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Queen's Access Podcast Episode 1: Welfare

Listen to Episode 1: Welfare on YouTube.

Below is a transcript of the episode.

Kyla: Hello, I'm Kyla, I'm a second year chemist, and I'm the access and outreach rep for the Queen's College, Oxford. Welcome to the pilot episode of the Queen's access podcast. It's so lovely to have you here, and I hope you find this a useful resource in learning more about life at Oxford, but more specifically about life at the Queen's college. My guest this week is Seren Ford, who has just finished her first year studying biochemistry and who acts as the female welfare app for the Queen's JCR. She'll talk us through some aspects of her life at Oxford, and we'll have a chat about how Queen supports welfare of its students. I hope you enjoy! (music plays)

Kyla: Hi Seren, how are you?

Seren: I'm doing well thank you, how are you?

Kyla: Yeah I'm good, thanks so much for agreeing to talk to me!

Seren: That's no problem! Kyla: So I think to start if you could just tell me a little bit about yourself please... where you're from, what your background is? Seren: Yeah, sure. So, I live in the southeast of England in Kent and I went to a selective state grammar for both years 7 to 11, and I changed school in sixth form to a different state selective grammar in London. So, that sixth form school was very competitive to get in- you had to sit a paper for each subject you wanted to do an A level in and they had about 20 people go to Oxbridge every year. Anyone from all over London or where I live, which isn't in London could get to it quite easily (it was quite easy to travel to), so people came from all over to go there, because they knew it had a good track record with getting people into Russell Group universities. Yeah, so I had quite a bit of support from school, and could speak to people who had applied to Oxbridge. Although no one in the past year had done biochemistry, which is the subject that I'm currently doing, (and I've just finished my first year) the school still had experience with people going off to do interviews and things like that.

Kyla: Yeah, so you those resources available to access if that's what you wanted to do.

Seren: Yeah, exactly.

Kyla: So tell me about your Queen's journey, so not just Oxford, but how did you specifically end up at Queen's?

Seren: So, I came to Queens via quite an interesting route. So, I didn't apply to Queens in the first place, I applied to St John's, because I couldn't really decide what college to go to. It was close to the biochem department and it had accommodation for all four years, which Queen's does as well. In some colleges, you have to find a house in second year, so I like that about St John's, and I like that the Queen's still does that. So, I had an interview at St John's and Magdalene. It's quite common for some subjects for you to have an interview at more than one college, like for biochemistry, that currently happens for almost everyone. And then I got an open offer underwritten by St John's, so that basically means that I could have ended up at any college, but if every space was full, St John's would have to take me. So then on results day, I found out that I had gotten into Queen's! So, I hadn't even had the chance to look around Queen's on one of the open days, so my first day of Freshers' Week was the first time I'd even stepped foot into Queen's. But I'm so glad I've ended up here! My college parents (they send everyone a letter in the welcome pack email you receive if you've met your offer) answered all of the questions that I had about the college or my subject and helped me learn more about life at Queens and made me feel really welcome, so I'm so glad I ended up here!

Kyla: Oh that's lovely! I think it's important to talk about that as well, because I don't think a lot of people are fully aware of how the open offer system works, so I think it's really interesting to see your perspective on that.

Seren: Definitely, as I've said, my school had quite a few people got to Oxbridge every year, but my director of sixth form hadn't ever encountered anyone with an open offer- they know what that was, or what it meant really and there is information about it online, but not a lot.

Kyla: Well thank you for sharing that with us with us today! So, what do you think is the best thing about studying biochemistry at Oxford, because, as you say, nobody in the year above you applied?

Seren: So, the biochem department at Oxford is so good and it's really really big as well. I know that at a lot of other unis, biochemistry is sort of seen as a bit of a niche subject, but here the department is so big. And also there are a lot of contact hours, as with almost all of the STEM degrees that Oxford does. So you have lectures, classes, tutorials and practicals, and even though it is quite hectic at times and even you do have quite a lot of work, it allows you to develop a really good understanding of the subject. I think that's really one of the strengths of the course, the amount of different things that you do, like different subject areas, because biochemistry isn't just biology plus chemistry, it's a lot of other things! You get to learn in all sorts of different ways like how every Friday in first year, you have basically a whole day in the lab. Biochemistry at Oxford is definitely somewhere I'd recommend to study by biochemistry specifically.

