The college Secret? It’s in its secrets

4 minute read

College life is central to the University of Oxford experience. More than a fraternity or sorority, a club or association, nothing resembles the role played by colleges in your Oxonian life.

Dating from decades to centuries, each college has its own stories to tell and a myriad of mysteries, quirks, formalities, and opportunities.

As a lucky member of the Teddy Bear team (or ‘Teddy Hall,’ as St Edmund Hall is affectionately known), let me share a glimpse into the non-Oxford Saïd side of life as an Oxford scholar and some of the secrets of what makes the Oxford experience so special.

A bench on which the text AM.e2/hc.DG is written
A mystery for the ages


Why do students love having silly string, confetti, and shaving foam ‘trashed’ onto them post-exams? Are you ‘really’ not allowed to walk on the grass? What’s the deal with having to wear sub-fusc in a massive amphitheatre to write some of the longest, most difficult exams of your life?

The answers to many mysteries might be lost to the ages, but there’s one at Teddy Hall I hope won’t be. Tucked in the back courtyard of a graduate housing complex, the pictured mystery mathematical equation is there for the solving. AM.e2/hc.DG. Computer science, physics, business, law. Students of all ilk have shared a beverage or two attempting to decipher this code. Is its meaning destined to reside with its owners? Hopefully not; either way, it’s yet another one of the fun little riddles colleges mystify with.

A meal for the ages


I’m not sure what’s more popular: mapping out all the amazing libraries available to Oxford students to frequent (most of which are Bodleian and so, open to Oxford Saïd students) or setting out a checklist to enjoy a formal dinner at each college, which naturally comes with the debate over who can lay claim to the best formals.

While, objectively speaking, there isn’t a better meal in Oxford than what the BaxterStorey team at Saïd Business School provides, but when it comes to colleges? Teddy Hall simply can’t be beaten. The main dining hall is a bit less Harry Potter-picturesque but having back-to-back Michelin-star head chefs, the quality and care provided for great food ranks at the top of the college experience. Make it a point to get as many cohort-mates as possible to invite you to a formal at their college: it can be a wonderful culinary experience!


Every October, students at Merton College link arms and walk backwards around their quad in full sub-fusc for one hour at 2am. When a college scores a rowing win against their Cambridge compatriots during the Summer Eights of May Days, they cap their celebration off with the burning of a sacrificial boat. While not college-specific, wearing colour-coded carnations at exams is a sign of support and good luck.

Of course, so many quirks exist within each college it’s impossible to discover them all. At Teddy Hall, we have a little-known quirk of an erroneous gravestone. I won’t spoil the surprise but will note that the gravestone, recently rebuilt, maintained the error because they could not discern the reason for its original mistake and so impossible to accurately correct.

Alexander Nowak helping rebuild a rural school in Nepal
A memory for the ages


Beyond the fun of formals and eccentricities of college life, nothing matches the opportunities each college provides. Communities often do embrace the identities and values espoused by the colleges and, being a member of Teddy Hall, I’ve relished the friendly, student-focused, and welcoming reputation Teddy Hall is famous for.

Putting words into actions are the grants offered to students who undertake non-academic endeavours that bring positive impacts and goodwill. I was lucky enough to receive the Matt Greenwood Travel Scholarship to help rebuilding and teaching efforts at a rural school in Nepal, destroyed by the 2015 earthquake. This life-changing experience would have not been possible without the generosity of my college and donors, among which my generous colleagues on the MSc Major Programme Management contributed over half of the funds raised to support this cause.

Two University of Oxford branded teddy bears next to each other on a desk.
A marriage for the ages

As a part-time executive student with limited time on site, many won’t have the opportunity to ‘live the Oxford life’ outside of their module times. While a snapshot might only be possible, it can prove exponentially rewarding. I empathically encourage everyone to try to fit in as much non-Oxford Saïd time as possible with your colleges.

You may not crack an indecipherable code or inadvertently tackle a colleague in the middle of the night, but you can certainly enjoy some amazing meals, tours, and the company of some incredible individuals and who knows? If you’re lucky, one of them just might share a secret or two with you.

MSc Major Programme Management