clear out their rooms, dragging bags of dirty clothes, slightly crumbled notes and books that inevitably won’t be read across Radcliffe Square to awaiting cars ready to leave behind the city of spires and hibernate for four months.
However, as the students trickle out, in flood new individuals, ready to sink their teeth into exciting experiences, a new place and greasy hall breakfasts as part of the UNIQ programme.
UNIQ is an outreach programme run by the University of Oxford that aims to equip disadvantaged students or those from underrepresented demographics with the skills and confidence that they need to make a competitive application to the university. The programme is divided into several different components. Academic sessions aim to introduce the year 12 students to areas of interest in their chosen subject and provide a taste of what lectures, small group teaching and written work are like at Oxford. Admissions sessions cover the juicy, nitty gritty topic of, funnily enough, admissions – providing advice and guidance on personal statements, admissions tests and interviews. Then there are the socials: trips to G&Ds for ice cream, bops, quiz nights in the student common room, punting on the river, mad dashes around Westgate Shopping Centre and film nights, helping to give UNIQ students a taste of what it’s like to study at Oxford (although hopefully without the all-nighters and endless mugs of coffee in the library.)
Except this year, there were no UNIQ students flooding in. There were no Oxford students trickling out. There were no greasy hall breakfasts, nor trips to G&Ds, bops, quiz nights in the student common room or punting on the river. Covid-19 saw to that. Not satisfied with the chaos it had already caused, it now endeavoured to wreak havoc in the Undergraduate Admissions Department by making in-person UNIQ 2020 unfeasible.
However, the good people of Undergraduate Admissions were not deterred and instead set about working to produce an online version of UNIQ, that whilst seriously lacking in hash browns, attempted, and I hope succeeded in, providing a programme that was equally rich in substance and value for all its participants.
As an Undergraduate Outreach Ambassador, I was lucky enough to be given the chance to work as a Student Ambassador on UNIQ 2020. The process began in January, when, following a round of interviews, I, along with other ambassadors, was selected to work on the scheme, which we assumed would mean a summer return to the city that we had spent at least the last year studying in and growing to love.
However, when the world packed up its bags and moved online to the world of Microsoft Teams, Skype and Zoom it became clear that returning to Oxford would be impossible. Yet, I can honestly say that as a Student Ambassador I found UNIQ 2020 to be an overwhelmingly positive, enjoyable and engaging experience - an attitude that I hope is shared also by the UNIQ participants.
As I briefly mentioned way back at the start of my ramble, UNIQ is one of Oxford’s key outreach programmes, designed to widen access to the university. The scheme began in 2009 and since then has welcomed 9973 participants from schools across the country. Students apply to a specific subject and then, if their applications are successful, they are split into smaller college groups. Usually that would mean that students are assigned to a college that will become their home for a week, however, this year very excitingly, assignment to a college meant the receipt of a jazzy Microsoft Team Name and UNIQ group.
I study PPE (Philosophy,Politics and Economics), which has one of the largest UNIQ cohorts – consisting of 80 students split into four groups of 20. I was fortunate to work alongside a lovely PPEist from Pembroke (I won’t hold his college against him!) to lead activities for a group of 20 students. The sessions ranged from the serious and engaging to the downright bizarre, thus simulating the eclectic cocktail of experiences that we are exposed to at Oxford. For instance, the stresses of lectures on Chinese politics and the Economics of Lying were offset with long-overdue reunions with Kahoot, meanders through the joys of musical political remixes and debates on how to pronounce lasagne.
Although presenting admissions sessions may have induced a slight case of PTSD, I found participating in and delivering presentations during the week immensely enjoyable. Having said that, there were definitely a few moments when I slightly put my foot in it...
As anyone who knows me would attest to, I am definitely more of a PPist rather than a PPEist; for some reason economics jargon seems to get a bit lost in translation somewhere in my brain forming a messy tangle of graphs, symbols and numbers. However, in a cruel twist of fate I was assigned to be chat manager for our only economics lecture of the week. My responsibilities were to manage the chat during the lecture and respond to questions that were being asked, before feeding them back to the academic present at the end. Needless to say, within five minutes a series of rapidly typed SOS messages were being bombarded by me into the PPE ambassadors chat. Backup was seriously needed. Thankfully the other wonderful ambassadors stepped in to help cobble some answers together and respond to the incredibly technical questions flying in from the very enthusiastic participants.
Then there was the moment I forgot that all Oxford Colleges are equal and shamelessly declared that Brasenose really is just more equal than others (which it is). And then there was the moment where the chat (with a group of about 300 people in it) exploded in hatred for the Student Room after I confessed that I used it to create a short-list when working out what college to apply to. (If you’re looking to procrastinate and want some light entertainment the post can be found here for your viewing pleasure: https://www.thestudentroom.co.uk/wiki/Oxford_College_Pros_and_Cons)
No matter... The Undergraduate Admissions team were lovely and supportive, the student ambassadors were incredibly friendly, and the participants were funny and engaged. We laughed off mine and everyone else’s slips during the week together. In fact, the slips were probably helpful in some respects. By the end of the week when speaking to the students in my group I was incredibly pleased to hear them say that UNIQ had helped to show that in many ways the people at Oxford are normal, that we’re not all born with silver spoons in our mouths and that the institution is moving away (slowly perhaps but still moving) from its antiquated role as the finishing school for a selective elite.
Working on UNIQ 2020 was an absolutely incredible experience and one that I would recommend to anyone. Additionally, if you have the chance to apply to participate on UNIQ please please do it! The work that the Undergraduate Admissions team put into the programme is amazing and I hope that if you do take part in UNIQ you find it an engaging, useful and exciting experience!
Every summer vac the students of Oxford clear out their rooms, dragging bags of dirty clothes, slightly crumbled notes and books that inevitably won’t be read across Radcliffe Square. Hopefully, next year, as the students trickle out, UNIQ students will flood in (in-person), ready to explore the city of spires and learn about the place that we are so incredibly fortunate to study in.
By Sofia - formerly of Newstead Wood School