Time to look back at my past four years in Oxford

After all those questions and finally my graduation from Oxford University a few weeks back, I thought it was about time to give an insight into my past four years at one of the top ranked Universities in the world – and how I manage to combine studying there with training and competing at an international level in triathlon. 

My family moved to London in 2008 and so from year 10, I studied at The German School London. I still remember the uncertainty, the fear of the new and the insecurity in my English abilities that came with that move. Looking back on it now, it opened my eyes to new horizons and allowed me to dare to take steps that I wouldn’t have considered beforehand. Studying at one of the world’s best universities had never been a consideration before: even as one of my teachers suggested that I should apply to Oxford or Cambridge I wasn’t sure whether they were being serious. But hey, there was nothing to lose in applying to Oxford – if I don’t get in at least I couldn’t regret not trying. I have to admit that I did fall in love with Oxford a bit when I first visited – but I was still uncertain on whether I would fit in. I do have the ability of getting lost in the world of Mathematics every now and then, but I do also consider myself someone capable of being and behaving relatively normal. So the thought of living around people lost in their subjects, not fitting in, and not being clever enough made me think that maybe Oxford wasn’t for me after all!

I did apply. After sending off an online application, including a personal statement about why I wanted to study mathematics, along with a long mathematical thinking skills test (which was impossible to complete in the time given), I was invited to three days of interviews in Oxford! I had already gotten further in the application process than I had expected. Interviews scared me a little – the majority of the people I met sounded extremely eloquent and clever… and then there was me, with my German accent (very quiet, not confident enough in my English ability to speak very much) feeling overwhelmed. Nevertheless, an offer letter flew into my mailbox a few days before Christmas 2010 … Me? It turned out that none of the applicants who sounded particularly clever had been offered a place - maybe Oxford wasn’t that bad after all. Looking back on it now, applying and accepting were definitely the right decisions to make!

I started my degree with the same feeling that I had left Oxford after interviews with (everyone must be so much cleverer than I). It took me a while to realise that perhaps I was chosen for a reason. I started off by thinking everyone would be working all day, everyday and the only way I could keep doing sport was to sleep less. However I quickly realised that I digested a lot more of the content of the lectures during training rather than the “none at all” I was expecting. I later found that the other mathematicians also had interests outside of Maths. I had to learn that it was not a case of fitting sport around university or vice versa, but it was more about finding a way to combine the two – to make the two grow with one another.

There is another misconception about Oxford: people studying in Oxford must have rich parents. Yes, it is undeniable that some students fall into this category, but Oxford does their utmost to enable bright and dedicated people from all backgrounds to study at Oxford. There are people from a diverse range of social backgrounds studying in Oxford (as an undergraduate Oxford is no more expensive for Europeans than most other universities in Britain).

Once I started getting enough sleep, I absolutely loved getting up in the morning before most of the other students and heading down to the pool to swim. By the time lectures came around my friends had usually just rolled out of bed while I was “up and running”, my body satisfied and my brain ready to do some work. The problem sheets we were given were never really a case of just sitting down and working through the problems, but more like: sit down and look at the problem. Think what the hell is going on. Look over some lecture notes/in a book and still don’t understand it but maybe see how it is similar. Go away and think about it in the back of your mind. Come back and suddenly the problem seems more manageable (sometimes it still didn’t…).

Nonetheless, days sometimes seemed like they never wanted to end, yet at the same time were always over too quickly - there was never enough time to do everything I wish I could have gotten done that day. But as long as I just kept with it, everything usually fell into place: no deadline missed through training and no training missed through studying so far. Sometimes fear of the next week hit me when I saw my training schedule and schedule at university, but with the help of family and friends at University we always found a way to fit everything in, I sometimes still wonder how. All that obviously also comes at a price – a lack of movie-knowledge on my side (I rarely find the time), a lack in knowledge of the best places to go for a night out (nights out only really happen on the end-of-season break which lasts for two weeks). Although they are sacrifices I have gladly made for the experiences I have encountered, the people I have met and the emotions I have been through.

One other thing I thoroughly enjoy in Oxford are the people you meet. Pretty much any question you ever have you will be able to find someone in that little town who can give you an answer or if they don’t know it they will usually be happy to have an intellectually stimulating discussion about it with you. Sport in Oxford has also given me the opportunity to meet students from all corners of the world, with all sorts of backgrounds and the ability to tell you about their subjects with a glow in their eye. That same attitude, that same passion these students have towards their studies they also have towards sports – always striving to be the best they can be. Having such people around you always helps to reinforce my dedication and motivate me even on the toughest of days.

To conclude: no, it’s never easy to combine University and sports at an international level. But every hurdle you manage to get over, every success both in academia and sport, the people you get to meet all make the sacrifices along the way easy to make. Over the last four years people have gone from asking me “Why” I’m doing it to asking me “How” I’m doing it – I have to say the first question was easier to answer.

© Sophia Saller 2016. All rights reserved. Impressum