An article in response to the recent Comment piece: ‘Why I fell out of love with Durham’. The link can be found here.
By Emma Alessandri
While I write these words on the train which is taking me further and further away from the cathedral, I just can’t help feeling vaguely nostalgic. My first year in Durham has slipped away in a rollercoaster of conflicting emotions. I left Venice nine months ago on a fastidiously humid day to be greeted, two flights and several hours later, by a chilly northern wind. I wanted to go straight back home the moment I stepped into my college room and saw its impersonal, bright white walls. But as I started recognising street names and people’s faces, and covering the walls with pictures of my new friends, the initial discomfort gradually gave way to a warm familiarity.
Now, I genuinely love this town of pink sunsets and cardiac hills. It has given me the priceless opportunity to mingle with a range of very different people. I had stimulating conversations with internationals from Norway, Mexico, Greece. I met students who care passionately about the environment, and others who fight for the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. I came across feminist and LGBTQ+ activists. I went to a Union Society debate and found some of the nicest and most open-minded people I know; I asked a question and they gave me free wine. At the end of the day, I am immeasurably proud of my heterogeneous group of friends.
At the same time, I don’t expect my views and personal experiences to be acknowledged and shared by all students. So far, Durham has been extremely nice to me. I know of people who have seen the dark side of this place and whose stories I would never dare questioning. Kate McIntosh, current Politics Editor of this paper, just lately denounced Durham’s “endemic, naturalised sexism.”I would never claim that, since I haven’t experienced it myself, sexism isn’t there. Similarly, I would never condemn the university tout court because of some bad apples.
Undoubtedly, Durham University has its flaws, as does every other institution. But unlike some other institutions, it’s trying hard to fix them. As pointed out by McIntosh herself, “we’ve got some of the most vibrant liberation campaigns and associations in the country… [and] a welfare system which supports survivors of sexual abuse or harassment on home turf.” In 6 years, this is the first time the Union Society has had 3 male presidents in a row. Of the last 10 presidents, only 3 were straight, white males. I’m also favourably impressed by the number of women holding prominent academic positions within the Department of Biosciences (I study Biology, so I’m talking from experience).
I’m not trying to pass Durham off as the ultimate triumph of progressivism because it’s not. Yet, diminishing its social achievements is one very dangerous mistake to make, in fact, it’s counterproductive. Ignorant, sexist, and racist people are everywhere, both in and outside Durham. Overall, however, there’s enough positive to make up for the negative. So many student associations have been working tirelessly to make Durham a better place, and their efforts should be celebrated. For every person who acts disrespectfully, there’s at least one who’s attentive and caring.
Can Durham do better? Of course it can. I’m not trying to discourage progress either. However, it’s in our best interest to abandon the childish fantasy of an ideal world and pursue realistic aims instead. Determination and optimism are key ingredients to keep ensuring the most inclusive environment possible – getting upset over inconveniences, no matter how big, won’t serve any purpose.
This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with the world outside the Durham bubble. I do expect it to be different; it will be bigger, and even more inconsiderate. If I’m ever spoken over in a debate, I’ll have to stand up for myself and be as fiery as those who try to silence me. In all honesty, I find the idea of eventually leaving this relatively quiet harbour for the open sea both exciting and incredibly scary.
Of course, Durham is not perfect. We need to keep fighting against sexism and discrimination of each and every sort. I’m afraid it’s most definitely not a Durham peculiarity, though: it’s just the universal, eternal struggle against human stupidity.
And if living in Durham can’t guarantee you the perfect student experience, it can guarantee a perk: whatever happens, there will always be a community that you can turn to for advice and support. I have a feeling that the same solidarity will be harder to find outside the bubble. Therefore, I’m grateful.
Photograph: Emma Alessandri