Study Abroad at Oxford University, England
A New Education
Article and photos by Kelsey O'Brien
Oxford's High Street at sunset.
I remember my preconceptions about England before I made my way across the Atlantic Ocean to London Heathrow Airport. I imagined everyone would be very proper, that I would pick up their accent after a few months, and that Oxford—the university at which I was studying abroad—would be full of people too brilliant to have time to speak with me. Well, contrary to what many Americans believe, many of the English are not very proper at all! This is especially so at Oxford, where the students tend to work hard for a couple of days and then dash off to the pubs and nightclubs to relax. Granted, most of the pub conversations included a lot more philosophy than I was used to hearing in the bars of San Francisco, but amongst students, these “conversations” often turned into passionate debates, with very little thought given to being polite
I studied abroad for a full academic year at Oxford as a “Visiting Student.” Being abroad for such a long time was great because I had a chance to explore the rest of the country during our long vacations, and came away from the experience feeling like I had a sense of the diverse cultures within the country. Because I was there for so long, I had to get a UK bank account and a cell phone. These were both pretty easy to obtain. With an official letter from Oxford University saying that they had accepted me as a Visiting Student, I was able to get a bank account with HSBC, but unfortunately had to pay about £10 each month to maintain it and had to maintain it for a minimum of 12 months. I believe Lloyd’s bank offers free savings accounts for students, no matter what their nationality is, and wish I had known that before I left.
Getting a “mobile” phone was also pretty easy, once I knew what to do. In the UK, most people buy a chip card (which has a pay-as-you-go phone number) separately from the physical phone, and this is what I did too. On any High Street (the equivalent of Main Street) in the country, you will find stores called Carphone Warehouse, Orange, O2, and even Verizon, and T-Mobile. All of these stores will sell both chip cards and mobile phones—though Orange and Carphone Warehouse are the cheapest. Usually, you can buy a basic phone for under £20 if you’re not overly picky.
If you are studying abroad anywhere in the UK and plan on taking the train anywhere, even just twice, I would recommend getting a Young Person’s Railcard. It only costs about £26, and will save you a third of the cost on any train ticket you buy for a whole year. The UK is a very student-friendly country. Carry your ID card with you everywhere, and you will be sure to save money. Sometimes, even the pubs offer student rates, which are also called “concessions.”
The Challenges of Studying at Oxford
Before I set off to attend Oxford as a student, I was nervous about the workload. I knew that while I was excited to learn about living in a new country, I was also there for the education. I knew that I would be expected to write two essays each week that were each 2,000 words long, and that I would have to sit down with my tutor for an hour and discuss the arguments I had made in my essay while they questioned me. All of this seemed pretty daunting. Normally, when at home in the U.S. when I turn a paper in I hand it to the professor, and do not worry about it for another couple of weeks until I get it back with my grade.
Honestly, the workload was not as bad as I had anticipated. What I failed to consider was that I only needed to be in class for two hours each week (one for each tutorial), and that the rest of the time was mine to get the reading and writing done.
After about two weeks, I fell into the same routine as most students who go to Oxford and Cambridge: get your books three days before the tutorial, read two days before your tutorial, write your essay the night before your tutorial, and go to the pub the night after your tutorial. The tutors were very understanding and they did not expect the essays to be the same quality as the ones I used to turn in for my finals. I found that they cared more about teaching me the material and making sure I understood it than about criticizing specific points I had made or trying to debate with me.
Of everything I took away from my study abroad experience, I would say that the education was the most rewarding. Oxford accepts visiting students from all over the world to study for a semester or a year, so if you are interested, just visit the international student section of their website and talk to your study abroad office to make sure the credits will transfer.
Cultural Immersion in the UK
The UK is a very diverse nation with lots of beautiful countryside and rich history. I think some Americans tend to criticize the people of the UK and Europeans for living in the glories of their past far too much and not embracing the future, but in my opinion, it is very rewarding to preserve a sense of your own nation’s history and culture.
