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Living and Studying in Oxford

The University is a Town with 40 Colleges

It's 2 a.m. on a Tuesday and the bass from a nearby dance club is still thumping through my walls. On the street, three stories below, a tipsy crowd of young Englishmen staggers by, belting out a soulful rendition of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Welcome to Oxford. Surprisingly, this academic Mecca has all the night life of an American college town—even on school nights.

Intense study would be a vital part of my experience, but everything about the town and the university—the constant run of classical music concerts, plays, the public lectures, the low-commitment college sports teams, the engaging pub conversations, and the colorfully bustling city center streets—led me to recognize the whole city as a classroom.

A Town with 40 Colleges

The senior tutor for our program had tried to explain the concept of Oxford University to us jet-lagged yet euphoric American students the day after our arrival. Drumming his fingertips together and gazing somewhere above our heads, he explained in a pretentious-sounding accent that there is no actual Oxford University building. Instead, there are 39 separate colleges that make up the University's system. With a condescending air, he dumbed the concept down to an analogy we would understand: It's like the United States. Standing in front of Oxford's Balliol or Merton College and asking where Oxford University is would be like standing in Texas and inquiring, "Which way to America?"

With almost 40 colleges scattered throughout the town, I would happen upon a new one no matter which direction I meandered. Stepping through the gates, away from the rumble of traffic, the whir of bicycles, and the clamor of the ragged guitar player was like entering another time. If I knew the right doors, I could wend my way deeper into the college grounds, like navigating the Wonderland of Oxford's own Lewis Carroll.

These fairy tale moments would melt into reality when a group of students would dash through the quad, decked out in their college crests and colors for crew or "rugger." I had imagined that Oxford students would exude intelligence and meditate constantly over thick, musty books. They would wear black-rimmed glasses and probably sweater vests—or maybe even robes. All in all, they would be tremendously busy and stressed.

I was wrong. When we Americans went out to dinner with Oxford friends, it was they who urged us forego our reading to go dancing afterward. It was the structure, and not a lack of difficulty, that left these students with more time and less stress.

Individualized Study

Tutorials, or "tutes," as the locals refer to them, are the heart of the Oxford system. Each tutorial (or "class") requires only one hour a week with a tutor and leaves the rest of the time for students to independently prepare an essay for the next session. As one of my football teammates explained, "Everything people already know gets glossed over and you concentrate on what people haven't yet properly understood."

The night before my first tutorial, I didn't sleep. I labored over Richard II in my painfully yellow room until a glow crept through the red velvet drapes. By 9 a.m. I was clutching an essay to my chest as I entered the lair of the tutor—a room that was small, still, and consistently cold—and seated myself across from her. It is difficult to describe how inane my words sounded as I read my essay aloud. When I tried to rush through the most inadequate sections, a short bark of "slower" would prolong things.

It was intimidating, challenging and humbling. It was also wonderful—not only that hour of cross-examination and enlightenment, but the hours of forging my own ideas as well. Grades were part of our American program, but this was inauthentic. Oxford students only have two major examinations during the entire three years of reading for their degrees. The rest of the time is free for independent studying and living life.

As much time as they spent in the hallowed halls of the Bodlian Library, it seemed they spent an equal amount on the soccer pitch or at the college bar, where the seamless flow of talk of the Manchester United to Oliver Cromwell demonstrated the decompartmentalization of Oxford life.

For More Info

There are a number of programs that allow American students to study in Oxford. I studied through the Centre for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, which provides overseas students with the opportunity to study in Oxford for one or two semesters. Students enrolled with the Centre become associate students of an Oxford College.

Other programs include:

Oxford Programme for Undergraduate Studies (OPUS).

Oxford Study Abroad Programme.

Rhodes College British Studies at Oxford.

For information on Oxford University, its history, its organization, and its procedures, visit www.ox.ac.uk. To explore the option of applying directly to an Oxford college as a visiting student, go from "undergraduate admissions" to "information for international applicants" to "visiting students."

For details on Oxford's events, accommodations, and attractions, visit the homepage of the Oxford City Council.

If you are traveling from London to Oxford, the trip takes less than two hours and is relatively inexpensive. The bus is the least expensive option. Stratford-Upon-Avon, Bath, and Winchester are just some of the other locations that are within reasonable distance for a day trip to or from Oxford.

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