Country: United Kingdom
School (abroad): Oxford University
Why choose/Application process
I was a literature major, and where better to study literature than at Oxford? I attended talks by one of the foremost Virginia Woolf scholars today, and regularly strolled to a beautiful little bridge (modeled after the Bridge of Sighs in Venice) at Hertford College even before I found out that Evelyn Waugh had had his office there. And those are only 20th-century writers and thinkers – imagine the centuries of literary and cultural history shaped by Oxford men (and some women)!
Of course, you can only learn so much just by being around the history; the tutorial system (see below) was a huge draw for me. Luckily, my university had a well-established program at Oxford, so I didn’t have to make any arrangements myself to spend fall quarter (or Michaelmas term) of 2006 in England. Admission to the program, however, did not amount to full status as an Oxford student. For instance, I could only use the Bodleian Library at certain hours – a hassle because the Bod is not a lending library.
For the most part, people in the program took classes at the center run by our university, and only interacted with Oxford students and scholars in their one tutorial. As an English major, I was able to take seminars on Early Renaissance Poetry and Commentary on Shakespeare with Oxford first-year students, known as “freshers.” For the most part, however, Oxford students only take tutorials , which are one on one sessions with a “tutor” in their college or faculty (either a graduate student or a professor).
The tutorials are intense: we were each required to write an 8-page paper on the assigned topic every week, which we read aloud to and scrutinized with our tutors for an hour each week. This system takes some getting used to; it was certainly daunting for me at first, but my critical writing definitely improved most dramatically that quarter. One thing to remember before embarking on your study abroad experience: the educational systems in other countries are often very different from ours, so even if you’re studying a subject which you know very well, prepare for some surprises – I think all the Americans in the Shakespeare class were shocked when we were quizzed, during the first class meeting, on the exact publication date of the Second Folio!
I lived in my university’s center, which amounted to two buildings of flats converted to a crazy dormitory with half-floors and uneven ceilings. If you enroll directly at Oxford, or if your university has these types of arrangements with any of the colleges at Oxford, you can live “in college”: usually single rooms, one on each landing, up staircases scattered around the quad. Graduate students typically live in flats outside their college’s campus but provided by their college.
The rituals associated with dining are quite lovely; the actual food itself, not so much. Even the shabbiest college at Oxford will have a dining room with ambience to rival any expensive restaurant in a big city. There is a high table at one of the room, for the dons and their special guests; students must rise when they enter. Most of the seating is on long benches, and if you are seated with your back against a wall and can’t get out, it is perfectly acceptable to simply climb on top of the table and walk across. A few times during term, depending on which college, “formal halls” will be held. Oxford students wear their gowns (since we didn’t have gowns, we wore business casual to semi-formal clothing) and are served at their table instead of buffet-style.
Dinner can be as nice as five-course meal, with candles on the table. The stereotype about British food being bad is definitely true: it is extremely difficult to find an inexpensive, simple, satisfyingly tasty meal (or even an expensive, delicious meal!) I remember eating a lot of ham and brie sandwiches and cringing at both the cost and the taste. A lot of the food served in the dining halls can be quite heavy – shepherd’s pie, anyone? – and good, fresh salads are hard to find. The organic Braeburn apples I bought at the covered market were barely half the size of the apples I’m used to in California. Unfortunately, on a student’s budget, London isn’t much better.
Drinking – daily and often quite heavily – is just a fact of life. Oxford abounds with pubs and taverns such as The Turf, one of the oldest pubs in Oxford and where Bill Clinton apparently hung out while he was at Oxford on the Rhodes scholarship he never completed. My favorite was the Eagle and Child near Jericho, where Lewis Caroll and J.R.R. Tolkien used to drink together. All JCR’s (Junior Common Rooms, around which undergraduate life revolves in the colleges) have bars in them, and you may be invited to pre-dinner sherry there, or in the MCR (Master Common Room) if you are a graduate student.
After one such night…
Although Oxford is definitely a large-ish city, think “small town” in terms of the clubbing options it offers, i.e. quite limited. The one I went to most often with my friends (nicknamed, very aptly, Filth) resembled nothing so much as the dirtiest dance floor in the grimiest frat house I’ve ever been in. There’s plenty to do, however. You can go to a classical concert at the Sheldonian Theater, or head to London or the Continent for the weekend (the Eurostar train takes you to Paris in just over three hours.) And even though I’m only a light to moderate drinker, I’d still recommend checking out as many of the pubs as possible.
