Disclaimer: What I write in this essay reflects only my own experiences at Oxford (both good and bad), and is very much colored by my position as a visiting student coming from the US. Your viewpoints on Oxford and your experiences there might be completely different from mine. Regardless, I hope this essay is interesting from the perspective of seeing how one individual from across the pond felt about their year at Oxford (additional fun facts: Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the second oldest university in continuous operation in the world).
For the 2022-2023 academic year, I was a visiting student at the University of Oxford, St. Anne’s College studying politics and computer science. As I reflect on my year there, I know that without a doubt, going to Oxford has been one of the most formative experiences of my college career.
Why I Decided To Study Abroad At Oxford
Early on at Swarthmore, I knew I wanted to study abroad at some point. Yet, the thought of studying abroad specifically at Oxford and for as long as a year never crossed my mind. It was only after my friend at Swarthmore brought up wanting to go to Oxford himself did I begin to seriously consider it. When I think back on this, I’m so humbled that it was something as serendipitous as a friend’s suggestion that kickstarted a yearlong journey I never would’ve anticipated as a high school senior applying to college.
After my friend’s suggestion, I began doing more research on Oxford. What I learned ultimately convinced me to take the plunge and apply for the year-long program. Here are some of the compelling reasons that stood out to me:
- Money was tight growing up so I never got the chance to travel internationally beyond the one-off trip to Taiwan. Oxford’s proximity to the rest of Europe meant it was the perfect place for me to be based in. The prospect of being able to see historical and natural sights I had previously only read about in textbooks was extremely exciting.
- The Oxford experience is a distinct one you can’t get anywhere else in the world. The traditions, personalized tutorial system, and the aura of almost a thousand years of history were all things I couldn’t pass up.
- I wanted to have the opportunity to meet lots of new people beyond Swarthmore, and Oxford presented a unique opportunity for me to both meet matriculated Oxford students, as well as visiting students from universities across the US. A big part of college is learning from your peers and I had a hunch the type of people Oxford would attract would have interesting opinions and viewpoints that would challenge the way I thought.
- Coming from a small liberal arts college I never got to experience the scale of a large university. I wanted to participate in extracurriculars and events only a school with the resources like Oxford can put on.
- Studying abroad for a year seemed scary initially. I had gotten settled in at Swarthmore after my gap year and didn’t want to leave it all behind for so long. But after speaking with other Swarthmore students who spent a year at Oxford, it seemed like studying abroad for the year was the right choice to have enough time to experience everything the university had to offer.
What I’ll Cover
This essay will provide a comprehensive overview of the primary components of what it’s like to be a student at Oxford. I’ll be going over:
- Academics — What it is like to study at Oxford and how it compares to the American university/college experience
- Culture and Lifestyle — The distinctive elements of Oxford and British culture
- Social Life — My experience socially as a visiting student
- Extracurriculars and Events — What I did as a student at Oxford
- Faith — My involvement with the faith community at Oxford
- Travel — The opportunities for travel throughout the academic year and what I learned from my travels
Going to Swarthmore and Oxford has helped me better appreciate the academic benefits and drawbacks of each institution. Primarily, these characteristics can be attributed to attending a small college (Swarthmore) versus a large university (Oxford). Still, there are also important cultural differences to note between the American and Oxford educational systems.
Breadth versus Specialization
Swarthmore prides itself on being the classic liberal arts college that promotes intellectual curiosity and learning for the sake of learning. As someone who changed their prospective majors several times, I’m grateful that Swarthmore gave me the space to take classes in fields like economics, sociology, math, psychology, and religion before finally settling on my current course of study of computer science and political science.
Students at Oxford cannot do this. Because the UK education system has students who specialize from an early age, you have to commit to a course of study as soon as you apply and it’s very hard to switch subjects after you are admitted. I’ve met several Oxford students who don’t like their subjects but are forced to continue anyways. On the flip side, because students are highly specialized when they come in and are confined to a single course of study while at university, they can reach a highly advanced level by the end of their three years at Oxford (comparable to what masters students would study in the US).
STEM versus Social Sciences
As someone who studied both politics and computer science at Oxford (something only visiting students can do), I am one of the few people who can compare and contrast both the social sciences and STEM experiences at the university.
Before I dive into the comparison here’s a quick overview of the coursework I took at Oxford:
The Making and Unmaking of Modern Britain: Britishness and the Construction of National Identity in the Twenty-First Century
Political Thought: Bentham to Weber
Models of Computation
Ethical Computing in Practice
I found computer science to be quite challenging at Oxford. There are no office hours and the pace of learning moves quickly as each class only lasts 8 weeks. Many of the courses require advanced math and professors assume you know a lot of concepts beforehand.