Kyla: Brilliant. So, we were talking then about contact hours and how your course is split. So, can you give me an idea of kind of what a week looks like your life, both academically and personally, at Oxford?

Seren: Yeah, sure. So, the typical week varies quite a lot between the different years in the biochemistry course, but in first year, every Friday, I had a lab day, so that was sort of four or five hours in the lab. I had about two classes a week, which is where in two different colleges, the biochem students get together and go over the answers to a problem sheet that could be on maths, or biological chemistry or biophysical chemistry. And then I had about 10 lectures every week, but it did vary a little bit, sometimes it was more like 12. And then I had about one tutorial. I had some weeks with no tutorials and then one week in the term that's just gone, I had three in one week, so it sort of averages out to about one a week and that's quite standard for biochemistry. And then around this there are social things. I started learning to row in classic Oxford fashion, but the river was really high during the past academic year, so it was a lot of just doing stuff on a rowing machine, but we did get to go out a couple of times!

Kyla: Did you enjoy learning to row? Seren: Yeah, it was really, really welcoming, because some sports or Oxford have very competitive teams and things like that, where people have been doing that for all their lives and they come to Oxford to sort of continue doing it. But with rowing, it's something that almost no one has done before, so you don't have that sort of pressure if you want to try something new. That's what I really enjoyed about it, like I hadn't done all that much sport before coming to Oxford so getting involved in something like that, where it's very sort of beginner-friendly, was really nice.

Kyla: Yeah, definitely. And then, what do you do to fit in downtime, so when you're not when you're not rowing, when you're not doing academics, when you're not doing structured social events, how do you relax?

Seren: So one of the things I did do during second term, which is known as Hilary at Oxford, (all the terms have kind of strange names) is that I learned to knit as part of a project that was making a blanket for charity, so I learned how to do that so that was quite cool! As part of the LGBTQ+ society, I met friends there and we watched Ru Paul's Drag Race and stuff like that and so that was really nice. Societies are a good way to meet people from other colleges that have similar interests to yourself. The college bar, even though I don't drink alcohol, was a really nice place to go in the evenings and meet up with friends and have a chat, and the same for the JCR common room.

Kyla: So just I'll just quickly explain, for those of you who are listening who might not be familiar with the term, JCR stands for junior common room and it represents both a body of people and a physical room in college. The junior common room is a room in college that has a TV and PlayStation, I think, and a kitchen and sofas and it's just a nice social space that's always open. But the JCR is also a body of students, so the JCR represents all of the undergraduates in the college. I believe you can opt in or opt out, but the majority of students opt in to JCR. There's a committee called the JCR executive that has different reps, so one of the things I'm talking about with Seren later on in this episode is that Seren acts as the female welfare rep and I act as the access and outreach rep. There are lots of positions that you can run for within the JCR. So I just thought I would clear that up, because I remember being quite confused about what a JCR actually was before I got to Oxford.