Having said that, there are many parts of the UK that are not as progressive as an American student might be accustomed to. London is definitely a cosmopolitan city, but in other parts of the country (such as Oxford), there is an undercurrent of values that I had not expected to find in 21st century England. As a female, I had to put up with behavior that would have been grounds for disciplinary action at my university—mostly verbal harassment. Another visiting student studying with me was actually grabbed inappropriately at the dinner table by a native male student, and she asked for the group to sit through a sexual harassment meeting. In the cases, the persons in charge of student welfare were nothing but supportive. This is simply a cautionary tale; I would still urge students to study in the UK because it is a country with a lot of charm and history. I tried to view some things that might have been offensive to me in America as a simple difference in culture, and that was exactly why I had gone abroad—to learn about a new culture, not to push my own views. So, despite some sexism, I traveled through the country for a couple of weeks—staying in hostels—and can confidently say that there is no country, including the US, in which I feel safer.
Living and Studying at Oxford
If you are considering studying abroad in Oxford or have already applied to do so, be sure to check out their website (www.ox.ac.uk/) to familiarize yourself with the colleges. Oxford University is made up of almost 40 colleges and halls, which are more about social support than about academic support. If you go to Oxford, you’ll find that some colleges are a bit competitive with one another, especially during “Eight’s Week,” when each college’s rowing team races on the river. Still, there remains a sense of camaraderie that is palpable even walking down the street that everyone is a student of the University as a whole. Because it is such a big university—with about 20,000 undergraduates—Oxford offers a plethora of clubs and societies in which you can get involved. I highly recommend picking at least one or two, as doing so is a great way to meet other students outside of the college at which you are studying, and will save you from drowning in your academic work.
One of the great things about being a “Visiting Student” at Oxford is that you are considered a full-time undergraduate with the same benefits as the other matriculated students. This means you get to use the world-famous Bodleian Library. I never had to spend a penny on textbooks because the library system holds just about everything that’s ever been published—literally. It’s a “legal deposit library,” which means that it receives a copy of every book published in the UK and Ireland, and if they don’t have it, they will order it for you. The history behind the library is fascinating—it has been open to scholars since 1602—but what I really enjoyed about it was the fact that only students and faculty of the University are allowed inside. No tourists can go into the reading rooms, and as a student who was only there for the year, I loved being able to flash my ID card (or “Bod card,” as they are called in Oxford), and walk right in. The Radcliffe Camera is especially beautiful, and housed many of the books I needed to read. As a “Visiting Student,” you are also allowed to visit the other colleges and halls free of charge (most tourists have to pay a couple of pounds to get in, if the college allows visitors at all). Because Oxford is such an old city, its buildings are beautiful and full of historical significance. They have seen the likes of Oscar Wilde, John Locke, Albert Einstein, and countless other brilliant minds. To walk through the same halls, eat at the same pubs, and even walk on the same stones as they did was an experience I never tired of, even after nine months.
Oxford's Radcliffe Camera in the snow.
Having the opportunity to study at such a prestigious institution has given me new confidence as I continue my education. I used to be a shy student who rarely spoke up in class, but after my tutorials I grew accustomed to talking about the reading I had done and sharing my opinion. I also participate in class much more often now. And naturally, going abroad and learning about a new culture is of priceless. I am certainly more open-minded now than I was before I went abroad, and always try to consider the other side of an argument when I am in a disagreement, which I find very useful at this moment in America’s history, when the country seems so split into various factions on healthcare, cleaner energy, and the wars in the Middle East. Of course, we find it necessary to have opinions as we progress through life, but my experience abroad helped me realize that those opinions do not have to define who we are, and that there is always room to refine them as we educate ourselves.
For More Information
- For students looking to take a semester off interested in working in the UK, I would recommend looking at Bunac, which now offers an internship program which several of my friends have used and enjoyed (www.bunac.org/).
- Getting to Britain can be pretty tough on your wallet. I used www.studentuniverse.com for all of my flights to and from the UK, and found it better than anything I could find on other sites such as Orbitz and Kayak.
- I traveled alone many times, and use this website religiously: www.hostelworld.com.
- To travel around Britain, I checked for trains on ojp.nationalrail.co.uk because they always offer an up-to-date schedule. You will have to buy your tickets from individual railway companies, or at the train station itself.
- Another cheap way to travel around Britain is by bus. You can buy tickets to various cities at Megabus.com. Remember to bring your student ID for a discount!
- If you decide to see continental Europe while you’re away, www.ryanair.com and www.easyjet.com are inexpensive airlines.
Kelsey O’Brien is originally from Hermosa Beach in Southern California. She enjoyed her time in the UK so much that she has applied to several universities there for graduate school, and has already been accepted to King’s College, London, to pursue a master’s in English: 1800-Present.