On multiple occasions, my professors would work through a problem on the whiteboard but then stop halfway and say “The rest of this shouldn’t be too hard. To save time, I think you all should just work through the rest of the problem yourselves!”
90% of the time in these moments I would think to myself, “I most definitely do not know how to ‘work through the rest of the problem’ myself.”
All in all, this system of learning is great if you’re someone who has devoted a lot of time to studying math and computer science (as most Oxford students have), but for me, I much preferred Swarthmore’s computer science department where I had more opportunities to ask my professors questions on areas I was confused about and where it felt like the homework and lectures were more directly related.
The format of the courses includes four primary components: classes, tutorials, lectures, and practicals. Classes and tutorials are essentially the same thing. You submit your problem sets to the tutor running the class or tutorial and they mark your answers and give them back to you during the class/tutorial. Then during the class/tutorial, the tutor quickly goes over the entire sheet and provides the solutions. Classes typically have 10-15 students in them while tutorials are around three. However, the nature of the classes/tutorials makes it hard to get personalized help because of the number of other students, and the limited time there is to work through everyone’s questions.
Lectures are pretty self-explanatory. They are usually around an hour where the lecturer goes over the course material but oftentimes the lectures don’t cover your homework topics so you have to self-teach yourself much of the material.
Practicals are essentially computer science labs where you had to code up a program based on the constraints given on the assignment sheet.
While I would say Oxford’s CS degree is not accessible to those who do not already have a lot of prior knowledge, it also means they can offer advanced CS classes to undergrads that schools like Swarthmore cannot. Oxford can do this because they both have the resources of a large university to teach such classes and their students are sufficiently prepared to take them. This is a major benefit if you enjoy CS a lot and want to deepen your knowledge in the field.
Politics at Oxford presented different challenges, but I thoroughly enjoyed the courses I took here and believe that the mode of learning at Oxford for social sciences is far superior to that of Swarthmore. The way studying politics works at Oxford is you’re given a different essay prompt each week and a reading list related to the essay topic by your tutor. You are then expected to write and submit an essay to them each week answering the prompt. You then meet with your tutor weekly to discuss the essay and the broader topic your essay covers. I found these conversations helpful in clarifying my understanding and providing room to consider alternative viewpoints to what I wrote in my essay.
Over the term, you might write anywhere between 10 to 12 essays. The constant reading exposes you to a wide range of material and the weekly writing cadence forces you to deeply engage with what you’re reading. While the workload was high, learning was almost inevitable within the Oxford system because you need to do a significant portion of the readings to be able to write the essay.
I loved the essay writing was always centered around a provocative question. I had to answer questions like:
- Is ethnic hatred a major cause of conflict?
- Does the Israel-Palestine dispute indicate that nationalism is a source of order or disorder in international society?
- Is the era of US hegemony over, and is a new global balance of power emerging?
Over the course of 22 essays I wrote throughout the year, I created a repeatable process to quickly get a sense of the major arguments on each side for these questions, formulate my opinion, and articulate my thoughts with evidence. These essays were highly valuable because, through the process of writing, my views on politics, ethics, and international relations became clearer. I learned how to seriously evaluate what I thought and what sorts of data there was to back up my ideas. Rather than just consuming a bunch of random readings and memorizing facts, I developed my stance on controversial topics I could share with others.
While I am by no means an expert on any of the topics I learned about, I now at least have a starting point that I can build upon/revise as I learn more in the future. Going through this process of research and essay writing was empowering because I know in the future whenever I have a topic I want to understand, I can repeat the process I learned at Oxford to gain clarity on it.
Learning Environment: Independent versus Social
Matriculated Oxford students work hard. The 8-week term means there is a lot of work crammed into a short amount of time and it seems like most Oxford students do not socialize as much compared to my peers back at Swarthmore. While the visiting students also have the same amount of work, since we do not have exams we experience a bit less academic pressure and thus spend more time meeting people and participating in extracurricular activities.
Because of the tutorial system (no office hours or TA sessions) and the format of many of the assignments (essays and problem sets), students work largely individually. There is little to no group and partner work and as a result, the academic experience at Oxford is a lot more isolating (or independent depending on how you frame it) compared to that in the U.S.
Libraries in Oxford are also not a social space which is different than most U.S. colleges and universities. A perfect point to illustrate this is how the largest library in Oxford (the Bodleian) is laid out. The entire library is for silent study while there is a single room where students are allowed to talk. Compare this to Swarthmore where in Cornell Library the entire library is a social space where students can talk except for one silent floor.