Seren: Yeah there's a lot of Oxford- specific language, but once you're here you do get to grips with it very quickly, it's just quite disorienting at first! Kyla: Yeah, definitely. Moving on then, given that we've just talked about it, you are the female welfare rep for the JCR. So what does that job entail and what are your responsibilities within that role? Seren: So, the term at Oxford is eight weeks long and fifth week all across the university is known as welfare week. So what I, along with a male welfare rep, do is help run events to give people some added downtime and different ways to enjoy themselves. So we run JCR brunches in the morning and JCRTs at 4pm in the afternoon and movie nights and hot chocolate events and different things like that. Because the term is shorter than in most other universities, the workload is quite compressed, so you have a lot going on, so it's nice to have that sort of halfway mark and just to give people a bit of a breather. As well as running that, my main job is sort of to signpost people to the qualified people, like the welfare officer in Queen's, as well as to staff who are specific for welfare or different issues and to just to be there to have a chat with if they want that. And also, in terms of specific places for people to get help, the Humans of Queen's page on Facebook has a couple of posts where people talk about how Queen's have supported them with mental health issues, so that's a good place to look. People have also talked about their experience with the disability advisory service, so that's a unique thing to help discuss different options and put things in place early, so you will have support when you arrive. They can continue to support you throughout your whole time at Oxford like, for example, encouraging you to apply for funding for disabled students and things like that. Kyla: Yeah, it's really nice. I think there's another point to mention as well. So Seren and I are quite good friends and we have gone on quite a few welfare dog walks that she's organised, so do you want tell the podcast about Bailey the border collie? Seren: Oh yeah sure! So it started with the previous female welfare for the Queen's JCR. There's a website called Borrow My Doggy and you can just take someone's dog who signed up to this, go meet them at their house and take their dog for a walk. So, then during the past term before COVID, I did it sort of every other week, taking Bailey the border collie, who is really really sweet, for a walk around Christ Church meadows. Anyone could come, we have a JCR Facebook page and I just put a little post on there saying if you want to come at this time we're going to go for a walk, and people really really enjoy that, so I'm so glad. Some colleges do have a college cat or a college tortoise or something, but Queen's doesn't have any college pets, so it was nice to do something like this, for people who do miss their pets. And it was nice to get out in Christ Church meadows, which is a really lovely place to walk around!

Kyla: Yeah, it was really nice and it was really nice to have that kind of set time to decompress because it stopped you from procrastinating. I know I can easily spend a couple of hours scrolling aimlessly through Instagram, but I think it was really nice to be able to have a dedication two hours where we did just go for a walk with a very very cute dog. So, back to when we were talking about stress earlier, Oxford is seen as an powerhouse and it's often viewed from the outside as like it would be a very stressful environment. So how important do you think the university considers student welfare?

Seren: So, I think Oxford as an institution could still be doing a lot more, but the atmosphere between the students is very supportive. It doesn't really feel competitive in a way and there is also a lot of support on offer. So, we have the JCR welfare reps like me and everyone has a moral tutor. So, this term varies in name between the different colleges, but what it basically means is that one of the tutors at Queen's who does your subjects, who may or may not necessarily give you to tutorials, acts as someone who you can go to if you have any problems. Queen's has a dedicated welfare officer and we also have a Dean, who is the head of discipline and welfare who you can go to, as well as the Junior Deans who are DPhil students, They're currently doing a PhD at Oxford, so they're a little bit older and they have training. So, they act I think from 8pm to 8am. So if someone has a mental health crisis in the night, you can phone them via the lodge. Kyla, do you want to explain what that is and then I can talk about how it links to welfare?

Kyla: Yeah of course! So the lodge is the Porter's Lodge. Queens, as with all Oxford colleges, has a dedicated rota of porters. They are in the lodge 24 hours every day, including Christmas, so they're very committed! They deal with a lot of things in Queen's, for example, they deal with a lot of the security, so they watch the security cameras and they make sure that nobody comes into Queen's who isn't supposed (Queen's is closed to tourists). They sort everybody's post, they're the peeople you'd go to if you lost your key or your university card, they're just generally kind of the first port of call if anything's gone wrong. But one of the main things about the porters is that if you have any kind of issue, you can always contact them and they'll signpost you to someone. So, to give an example of how important the lodge in the running of college, if something happens and you have an accident and you need to call an ambulance, one of your friends calls 999 and the other calls the lodge. They are very important, they help to signpost, if any medics need to come into college, they can tell them exactly where you are and they can can take you to them. Everybody has the lodge's number in their phone! They're also really good in that you can call them if you're generally having a bit of a crisis and you can call them even if you're not in Queen's at the time. So if an event happens outside of college and you need to be picked up, you can ring the lodge. Another thing to mention as well, which isn't strictly welfare-related but sort of is, is the all of the lodges in Oxford are open to all Oxford students. Even though it's not necessarily that you're wandering in and out of college, what it does mean is that if you're in a situation where you feel that you're in danger or you feel that you need immediate help, you can go into the nearest college (which is realistically very near, because the colleges are everywhere). You can go into the nearest college and speak to their porters and they will contact the Queen's porters and they'll give you any help you need. So the porters are a really good resource! So, as Seren was saying, you can contact the Junior Deans via the lodge and they can help with mental health crises, they can help with any kind of problems you're having. They can also help with people who've perhaps had too much to drink and they're not exactly in the safest situation and all of those kinds of things. So Seren, do you want to take over from there?

