LA: It is really interesting this notion that after second, third and fourth years live out of college and there could potentially be a lot more of a disconnect between these year groups and college life. Do you think this is a problem? How can JCRs and colleges keep students engaged in college life after first year?
Joe Eaton: I mean, second and third years do sometimes drift away. When I was in second and third year I did [drift away] and I wasn’t coming into college every day. I also think a good collegiate community isn’t defined by second, third and fourth years all coming into college every day and having lots of people in that building on the hill. A good collegiate community is getting second, third and fourth years to go down to Maiden Castle, two or three times a week. I have a book on history of Aidan’s, from when it used to be a college on the Bailey, and the problem of whether students will engage in college life after first year has not changed in fifty or sixty years. So much of what we do is not on the college anyway. JCR meetings are important, but the most significant way that students actually interact with their JCR is through sport. We kind of came out of COVID being a sports club with a JCR on the side, instead of being a JCR with a sports club on the side, because we lost so many societies. But now we are going the other way to try rebalance that. I don’t think the college community is evaporating because fourth years are not coming to committee meetings, because I know fourth years that play, back-to-back football games every Saturday for C team and D team and then take off their football shin pads and put on their hockey shin pads. That, to me, is as important. I wouldn’t say people do drop off after first year. They come to college less, but they contribute to college life in other ways.
LA: In terms of participation, I believe that Aidan’s are going to be forming a MCR for postgrads. Why is that important? What are your thoughts on the postgrad experience and how integrated they are in college life?
JE: This is a contentious subject at the minute and we’re in negotiations with certain members of college staff. It is not a third common room that we are setting up, it is an MCR committee, a committee of the JCR. In Aidan’s there is only a JCR and an SCR, and postgraduates can join the JCR and with that membership take part in sports and balls, but some do not join the JCR, and join the SCR instead. We noticed that there was no specific part of the Aidan’s JCR that specifically represented the postgrad members, so after discussing it with postgrads we thought we would have our own MCR committee with its own budget, that would be represented on our individual JCR committees and that would run postgrad events for our members. Postgrads do get the rough deal of it at Aidan’s. The SCR doesn’t run sports teams and so the JCR is the only mechanism for postgrads to play sport in our college.
LA: St. Aidan’s calls itself the ‘Rainbow College’. I am curious what means for Aidan’s and for you personally?
JE: The history behind the ‘Rainbow College’ is that it came in with our current principal, Dr Susan Frenk and she came in with idea. I feel that sometimes we don’t really knows what ‘Rainbow College’ means. Yes, we’re inclusive and we’re accepting of everyone, but then so is every college. Being an inclusive community is the bare minimum of any college. The college are trying to bring some tangible meaning to the idea of the ‘Rainbow College’, but a lot of the work is behind-the-scenes, so students sometimes find it quite hard to relate to that. Susan Frenk is always talking about breaking hierarchies, and that is part of the unseen work that goes into Aidan’s being an inclusive college where everyone’s opinions are valued.
The ‘Rainbow College’ was initially modelled on the South African ‘rainbow nation’ and the end of apartheid, because looking at our college history, Aidan’s JCR was always talking about apartheid and campaigning against it. Aidan’s has this stronger connection to South Africa, the JCR was always voting to condemn apartheid, voting to boycott South African goods or support South African anti-apartheid causes. We, as students, are not connected to this history, and one of the main aims of my presidency is to reconnect us to our history, in a way that Castle or particularly Cuth’s College does. This goes back to making students feel proud to be a member of their college. If we had a better understanding of our history as a college, then people would have an even deeper sense of pride in Aidan’s and would add depth to our title as the ‘Rainbow College’. It is about standing up for social justice and speaking out for what we believe in, and having a radical flare.
My predecessor told me that I should probably be in Durham over the summer holidays, because lots of prospective incoming students will turn up or email over the summer and say, “Oh, my son was assigned to Aidan’s and has heard it’s the LGBT college and my son’s not gay. There’s been some mistake here.” So much of the summer is saying, “that’s not what Rainbow College means!” There is sometimes a lot less excitement among prospective students about coming to Aidan’s. You firstly have to persuade them that Aidan’s isn’t terrible, before you can make them think Aidan’s is brilliant! I think the present lack of understanding about ‘Rainbow College’ can sometimes be harmful to that. But I am proud of being the Rainbow College.
LA: What do you think Aiden’s greatest appeal is? How do you pitch St. Aidan’s to these potentially concerned incoming students?
JE: Well, I’m definitely well-rehearsed with this line of conversation! I always say to people that whatever college you are in, by about week six of first term you will not be able to imagine yourself anywhere else! The intensity of living in a College, being with people and becoming part of this community – you just can’t see yourself anywhere else. You will almost develop this blind loyalty and pride for your college, yet I don’t think what college you’re at is the be all and end all of your time at Durham, because you will visit and enjoy the other colleges and their bars and some of the facilities.
But you will develop an attachment to Aidan’s, and that is despite the fact that the estate is crumbling. The dining hall is beautiful, but the physical estate is a product of its time and the building is not very Instagram-able. And anyone can proud of being at Castle college because of how beautiful it is, or proud to be Collingwood because of the recording studio or the sports pitch. Whereas you come to Aidan’s, which doesn’t have those things and has a lot of shared rooms, which are not that popular anymore, and a crumbling building, yet Aidan’s students are still fanatical about their college. That’s the transition you’ll go on. By the end of first term you just can’t imagine yourself anywhere else. One of the most pleasing and rewarding things for me as President last term, was looking at students who had turned up over the summer very unsure about being at Aidan’s, and now are so proud to be here. That to me is the important part – it doesn’t matter what building we are in, it doesn’t matter that we don’t have 10 tennis courts, and it doesn’t matter that we don’t have a recording studio, it doesn’t matter because it is about the culture that you have in those buildings. It is a bit cliché, but it’s the truth!
Featured Image: Joe Eaton