“Study groups” in the library are not a thing here and many of the students I reached out to study together did not understand why someone would want to study in a group setting. This might be due to the sample size of people I spoke to but I got the feeling most students did their work alone in their rooms.
This dichotomy of social and independent is one of the biggest differences between the US and UK academic experiences. I feel Oxford students miss out on the serendipitous social encounters that come from running into someone at the library and being able to strike up a conversation or the opportunity to invite someone you are trying to get to know to a low-pressure study hangout. These two things have been a big part of my experience back at Swarthmore and have been how I’ve gotten to meet new people and grow closer to my friends.
More positively, as a result of the rigorous workload and independent studying environment, I discovered I could tap into a level of focus that I did not know I had previously. Writing a high volume of essays and doing tough computer science problem sets each term strengthened my ability to bear down and do deep work. Before I used to get distracted by my phone and YouTube during my study sessions, but now I can block that all out and grind a lot of work in a short period when necessary. To do this, I downloaded software to block websites on my laptop, turned off my phone, and played the same instrumental music on repeat to get “in the zone”. Using a modified form of the Pomodoro timer (50 minutes working, 10 minutes rest) was also helpful.
When I was tempted to distract myself, I would remind myself that I am someone who values discipline. Then, I would fixate intently on simply doing the next step of my work, whether it was reading the next sentence or writing my thesis statement. If I thought about the countless other pages I had to read or the three other essay paragraphs ahead of me, I would get discouraged and lose focus, but by directing my mind towards these “micro-tasks” I was able to keep going. Through these techniques, I trained myself to do hard things even when I did not want to; this will be useful moving forwards whether it’s in my job or personal projects.
Intellectual Atmosphere (less pre-professional)
Oxford is much less pre-professional compared to most U.S. universities and colleges. The primary concern for most students is their academics and many students want to go into academia— not industry. In this regard, it’s quite similar to Swarthmore.
This contributes to an incredibly intellectual environment where great value is placed on diving deep into your subject matter. Combine the academic atmosphere with the opportunity to study in libraries older than the United States (some more than 400 years old), and it’s hard not to feel a bit pretentious and scholarly. I found this refreshing especially since I spent much of my time at Swarthmore thinking about my career and securing internships (contrary to the prevailing school culture).
One of Oxford’s strengths is the many opportunities it offers to learn outside the classroom. Because Oxford is such a well-known university, they can regularly host expert speakers and researchers who are at the cutting edge of their respective fields. After all, who can turn down coming to present their work at Oxford?
I loved this aspect of the Oxford experience because it allowed me to really “own” my education. If there was a particular subject area I was interested in, I could go to speaker events and seminars related to it and further my knowledge. I particularly enjoyed the speaker events I attended related to Taiwan-China relations and the broader role of China within the international community.
I overlooked these events at first because I thought there was no point in going to them if I could hear the same information on YouTube. But I came to realize that merely being in the same room as these speakers made the subjects come alive. Rather than reading research articles about Taiwan-China relations, which made the topic feel like a set of facts you simply had to accept, you could engage in a conversation with someone who has devoted their career to researching the topic and challenge their assumptions.
This is why at the end of the speaker events, I would stick around to listen to Masters and Ph.D. students grill the presenters with tough questions about what they shared. This was my favorite part of these talks because the graduate students usually had the background knowledge to ask insightful questions that I would never have thought of.
The presenters didn’t always have good answers but I still learned so much because the graduate students’ questions helped elevate the discussion to a more advanced level, and made the topics feel more dynamic. Knowledge became more than something contained in textbooks and academic journals. It could be discussed, challenged, and shaped. These events were immensely inspirational and helped me tap into an intellectual curiosity and love of learning I didn’t know I had before.
Coming from a highly career-driven American culture, I saw a different notion of ambition at Oxford through my conversations with other students and interactions with tutors. Achievement was less predicated on creating a tangible impact on the way people live day-to-day (such as with startups and business), but more on influencing the way people thought (via intellectual debate and discourse). Because I had spent a lot of time on the former, I was inspired to spend more time learning about topics in politics and philosophy so I could also eventually participate in these discussions and shape the way others thought rather than constantly being at the whim of the opinions of others.
Culture and Lifestyle
I would say the most distinctive component of Oxford’s culture is the traditions. One of these is the academic dress students have to wear for special occasions. During matriculation (the formal process of entering the university), examinations, and graduation, students have to wear what is called subfusc along with their academic gowns. It is an interesting look but lots of students complain about having to wear it during exams since it can be uncomfortable.
