When I got accepted to study at the University of Oxford for my study abroad program, I was floored. It wasn’t that I wasn’t smart – I was at a top school and would do well when I applied myself, but I certainly didn’t have a 4.0 GPA and I missed the strict cut-off for Oxford’s visiting student GPA requirement by several points. I still thought it was worth a shot. They asked for several writing samples, which I thought may help my case, and when I got my acceptance letter, I – frankly – freaked the fuck out.
As an anglophile for years, nothing thrilled me more than the idea of a Harry Potter-esque study abroad experience chock full of fancy hall dinners, formal uniforms, creaky old libraries and dreary English autumns. Of course I told myself it likely wasn’t exactly like this and prepared to work my ass off for the first time in years.
If anyone ever tells you Oxford isn’t as picturesque as the movies or books portray it – they’re lying. It’s that and more. It’s a city of endless spires peppered between gorgeous gothic architecture, cobblestone streets and historic pubs. It’s a decent sized city, with various colleges and their looming gates sprinkled over many miles, interspersed with a culture that makes it hard to find a reason to leave. There’s really no reason to visit London, a short hour or so away, as Oxford has its own nightlife, its own restaurants and some of the most brilliant minds in the world.
Oxford is taught on a tutorial system, a far cry from the “pick your major ASAP” culture that pollutes US universities. While you’re expected to find a path for yourself, your education at Oxford isn’t about honing your business skills or finding a major that will garner you the highest salary come graduation; it’s about studying your passion, regardless of what that means for your career. There are hardly any “applied learning” courses, so no journalism major, no finance major, no undergraduate business courses at all. They expect to provide you the academic background to start your career and your job will provide you with the experience to succeed.
Because Oxford has some of the most versatile and renowned educators in the world, they tend to be able to teach a wide variety of subjects. When I was accepted, I was told to select a primary tutorial and a secondary tutorial. Tutorials are taught one-on-one by a qualified tutor (ie. professor, typically holding PhDs) for 50-minute sessions. For your primary tutorial, you meet for 50 minutes once per week, and for your secondary, you meet for 50 minutes once every other week. You are given a paper to write on a topic of you and your tutor’s choosing each time you meet – expected to be approximately 15 – 20 pages, for which the tutor provides you a list (usually off the top of their head) of recommended reading and supplemental lectures to inform your topic. At the next meeting, you read your paper aloud and they give you real-time critique.
I knew I wanted to study international political history of some kind, so I expressed this to the school and they placed me at a college that specialized in this. They then provided a list of tutorials from which I could select, while also providing me the option to create my own. If I did the latter, they would search the university for a tutor with the skills and experience to teach it. I chose “Fascism” as my primary tutorial, and Political Sociology as my secondary. Every week I’d learn about a new fascist regime throughout history, and every other week I’d learn about a new societal construct affecting global politics.
My primary tutorial was taught by an elderly professor and we met every week in the comfort of his home library. His house was a mile or so off campus, and when I would knock on his door, his wife would expectedly greet me and offer me a cup of tea. I would then sit on the couch, read my paper aloud and listen to his musings. We’d discuss various points-of-view, he’d delve into his own personal experiences, and I’d listen – fascinated by the all of the prestige and education this man had packed into one lifetime. He had more degrees than I could count on one hand, he’d met princes and Nobel Peace Prize winners and despite sometimes going off topic from the matter at hand, it never felt boastful or pretentious. He was humble and straightforward, and I was genuinely absorbed by everything this man had to say.
My secondary tutorial was taught by a female PhD graduate student who was much harder on me than my primary tutor. She wanted to prove herself (and for me to prove myself) and required me to pose arguments in each of my papers. My first paper was on the causes of voter participation (or lack thereof) in US politics, and I recall her bluntly telling me that “this type of writing wasn’t going to cut it.” Frankly, I was used to getting away with the flowery prose I’d crafted for every paper at home, in which I strayed from taking a firm position and used SAT words and powerful but ambiguous closings to wow an audience. For the first time, someone was forcing me to delve deeper and take a stance. No “perhaps’s”, no “possibly’s”. I was to start every paper with a line bluntly stating my position on the issue and then spend the next 20 pages proving it.
After we’d meet, I was given the week (or 2 weeks for my secondary tutorial) to write. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t do much of my work the day or two prior to my meetings. I didn’t attend many of the supplemental lectures, and I used Wikipedia much more than I should’ve. But I was looking to experience Oxford, just as much as I was looking to learn. We lived in the dorms with the rest of the students – no separate wing for us rowdy Americans – and every college had a subsidized bar on campus. Each night we’d get dolled up (the Americans much more so than any of the Brits) and attend formal dinner in hall wherein masters cloaked in robes would say grace at the high table and we’d follow suit prior to eating. We’d have a three course meal for the equivalent of 12 US dollars. Following, we’d typically head to the JCR, a common room with a bar, darts, video games and couches, and purchase snakebites, a drink made with lager and blackcurrant liquor, for 2 pounds each – a bargain regardless of the exchange rate.
Once we’d spent some time at the JCR, we’d determine plans for the evening. The British students were just as fascinated by us as we were them – we were loud, colorful and could hold our liquor with the best of them. We found their accents hypnotizing and exotic. They weren’t all upper-crust snobs: Oxford tuition is less than 10,000 pounds per year, but we did meet the Eton grads, the guys who claimed to know Prince Harry, and the captains of the crew teams. We made friends and would find ourselves heading into town later in the evenings to one of the bars or clubs. And yes, clubs. Dance clubs. The scene was hilarious: American girls trying hard to grind on people as they would back in the states, while the British guys (who fully acknowledged dancing wasn’t their strong suit) pulled ridiculous, light-hearted moves on the dance floor. The dance floor was not a place to be sexual, it was a place to be fun. We learned that in time.
Oxford students tended to go out on weekdays over the weekends — probably one of their only elitist qualities, as they did not want to mingle with the “townies” from some of the local colleges on Friday and Saturday nights. Often on weekends, the JCR would host theme parties, and if there’s one thing I learned there, it’s that the Brits take their theme parties seriously. Whereas fraternities and sororities in the US take a theme party as a cue to dress up as scantily and provocatively as possible, the students at Oxford took pride in the thought and craftiness that went into their costumes. We learned that the hard way on Halloween (a holiday similar to a theme party for Americans) when we showed up in revealing “policewoman” and “superhero” ensembles while the rest of school actually took the opportunity to dress… scarily. Ghosts, goblins, witches. It was like the Halloween party scene in Mean Girls, but reversed. And we were the Cady Herons standing wide-eyed and embarrassed in the doorway.
At the end of my time at Oxford, I had somehow managed to receive a 4.0. And it wasn’t because anything I did was perfect. Far from it. The tutors explained that they weren’t grading me on each individual paper, but on my growth and development throughout my time there. They also made clear that my acceptance into Oxford was proof enough that I was intelligent, and that we weren’t starting at the bottom – but that they expected to see change in my writing, change for the better, and that was their spectrum for analysis.
The experience was once in a lifetime, and I still wish I could’ve made it last forever. I often peruse their graduate programs just for an excuse to go back but I know nothing can recreate the experience I had as an undergraduate visiting student. We were treated with respect and made lifelong friends. We ate Halal truck food at 2 in the morning for 2 pounds. We studied at the oldest library in the Western world. We learned to take our grinding less seriously and theme parties more seriously. We got schooled in darts. We got a shitload of Oxford apparel to make our friends at home jealous. And we learned there was much more to university than what fraternity you joined and whether or not you majored in finance. It was about honing your passions, humbling yourself amongst brilliant minds and dancing horribly to The Scissor Sisters til dawn.