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A Year Abroad at Oxford University

Studying in the City of Dreaming Spires

Oxford Radcliffe Camera
Oxford Radcliffe Camera on a sunny day.

Fears and Expectations: “You want me to do what?!”

I found it exceptionally difficult to leave my home university, the College of the Holy Cross, for many reasons. I had formed a comfortable group of friends over the past two years. I had settled into my major (Classics), and knew what to expect in almost any academic situation thrown at me. When I first applied to Mansfield College, Oxford through Holy Cross’ Study Abroad program, I was intimidated by what lay before me: one to two 2,000 to 3,000 word essays per week, plus hour-long primary (once a week) and secondary (once every other week) tutorials. Along with the academic side of Oxford, I was also apprehensive about fitting in and finding my way in a new school, city, country, and culture. I believe this describes the muddled mental mess in which most potential abroad students, and particularly future Oxford abroad students, find themselves; I now know that questioning your ability to survive in a new school, and such a notoriously rigorous one at that, is absolutely normal. I was scared to begin Oxford for fear of my own inability to “keep up” and find my niche in the city of dreaming spires, but all I needed was a little time to get comfortable.

What to Know Before You Leave and When You First Arrive

Customs may ask for proof of acceptance to Oxford; I carried an affidavit of acceptance from Holy Cross and my letter of acceptance to Mansfield.

Pack lightly. Most airlines allow one checked bag, so plan accordingly. There are plenty of stores in Oxford where you can acquire basics such as sheets, comforters, kitchen supplies, even rain boots and clothing. Two to keep in mind:

  • Primark: Low-priced department store, excellent for bedding and clothing, located in Westgate Shopping Center off of Queen St., where High Street ends (with Cornmarket St. to the right).
  • Boswell’s: Affordable kitchen ware (if your kitchen does not come fully stocked; mine did), electrical essentials (lamps, tea kettles, etc.), linens, and storage/organization items, located on Broad St.

Off the plane: From Heathrow and Gatwick Airports, there is a direct bus line, Airline Express, which runs frequently through day and night. It is a simple, inexpensive way to get to Oxford no matter what time your flight lands, and leaves from the Bus Depot of either airport. Tip: you can buy your ticket on the bus; just make sure to have some pounds (around £25-27) handy.

Mobile phones: There are plenty of mobile phone stores in Oxford, but the least costly option is Carphone Warehouse on Cornmarket Street. I bought mine from Tesco, a supermarket chain. For those looking for a plan, find a mobile store (Orange, Three, Vodaphone); but most people use the ‘top-up’ system, where you purchase vouchers worth £5, £10, or £20, and your phone operates on a credit system. It requires no long-term commitment. All you need to purchase is the phone, and often, perks such as free texting for 30 days come with a top up.

Communicating internationally: Calling home from your mobile is expensive, so an alternative is to create a Google Mail account. It allows you to call the U.S. or Canada (not the other way around) for free. Skype is also a lifesaver. An American Blackberry, if you have your SIM card switched at a UK mobile store (Orange is popular), allows you to BBM for free, as well as gives you access to email and internet.

Food: There are two major grocery chains in Oxford, located on most major streets: Sainsbury’s and Tesco. You can generally find comparable products and prices at each. Both have “reward points” systems in which it is worth investing, since the accumulation of points leads to coupons and vouchers. If you do not plan on cooking for yourself, another option is your college’s dining hall. Foreign students are often housed off-campus, so many, like me, choose to split their time between attending Hall and cooking. There are also plenty of restaurants and sandwich shops throughout Oxford; the English will often grab a sandwich for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall joint. Alternative Tuck Shop on Holywell Rd. is my favorite.

Monetary management: I kept my American bank account through Bank of America, because you can withdraw British pounds with no fee at Barclay’s, Bank of America’s partner bank in the UK. Some create a UK account to use a debit card without incurring a fee (I suggest Barclay’s and NatWest banks). Both require letters or original documents to open an account, so check which are necessary before leaving.

Healthcare: Always travel with proof of insurance. I was required through Mansfield to register with a local clinic, which operates under National Health Service.

The 40-Library Dash: The Oxford Academic Experience

I initially found the most challenging aspect of staying afloat academically at Oxford to be the library system. There are tons of libraries here—the Bodleian above all, which houses every book printed in the UK, but from which you cannot check out books—as well as libraries for academic departments (History Faculty Library, etc.), and college libraries. Before term started, I attended a subject-specific orientation which taught me how to use the libraries. If you need a book from the Bodleian, use SOLO, the Oxford library search engine, and order the book to be sent to a reading room. My personal favorite reading room is Upper Radcliffe Camera, for its gorgeous dome and sweeping view. Since I am abroad for the year, I have the incredible privilege of having access to libraries as if I were a full-time student. The system is extensive but navigable; and since you don’t have to buy books at all, you end up saving loads of money.