Students on the whole are much better dressed here compared to those in the US; this along with the grand buildings contributes to an air of class and regalness. The lifestyle in some ways is a lot more independent here compared to Swarthmore. Many students cook for themselves and lunch/dinner is not provided on the weekends. Yet in other ways, students are remarkably well taken care of. Scouts (employed by the college) vacuum and clean your room weekly and bring you clean bed linens. This is most definitely something that does not happen at Swarthmore.
Colleges also regularly hold formal dinners which are three-course meals students can book in advance. Different colleges vary in how formally you have to dress, but generally, students wear suits/dresses. The college staff set out special placemats, candles, and other forms of decoration on the tables (which vary depending on the college) in preparation for the formal. During the dinner, students file into the dining hall first and take their seats. After a little bit of time has passed, the tutors and administrators of the college file into the dining hall and stand next to their seats at a table in the front of the dining room known as the “high table.” While this is happening the students have to stand up from their chairs. One of the people at the high table then hits a gavel and says a Latin prayer. At this point, everyone can sit down and the meal begins. Different colleges have variations of this process (at Oriel College the Latin prayer is said in an almost song-like fashion) but they all follow this general pattern.
Once you get over the British accents you’ll realize there is not that much separating Americans from our British cousins. The main differentiator you’ll hear from Brits (half-jokingly) is that Americans are almost off-puttingly extroverted and loud.
Many British people also have a surprising amount of knowledge about American politics and current events. They are both curious and wary of what they perceive as unwarranted American nationalism and the cultural polarization endemic to bipartisan politics in America. I suspect they are more well-informed about the state of affairs in the US than most Americans. Being a “global citizen” is highly valued here.
This is a massive generalization but based on my interactions with some British students I would say they are more rigid and territorial about their space. For instance, the entire kitchen is only supposed to be used for cooking and eating. If you want to do work on the table in the common area within the kitchen you will be asked to leave, even if no one is using it. Meanwhile, at Swarthmore, I never would’ve been asked to move if I was doing work in someone else’s kitchen. Going back to Americans being loud, British people are also a lot more sensitive to noise, and you’ll likely be asked to quiet down at least once during your time in the UK.
British slang is another thing to get used to. For example, the phrase “half six” is used to denote 6:30 which confused me the first time I heard it because I never had someone describe the time to me that way before. I wasn’t sure if it meant half till six (5:30) or half past six (6:30).
Visiting students occupy a liminal space socially at Oxford. Because many of us are third-year undergrads, even though we are brand new to the school, we are older than the incoming freshman (or freshers as they call them) which can make it hard to connect with them because they’re still figuring out college while we are older and have had more time to reflect on questions about career, belonging, and extracurricular interests. On the other hand, it is challenging to insert yourself into the social groups of older students because they already have been at Oxford for 1-2 years and have established social circles.
As a result, most visiting students become friends with other visiting students. To meet matriculated students and British students, the best thing to do is to participate consistently in a particular activity or club that meets regularly. For me the main way I did this was through church and the faith community.
Despite this, it was still hard to find time to build relationships with matriculated students because they were busy with schoolwork and exams, and I had a lot of my work to handle as well. Through no fault of their own, I had to go out of my way to reach out and take the initiative to get to know the matriculated students, especially since I was only going to be at Oxford for one academic year.
Towards the end of the last term, I felt a bit sad as I wished I had more time to get to know people and invest in the relationships I had built here. There were many individuals I wanted to spend more one on one time with but couldn’t because I simply did not have enough bandwidth between school, traveling, and other extracurriculars.
Regardless, I’ve met some of the most intelligent, interesting, and kind people I know at Oxford, and am grateful for the time I did have with them. These people include both matriculated and visiting students originating from the UK and abroad. They’ve wholeheartedly welcomed me into their community and have always been open to answering any questions I had when I was still adjusting to life at Oxford.
I’ve been blown away by the amazing computer scientists who have built amazing products while still making time for music and other hobbies to pre-med students who can discuss politics and current events far more proficiently than I can (despite my being a political science major). Usually, individuals trade-off between depth and breadth of knowledge, but at Oxford, I’ve met so many people who are excellent at their prime area of study/interest, yet know so much about topics ranging from philosophy to history to economics.
I was also shocked by how small the world is. I met people who were in the same high school district as me, people who knew of my high school friends, and other people who were childhood friends with my close friends from Swarthmore. I know that while my time at Oxford has come to an end, I will somehow still cross paths with the people I’ve become friends with over my year abroad in the future.
