A community within a community: my local sense of place at Durham University

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University exists, first and foremost, to educate. But, what about all that other stuff that comes alongside a university education? At Durham, this has been given the affectionate moniker of ‘the Durham Experience’ and, every year, thousands of students flock from all corners of the world to experience what Durham proclaims to be ‘a university like no other’.

However, in my experience, it is perhaps ‘the Durham experience’ and this inherent need for Durham to be different to other universities, which can sometimes lead to disillusionment. The collegiate system is the metaphorical backbone of the university; it permeates every aspect of university life, both social and academic. Indeed, Durham prides itself on the inclusivity of its collegiate system. In my opinion, it is in fact this very system which made me feel more excluded than ever.

I’m a first year Geographer, I’m from County Durham and, despite the university’s consistent assurance that college life was of paramount importance to every student’s experience at Durham, I live at home with my parents. We live on the rural East Durham coast, in a small town called Peterlee, part of the former East Durham coalfield. I am immensely proud of where I’m from and will always defend the reputation of the North East. Despite popular stereotypes of the area and its people, it is one of the most geographically and culturally diverse areas in the country.

[blockquote author=”” ]Living out of college can feel like you are unnecessarily self-isolating yourself[/blockquote]

All things considered, local students make up a tiny minority of the Durham student population; and the majority of these local students live in college. Adapting to a university which places such value on the college system when you don’t actually live in said college is of course a challenge. Living out of college can feel like you are unnecessarily self-isolating yourself from the goings on of the JCR and other exciting events happening in college. Yet we are consistently forgotten about because we don’t live there. Invitations to events are a rare occurrence. When we are invited we feel inclined to turn down, as we don’t really feel a great deal of affection to the college. During Michaelmas Term, I was invited to a dinner at college, yet I was suffering from a bout of a very unique Durham Imposter Syndrome.

On paper, I was every inch the Durham student. I had earned my place there over many years of hard study. Yet I chose to isolate myself as I didn’t feel welcome or able to partake in this new world in which I found myself. Being both a local and a Durham student, you are thrust headfirst into a strange, bipartisan world. A world which even staff admit is not universally representative of the student body. Seemingly, a world which seeks to represent the interests of the minority to the majority.

Being Northern and a local was met with genuine surprise by many students; it seemed such a lack of understanding about the local community in which they were now living had led to the antiquated stereotype of what a ‘typical’ Durham student is (I’ll let you imagine that stereotype yourselves) being so ingrained into their minds that anyone else who even remotely diverged from that norm was an object of great interest, something like an exhibit at a zoo.

[blockquote author=”” ]I was an outsider in some sort of autonomous community, governed by polo, galas, balls and societies.[/blockquote]

‘Sense of place’ refers to the emotional attachment to a place; and for me my sense of place of Durham was now irreconcilably skewed. I was an outsider in some sort of autonomous community, governed by polo, galas, balls and societies. Yet this was all taking place in a place which I had so much other knowledge of.

I felt out of place at Durham, as not living in college will always lead to you being somewhat missed out; but the great zest and excitement my peers had about ‘the Durham experience’ saddened me further.

[blockquote author=”” ]The Durham experience is what you make it.[/blockquote]

I got a piece of extremely sage advice from my college student support office. The Durham experience is what you make it. There is no singular stereotype of what it takes to be a Durham student; the individual contribution that everyone makes to the collective university community should all be held equally in importance. Not simply overlooked for the views of a powerful minority.

The seemingly inclusive system must adapt to include everyone. Not just a select few. The collegiate system really isn’t for everyone.

If you are struggling to assimilate with your ‘Durham identity’, please contact your college student support office. It helped me greatly.

Details can be found at this link: https://www.dur.ac.uk/colleges.se.office/studentsupport/

Photograph: Heather Cowper via Flickr

2 thoughts on “A community within a community: my local sense of place at Durham University

  • Interesting call from the heart. Like to know how he overcame the sense of isolation. The collegiate system will have taken a battering from lockdown living which levels us all into individuals, not groups. How will the university recover, adapt its structures in the new world ahead? Yet for this soon to be second year Geographer his lifestyle won’t change so much. And well done for being awarded a place at Durham, it is heartening to know local people choose their local university and maybe uni admissions criteria need to adjust its outlook and refocus towards local students attending Durham uni.

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  • One assumes that Jake chose to apply to Durham after researching alternatives carefully? Why would anyone choose a University which makes so much of its strong sense of College community if they had no intention of becoming involved in that community? There are five Collegiate Universities in the UK, over one hundred which are organised on a different basis, a casual stroll along the Bailey during term time (the sheer number of students in college livery of some kind) will tell any visitor what the ‘Durham difference’ is all about. I assume that Newcastle, Sunderland, et al, offer excellent degrees and facilities without making those who choose not to participate feel excluded? I don’t like peaches so I buy plums, granted they are different to each other, but it is a matter of personal choice and taste and certainly not a reason to vilify peach farmers.

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