Tutorials themselves and writing that many papers is sometimes highly stressful, especially in 2-tutorial weeks. But in reality tutors are, for the most part, very nice, and since the tutorial system works on a one-on-one or two-on-one basis, they get to know you well. I usually find my books  3-4 days in advance, read them 2-3 days ahead, and write the paper the night before the tutorial. As with anything, it just took me a little time to establish a routine and place to study. I prefer my room; it is easier to bring my books here than to drag them, my laptop, charger, and converter around Oxford. An average tutorial is around an hour (my Odyssey tutorial at Christ Church was 75 minutes.) Often, a tutor will have you read the essay aloud, and either stop you at various points for discussion, or allow you to read through and write comments. Discussion is often lively, and I usually surprise myself with how much I glean from the readings.

The system is very different from the ideology of American universities—it focuses on gaining an understanding of “big picture” ideas on your own from readings, rather than more guided work done in the States. I find the systems different, but do not favor one over the other—they just approach learning differently. Sometimes at Oxford, since you have so much free time, it is hard to motivate yourself to work. But my motto is, “It gets done,” and somehow, it always does.

Out and About in Oxford and Beyond: The Cultural Experience

I love the city of Oxford, because it is small enough to navigate easily, but large and dynamic enough so that you’re never truly bored. I have a bike, as do many people; it is a solid investment, and saves time.

Oxford students usually hit the pub and/or club any day of the week, especially after tutorials; there really is not a specific day when people go out. Wednesday is popular, as well as Thursday and Friday nights.

Pubs: There are obviously plenty of pubs around Oxford. Pub culture is unique here, since no one regularly attends classes, and we often find ourselves discussing our course material over a pint. Many pubs have historical or literary significance, such as the Eagle and Child on St. Giles St., where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met to discuss their work. Other popular pubs include the King’s Arms and the Turf, founded in the 13th century and replete with low, ceilings. Pub food is delicious; pubs tend to have the best fish & chips in town. Individual colleges have bars in them as well.

Clubs: Pubs close around midnight, so if you are looking to go out late into the evening, clubs are popular, although they tend to be far from city center. Mansfield students traditionally attend the club Wahoo on Fridays, after a night at the college bar.

Formal halls: Most colleges hold formal halls—sit-down, 3-course dinners to which you wear your academic robe. They are a unique part of the Oxford experience with flowing wine and great conversation, and you can usually invite guests.

Sports: You can play for your individual college—I play netball for Mansfield—or you can try out for the Oxford Blues, the university-wide teams. College teams play within the Oxford college system; the Blues play universities throughout the UK.

Tea shops: One of my favorite ways to relax is to sit down to cream tea with friends—with a hot pot of tea and a scone with clotted cream and jam. Afternoon tea is an aspect of English culture which I love; it’s a perfect afternoon pick-me-up. There are plenty of tea shops in Oxford, but my favorite is Vaults & Garden café in Radcliffe Square. It has garden seating which looks out onto Radcliffe Camera and the spires of the Bodleian.

Lectures and concerts: Academic lectures occur frequently in term, their dates and times available on department websites. The city is academically charged and culturally diverse, which makes for a great array of stimulating mental diversions.

Traveling outside of Oxford: It is difficult to travel during the eight weeks of the term, since your academic workload is intense. However, since Oxford breaks the school year into three terms, we have 6-week breaks December-January and March-April, which are fantastic times to travel. London, only an hour away.

Travel Resources

  • Traveling to and from the UK tends to drain one’s financial resources quickly. I used the website www.studentuniverse.com to book all of my flights; it finds student deals with major airlines, and is generally better than Orbitz, Kayak, and other “deal-finding” websites.
  • If you’re looking to travel by rail throughout the UK, check ojp.nationalrail.co.uk. You can purchase your actual ticket from the train station.
  • If you are planning to hop over to another European country during your time in Oxford (perhaps to visit a friend abroad?), www.ryanair.com and www.easyjet.com have served me well. If you need to book a hostel, www.hostelworld.com is safe and easy.

Life Lessons

I came to Oxford expecting to expand my love for Classics, History, and English, and I have done so. I was very apprehensive about attending Oxford, but in the process of settling into a new city, academic system, and culture, I have learned that I can face a daunting challenge head-on. The opportunity to come to Oxford is not one which many people can say they have experienced, and in embracing that opportunity, I have found in myself a new sense of my own strengths, an acute awareness of my weaknesses, and an appreciation for what it took to step on the plane to come to Oxford in the first place. My learning here, occurring in an hour-long tutorial, has also taken place in a more lasting and meaningful way: I have a sense of my own independence, made sweeter by the incredibly challenging nature of an Oxford education. High are the cliffs we must climb to succeed at Oxford, but even higher is the sense of accomplishment we feel standing at the apex, walking with heads held high after a successful tutorial or a rousing pub discussion. Oxford has re-shaped how I learn.