Reunions – 19th September 2010

A week of reunions stretches ahead. Oxford graduates have been pouring into the city, revisiting their former haunts in their colleges, and getting together in subject groups, like the Medics celebrating their fiftieth year since matriculation, who came to Somerville for their cocktail party; the fiftieth-year Somervillians who will meet for dinner followed by breakfast in the College, and the hordes of graduates attending the annual University reunion at the end of the week.

This Sunday saw a special reunion for the students who came up in 1965: my year. It was a wonderful opportunity to reconnect, and also a time for us to reflect on what Oxford and the college has meant to us. We heard about careers in teaching, academia, medical practice, social work, the charitable world, business, politics and local government, and more: many now ending in retirement, and some like my own, continuing indefinitely. Opportunities for our age group have turned out to be elastic, as legislation on the age of retirement has given us chances we didn’t foresee at an earlier age. A common thread was the rigorous training we received at Somerville and the high expectations we placed upon ourselves and each other. The 1960s were also an age of burgeoning social freedoms. Some of us remembered how proud we were of being at the first of the Oxford colleges to give students keys to get back into college after midnight; and there were affectionate reminiscences of our Principal, the great Dame Janet Vaughan, offering advice on contraception. My own reminiscences included a visit from my grandparents, who had once met for tea, duly chaperoned, in the room that is now my office, when my grandmother was a Somerville undergraduate before the First World War.

The coming week will also see a Somerville telethon, staffed by current students connecting with alumni from years and decades past. We could not continue to do our work without the contributions of Somerville alumni to our running costs, our new buildings, and to support bursaries for those in financial need. These needs will only grow as the cuts in university funding and services engendered by the current financial crisis begin to bite. It has been a theme of the past few months leading up to my transition to Oxford, to discover the loyalty and generosity of Somerville’s alumni: the recollections of great tutorials, of kindnesses from college Fellows, the inspiration of working alongside great minds and unconventional, curious fellow students. Sometimes an inspiring tutor has diverted a person’s career path into a totally unexpected directions; sometimes hospitality from a tutor or principal has rescued an international student from numbing loneliness (the invitation to spend Christmas with Janet Vaughan or Dorothy Hodgkin and their families; the late night glass of whisky with Daphne Park; innumerable occasions when a sympathetic ear and a patient hearing have turned a young student away from despair). Memories like these form part of the fabric of loyalty that brings us back to reunions and prompts us to support the College’s work with future generations.

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