Milly Ayers (2021, Literae Humaniores), tells the story of her journey to Oxford as a travelling Showman

Oxford University had always seemed like a mythical place, accessible only to the smartest students. It appeared magical, like Hogwarts, but also unattainable for somebody like me; my parents didn’t go to secondary school, let alone university. I am a travelling Showman. We are a type of traveller (like Irish and Romani), but we’re different as we travel for work on the fairgrounds. It’s been the family business and our way of life for centuries.

Of course, there were obstacles to negotiate on the way to Oxford. I love my Showman culture, but it does come with challenges. Along with various misguided stereotypes to contend with, I missed a lot of school travelling for work.

There is also a lack of understanding about education and a lack of value attributed to it (that’s not to say my community isn’t supportive of me, especially the younger generation!). Like many in my culture, I left school halfway through secondary, however I still decided to do my GCSEs. While I didn’t do amazingly well, I did get into sixth form college, despite not owning any of the books needed for my exams. Unfortunately, in my first year, I got ill with pneumonia and had to drop out. However, every setback is a blessing in disguise—it was after being forced to drop out and re-enrol, that I discovered classics, my subject!

Milly Ayers.jpg

I also struggled with my mental health. I am autistic with Asperger’s Syndrome and experience the anxiety that comes with it. This exacerbated the sense of imposter syndrome, and I was sure I would fail, however my passion for classics helped me persevere. Oxford was somewhere at the back of my mind, but I never seriously considered it an option until a classics open day at the Ashmolean in 2019. Suddenly it became real, and the more I googled, the more I fell in love. I was unsure about applying and held off until the last minute, as my fear of failure—of being a little travelling girl with grandiose ideas—made it difficult.

I felt like an underdog; the autistic Showman traveller from a working class background, trying to get into the best university in the world to study one of the poshest subjects without the advantage of a private school education. People tried to convince me not to apply, or to wait or go through a foundation year, but if you know Showmen, you know we’re determined. We dig our heels in, stick our fists up and stand our ground, so to speak. The support and mentoring from Zero Gravity was eye-opening and allowed me to explore my subject in new ways. I am the first in my family to go to university, let alone Oxford, so I really felt like I was being thrown in at the deep end. Throughout the application process, we were urged to attend summer schools and private tuition, which I couldn’t afford. When Zero Gravity came along, I was paired with my wonderful mentor, Elsie, who supported me through the entire process.

Milly Ayers 2.jpg Milly on matriculation day standing on the steps of the Radcliffe Camera

We practised for the language aptitude tests, did mock interviews and had long detailed discussions. Not only did this help me to prepare for the interview process, but it also developed my subject knowledge and academic skills. I learned so much with Elsie, and I am convinced that I wouldn’t have succeeded without her—after all it was Elsie who introduced me to the Second Sophistic and Lucian, which formed the basis of my interview!

So yes, I had disadvantages, but I was not put off. Oxbridge isn’t all about how much money you have, or what kind of education. If you’ve got brains, determination and passion, there’s no reason to doubt yourself!

Oxford will definitely have an impact on my future. It will provide opportunities I would not have had otherwise. I know that my tutors share my research interests and that the learning experience will be amazing. Who knows what I will end up doing? Perhaps I will stay in education, get my DPhil and become an academic? Maybe I will work in an office, or even in the family industry! Whatever I decide, I know an Oxford degree will leave me well prepared—and not just for work, but for living life.

I also hope that by going to Oxford I will help others. Perhaps while I am there, I can prove that Showmen and other travellers aren’t Neanderthals like the stereotypes suggest. We are intelligent, driven people and you can’t judge a book by its cover. My success is a win for the entire fairground community, and if any good comes out of that, I’ll be over the moon.

Many thanks to Milly for sharing her story with us. This piece was originally published in the Classics for All Autumn Newsletter.