Seren: Sure, thanks, that was a really good explanation of how the lodge runs! So, as Kyla, everyone has the Queen's lodge's mobile number, so you can phone them at any time. For example, in a case of assault or something like that, they can phone you a taxi if you need to go to the hospital or a specific place and again, as Kyla said, that's how you can get in contact with the Junior Deans. They are so wonderful, they're all such lovely people and they are, I think, an underrated welfare resource. They know exactly what's going on in college and they know how to get you the help you need. 

Kyla: Yeah definitely, I think that Junior Deans don't get enough appreciation and I didn't know they even existed until Freshers' Week when we had a talk by them. I personally have never called them but there's certainly been times when I've been glad that they are there in situations where it's kind of been a case of, I think that this can be dealt with, but as a backup, we know that we can ring the Junior Deans. One Junior Dean lives in each of the Queen's buildings, so they are very very accessible. One lives in Carrodus Quad, one lives in Aldates, one lives in Cardo, so no matter what year of college you're in, if you're in a Queen's building, there is a Junior Dean very close to you, so they're always there to help. So I was going to ask what support is available to somebody struggling at Queen's, but I feel like we've probably covered that! Is there anything else you'd want to add there?

Seren: So just a couple of things! There is also a college nurse and the college is linked to a GP service on Beaumont Street that you can go to. And then there's also the disability advisory service, which is a uni-wide thing that I mentioned earlier, that could help in terms of mental health, like long-term problems and then getting you disability funding and things like that.

Kyla: Yeah, I think they're both really important resources. I know I've certainly hit up Beaumont Street a couple of times with some pretty rough cases of Freshers' flu, so yeah, they're a very useful resource! Also I fall over a lot, so the college nurse has seen me to bandage my knee! So it's been so lovely talking to you, I thought for my last question, I'd ask you about a general thing. So, what is your favourite thing about college and why?

Seren: So there are so many things I like about Queen's! One of the things that I found most useful in first year was how much the second years supported us and got to know us, so that was really great to find all sorts of bits of advice. Because Freshers' Week is only a week long, it isn't really long enough to tell you all of the workings of the university and the college and how your subject works, and all the different things going on, like the end of term event for example. So that was really lovely! And beer cellar, the college bar that I mentioned earlier, is great even for people who don't drink. It's a really nice place to go and chill out in evenings. And I know that alcohol is sometimes something that people are quite concerned about. So, I don't drink alcohol and I've never felt pressured to drink alcohol, even though the vast majority of my friends do drink, so if that's something that you are concerned about, don't worry too much about it. You can also always come speak to us, one of the welfare reps, or the welfare officer or anybody like that if you do have concerns about that sort of thing. But yeah, the second years were so useful for us and I hope that we will be useful to you too!

Kyla: Yeah, I think college parenting is a really important resource that isn't necessarily always talked about. I relied on my college parents a lot! There was a topic that I was struggling with and I told my college father I was struggling with it and about three days later he sent me about five different links to PowerPoint presentations explaining it. He was like 'oh I don't even study this anymore but I went online and found you some stuff'. I didn't take physics A-level, so he helped me with a lot of the physics content and that was really lovely. Well, thank you so much for talking to me, I really appreciate it! I've really enjoyed this little chat and I think it's been really useful!

Seren: Me too, thank you so much for having me!

Kyla: No problem, have a lovely week!

Seren: You too!

Kyla: Okay, I'll speak to you soon!

Seren: Bye!

(music plays) 

Kyla: Thank you so much to Seren for that insightful conversation, and a massive thank you to all of you who listened. There are loads more access resources on the Queen's college at www.queens.ox.ac.uk/access-outreach and you can find out more about the college in general through its website, Twitter and Instagram. That's all from me, have a lovely week and hopefully I'll see you again very soon!