Student Spotlight: Penny Ehrhardt – The Oxford Student

Image Description: Penny Ehrhardt 

This week’s ‘Student Spotlight’ series features Penny Ehrhardt, a practising Barrister and Solicitor of the High Court of New Zealand and a DPhil student in Law at the University of Oxford. Last year, Penny was shortlisted for the Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Awards for being an inspiring champion and role model. While preparing my interview questions for her, I quickly realised why this was the case. She is a passionate activist who juggles many commitments and thinks of others before herself. She has been a pioneering voice in her college, acting as a co-families representative for students with families. During her time at the University, she was also one of the founding members of the Oxford Queer Studies Network and remains an active member of the Oxford Children’s Rights Network, working to support ‘cared for’ children, child refugees and asylum seekers. 

Penny was kind enough to take time out of her busy schedule to talk about her thoughts on the University’s attitude towards students with families, how to effect positive change at Oxford and how she tries to avoid activism burnout. 

What has been your experience of getting involved in activism at the University of Oxford? 

I first came to Oxford as an older student studying human rights, so I guess my personality as someone who is involved in activism was already pretty formed, but I didn’t intend to get involved in activism on behalf of Oxford students. I was a single parent on a Master’s through Continuing Education. The programme had been advertised as suitable for mid-career professionals including those with family responsibilities. There were two residential components, for which we were all encouraged to stay in College to benefit from the collegial environment, the opportunity to learn from others students – fabulous human rights practitioners from around the world – and to attend extra events. 

Shortly before we were due to leave for Oxford, all those students with children received notification that their accommodation in College had been cancelled: children were banned from staying on College grounds. I had already booked mine and my son’s flights from New Zealand. My attitude to problems is to sort them out, so that’s what I tried to do. It opened my eyes pretty quickly to the fact that the support offered by the College system is limited and skewed to some students more than others. 

On the other hand, when I came back to Oxford to do a DPhil, I was actually looking forward to being engaged in issues. I’d been working in the public sector – a risk-averse environment – in which I was required prioritise the policies of the government of the day (it is rightly left to politicians to make the political decisions: public servants only advise and implement them).  Returning to student life meant that I no longer had to be a faceless grey bureaucrat. 

I applied to a modern college whose website emphasised their family-friendliness, LGBTQI positivity, and forward-looking human welfare philosophy. The College paired me with an existing student who was also a single-parent. She advised me to become involved in College life, so I signed up as co-families rep on the GCR. I assumed that we would be influencing policy, and was surprised that others seemed to think our role was about organising events. My son was a teenager and didn’t want to go to events, and I am not a social events organiser by nature. My co-rep felt similarly, so we ensured we actually addressed policies for student families, as well as running brunches! 

You have campaigned to ensure that students with families are supported at Oxford. What are some of the main issues that they encounter at the University? How have you tried to combat these? 

In College, we did some quite simple things, although they took a lot of effort due to the bureaucracy. For example, we found that partners and children were excluded from the College Christmas dinner, so we worked with College to change this, and managed to institute regular ‘Family Friendly Formal Dinners’. This made sure all members of student families could feel part of the Oxford experience. In practical terms we also got a changing table installed in the gender-neutral ‘accessible’ bathroom. Up until then, there was nowhere on site for students to change a baby’s nappy. 

We need to change the way the system thinks because there is a lot that could be…

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