Postgrad Panic: The Identity Crisis of a Working-Class Oxford Graduate

Mia Hollingsworth-Smith discusses how being an Oxford graduate impacts her identity as a working class citizen.

The feeling of a quarter-life crisis post-graduation isn’t uncommon. After three years of living on college grounds, focussing on impending essay deadlines, and worrying only about actually getting a degree rather than how to use it, graduating can feel directionless. Coming from a small industrial northern town (only known for a child exploitation scandal), just getting into Oxford was a rarity: I even made it into the local newspaper when I received my offer back in 2020. I was the first on my mum’s side to attend university, and most of them were under the gilded impression that an Oxford degree was a golden ticket into any high-paying job. Of course, as any recent graduate will tell you, this is far from true.

Consequently, ‘post-graduation panic’ proves far worse for working-class students. Not only do professional jobs seem like an alien environment, underrepresenting (and underpaying) workers from low-income backgrounds, but our identity also becomes uncertain. The only thing that is certain is more student debt to repay. I’d spent the first ten years of my life living between a council estate with my single mum, who worked part-time at a cafe, and with my dad in a house a few streets down, and now, degree completed, I have opportunities – a future I could decide – something generations before me never had the chance to have, but something that equally feels like I’m betraying my roots. 

For me, and many other working-class students, the Oxford experience proved a weird sense of half-belonging. One minute I’d made a best friend at 2 a.m. in the library over a mutual essay crisis; the next minute, I was meeting someone whose dad owned a pub chain I’d worked at part-time for two years. 

Imposter syndrome hit me like a brick wall in my first year. I rarely ate around the table with either my mum’s or dad’s family unless it was Christmas; now, all of a sudden, I was attempting to make sophisticated conversation with academics at a formal dinner, hyper-aware that I was holding my fork in the wrong hand. 

I remember feeling as if I’d fallen from the top of my class straight to the bottom. I spent my first Old English class silent because I didn’t know what ‘transitory’ meant, and I entered tutorials struggling to decode questions, plagued by a fear of saying something wrong and outing myself as a fraud. “I don’t get the sense that Mia finds virtual tutorials particularly fun,” wrote one tutor in my first end-of-year report. 

In my second year, I spent half of my tutorials being forced to pick apart my own sentences, feeling humiliated as my tutor explained my syntactical errors and incorrect word choices after he had praised my partner’s essay for its scholarly style. I couldn’t help but feel that the vocabulary gap between lower and higher-income families had played a role here.

Nevertheless, arriving in Oxford was the first time I could open a book in public without feeling judged. It was the first time that I had my own space. I didn’t have to share my room or carry the contents of my wardrobe and bookshelf in 50p carriers between my dad’s house and my mum’s. Everyone here was united in being at least a little bit of a nerd, and staying up to the early hours of the morning finishing work was considered normal. 

It wasn’t until after my finals that I realised just how much this institution is a bubble of privilege. When I went outside with my mum halfway through a formal so she could have a ‘fag break,’ she said, “I feel a bit uncomfortable.” “Why can’t we sit down when they [the tutors on the high table], stand up? Why do they think they’re better than everyone else?” 

Why was I supposed to stand up? Why did I have to listen to someone speak some performative Latin phrase who’d probably never needed to worry about finances? Why was I receiving a generous academic bursary of more than triple the amount of universal credit that my aunty, a full-time carer to my cousin with mental and learning difficulties, was getting to live off every month? Why does it feel embarrassing to admit to strangers at home that I studied at Oxford? Why were my mum and stepdad worrying about how to treat me to a fancy graduation meal while still managing to pay their bills? There are too many people at this university who don’t have to ask those questions. 

We spent the remainder of the formal playing ‘bogies.’

Now, after my graduation, I feel estranged from myself. I have my very own paper certifying three years spent dabbling in elitism, and I’ve never felt further away from my council-house roots. Few people at home will be able to relate to me anymore. Yet, at the same time, as I doom scroll on ‘LinkedIn’ and rack up even more debt enrolling on a last-minute ‘panic masters’ in an attempt to delay the scary and unknown world of ‘proper’ jobs, I’ve never felt more aware of my working-class background.