Not too much, although I have a terrible time with accents. And you’ll have to learn some new phrases, of course! On the surface, British life doesn’t seem all that different from American life, just perhaps with a tinge more history in whatever environment you’re in, but that is not to say that it won’t be “foreign” to you. In fact, because they have the same primary language that we do, it makes you much more able to discern the smaller details of which national differences (and not just surface appearances of national differences) are truly made of.
All the stereotypes about the British – the humor, the class consciousness, the reserved manner – are true in the way that stereotypes are true: with a discernible shade of truth across the board, but you’ll find unbelievable variation once you start talking to people. The hard part is starting that conversation in the first place. As an exchange student, you may have trouble meeting locals (other Oxford students and townies alike) if you don’t live in college and/or are staying only one term. This is not, as far as I can tell, out of malicious unfriendliness or indifference, but because they see so many American students pass through, why bother with every new batch of us? The best way, by far, to meet people is to join one of the sports teams in your college. My friends who rowed for Magdalen, for instance, made some lasting friendships (and enjoyed an insider’s look at their hardcore initiation rituals), but that may have something to do with the fact that they all shared in the misery of taking the boat out on the river up to four times a week at 5am on wintry November mornings!
One of the advantages of studying abroad in Europe is, of course, how quickly it allows you to accumulate stamps in your passport. The countries are all smaller and closer together, and Europe offers a wealth of economic travel options, such as deeply discounted plane tickets (which may not be so cheap anymore, if the euro continues to strengthen.)
I spent two weeks in Italy before term and snuck over to Paris for Thanksgiving despite the fact that we had classes.
In between, I took a week off to go to Shanghai for an international student’s conference that I led (by the way, I encourage you to join any student organizations your school may offer that allows you to make friends with students from other countries) and went to Egypt after term to visit a close friend who was taking the year off to study Arabic at the American University of Cairo.
Moving car plus camera plus rain in Shanghai
I figured that Heathrow was the closest I was going to be to Cairo, and I strongly advise visiting your friends while they study abroad if at all possible, since they’ll know the area much better than you will from a guidebook. All this, and I was probably still one of the least well-traveled of all the people in my center. I did get to go to London quite a few times, though. The Oxford Express or Oxford Coach can take you there in about 2.5 hours, and it’s definitely a city worth more than a one-time look-see. More importantly, I fear that American students sometimes forget that they are not going to get to know all of Europe in a 3 or 6 month period. I’d suggest visiting more places in the UK. My university paid for us to visit York and Durham for the incredible historical sites, and a few of my friends went to Bath for a weekend and loved it. Remember, Oxford and London are not representative of the entire UK!
You can get anything you’ll need on Cornmarket Street in Oxford. There are bookstores, supermarkets, department stores, clothing stores, office supply stores, banks, and even a shop selling Cornish pasties. It’s nothing too exciting, however. My favorite store in Oxford was a tiny little print shop on High Street – great for holiday gifts or room decorations, although items like that tend to be pricier in the UK than here. Be sure to visit Blackwell’s, the oldest bookstore in Oxford, just for the experience. London, as a world-class city, of course has fantastic shopping. Oxford Street in London and famous department stores such as Harrod’s and Harvey Nichols are worth a visit as sightseeing destinations, but probably not for actual shopping.
Personally, I loved Carnaby Street (right off Oxford street), with its funky mix of boutiques and trendy brand-name stores.
Regent Street…a little overdone.
I’ve lived in California almost my entire life, so the cold winter was definitely a huge adjustment for me. Some days, I would just stay indoors because I couldn’t bear the thought of braving the cold, only to be defeated by hunger and sneak out in the middle of the night with eight layers on to buy greasy food at the kebab van. You have to take it in stride, though, and it certainly adds to the gray, grave charm of Oxford. Think of it as part of the experience of living in the UK, and remember to bring galoshes or cheap fake leather boots that you wouldn’t mind getting wet!