Growing up in one of London's most deprived boroughs, Fiona Zeka's Oxford journey started when she took part in UNIQ, Oxford’s flagship access programme for state school students. Fiona is now a first-year English Literature student at Hertford College and shares experiences before starting here and what she has been up to as an undergraduate at Oxford.
The Journey So Far
Picture this. Tower Hamlets, one of London’s most deprived boroughs. My dad, an immigrant, and my mum, a refugee. My dad, a carpenter in a country which didn’t welcome him. He wanted to be an economist. My mum, whose fine art studies at the University of Pristina were cut short by genocide and war. Well, they fell in love. We lived in a tiny flat, in an estate where people worried more about what was next on their child’s plate rather than what will be next in their educational journey.
I grew up, went to secondary school, was ambivalent to university. It seemed silly to me, almost selfish to go and pursue education when I could be working, when I could be breaking a cycle of poverty. Nevertheless, from a young age my teachers spotted that I had a love for literature. I have warm memories of my primary school teacher Ms Cobb buying me books that she thought I’d like to read and of my secondary school teachers recommending me books. After one of my teachers recommended ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel García Márquez, I fell so deeply in love with literature that I decided once and for all that I wanted to study it at university.
This was consolidated at sixth form. I went to the theatre, to conferences, did poetry readings, and wrote and published two children books. I hosted author events with local primary schools, and felt inspired by how my writing could positively impact the younger generations. I took up teaching assistant and tutoring roles, helping non-native speakers and children from my borough. Led by my passion for education, I set up a podcast which developed teacher-student dialogue. I became a Regional Ambassador for the Holocaust Educational Trust, and a youth board member for Brightside Mentoring. Out of all these things, I found some of the most value in partaking in UNIQ, the University of Oxford’s summer school for state-school students. I loved discussing my ideas with top academics and other students, and it gave me a real insight into life as an Oxford student.
Where I am now
Now, I’m a first-year undergraduate reading English Literature at Hertford college, and I’m loving it. What I love about English Literature as a discipline is how open people are about sharing and discussing their ideas, and this is facilitated so well by the professors in tutorials and classes.
Aside from my studies, I’m active in student publishing and charity work. I’m currently Managing Director for Oxford Student Publications Limited, the parent company of student papers such as Cherwell, Isis and the Oxford Scientist. Having experienced food poverty first-hand, I’m a spokesperson for the charity Magic Breakfast, which is dedicated to feeding schoolchildren across the UK. Part of my work with them means that I am invited to give speeches at fundraising galas, and campaign to raise awareness for the charity as a whole. As a Zero Gravity scholar and ambassador, I expand upon this work by campaigning for higher education opportunities for all UK state school students.
Oxford has opened so many doors for me. It has enabled me to interview high-profile academics and people in government around the world - recently, I got to interview the head of my nation's archives (Kosovo archives) and the deputy director of the national news station, as well as discuss book-keeping with the manager of the national library. I even managed to persuade the head of the archives to create a collection of my mum's early artworks in Kosovo!
Getting Through the Pandemic
At its peak, the pandemic seriously destabilised my confidence. It took a heavy toll on my mental health, but I was determined not to let it take away the future I wanted. I kept myself afloat by reaching out for help - accessing counselling has to be one of the best decisions of my life. I also sustained myself by writing and reading outside of my course. Getting lost in a book, or a draft of a poem, always reminded me why I love literature, and encouraged me to keep going.
Looking to the Future
Talking about the future, I can’t wait for it. After doing my master’s degree, I plan to work for the UN Refugee Agency. I’m passionate about human rights, education and writing, and want to combine them all in my career.
So, Do I Belong at Oxford?
Of course I do. There’s not a room on earth in which you or I do not belong in. Belonging belongs to us, and don’t let anyone try to persuade you otherwise.