I will miss the hot pot dinners (super clutch call buying those hot pots), late-night poker games (still have to use my phone to remember the hand rankings), and all the shenanigans (too many to list here). Yet, life goes on and I cannot wait to see what is in store next.
Even more than all the fun I had with them, what I treasure most is what my Oxford friends have taught me. They’ve shown me how to be more understanding of others who come from different backgrounds, calm down in stressful situations, think rationally from first principles, be more proactive in consuming educational media, confront my own character flaws, and challenged me to swallow my pride when discussing controversial issues.
One instance where I learned to be more understanding came from an interaction my friends and I had with an Uber driver in Jerusalem. Throughout my travels in Europe and the Middle East, one constant theme has been local people asking me “Where are you from?” and when I say I’m from the US, the perennial follow-up question of “Where are you really from?” After about four weeks of traveling, I had grown rather tired of this line of questioning and by the time I arrived in Israel, I felt a bit annoyed when the Uber driver asked the same thing and wouldn’t believe us when we said we were born in the US. However, my friend answered calmly and patiently that we were American despite not “looking like Americans” by explaining the distinction between ethnicity and nationality, emphasizing how the US is unique in that the two aren’t necessarily the same, in contrast to most countries. My friend was more gracious in understanding that the driver probably did not meet many people like us (i.e. Asian Americans) and it was to be expected that he wouldn’t be as aware of the US’ diversity.
They recognized that the driver was merely curious and took the chance to demonstrate an interest in the driver’s background by asking if we could ask him a question. This led to a longer conversation about how he lacks an identity because his heritage is so complex since he was born in modern-day Israel, while his father was born when the land was Jordan, and his grandfather was born in the era of the Ottomans. He stressed that he doesn’t know who he is and that he felt like an outsider in Israel. He then asked if we ever felt like outsiders in the US because we don’t look like Americans (i.e. not white). My friend responded that yes we definitely do at times which really resonated with him.
By taking the time to empathize with the driver, my friend unlocked a whole new world of cross-cultural learning and established our shared humanity— highlighting to ourselves and the driver that despite coming from extremely different backgrounds, we still struggled with the same basic questions related to identity and belonging. This is just one profound lesson I learned from my Oxford friends, but one that I hope to carry with me into the future to help me better connect with those who possess worldviews and life experiences drastically different from mine.
Extracurriculars & Events
One of the benefits of being in a university environment like Oxford is the sheer volume of extracurriculars available (there are over 400 clubs and societies). Below I will list out some of the extracurriculars and events I participated in over the year that I enjoyed.
- Ice Hockey
- Played ice hockey at the local rink on Friday evenings from 10 PM - 12 AM with friends!
- Cafe 360
- Free boba and a great opportunity to meet new friends and discuss faith!
- Rowing down a river in a boat using a giant metal pole. Tricky to get the hang of but quite fun once you do.
- The University of Oxford Baseball Team
- Fun to go to practices and got the chance to play in the British University and College Sports Baseball National Championship! I definitely miss playing and this inspired me to start watching more baseball videos again and even think about joining a league when I return to the US.
- I rowed once with the St. Anne’s boat club. It would be my first and last time, as I did not want to get up at 5 AM consistently (which is what I did during my freshman year of college when I was training with the baseball team). I’m glad I got to learn how to row and that was enough for me!
- RAG Ball
- My first ball was held at the Natural History Museum in Oxford. It was a beautiful venue, although they kept their exhibits containing fossils millions of years old on display while drunk college students were milling about which seemed ill-advised. I got to dress up in my tuxedo and take some fancy pictures with dinosaurs in the background. There were lots of hors d’oeuvres, a live band, and a pole dancing performance. I would say this was the most extravagant event I have ever been to (prom on steroids). As soon as you walked in multiple servers were at the ready to serve out the champagne. It felt like entering a movie.
- Diplomacy Ball
- This event was held at the De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms in London and was jointly organized by the Oxford Diplomatic Society and other nearby schools. There was a three-course formal dinner, some dancing with a live band playing, and lots of opportunities to meet students from other schools. It was funny because everyone I met there was confused about why I was attending the event if I was a computer science major. I then had to explain I studied both computer science and political science.
- RAG Ball
- Balliol College, Christ Church, Harris Manchester College, Jesus College, Oriel College, St Anne’s College, St John’s College, Trinity College, Lincoln College, and Worcester College
- Fancy three-course dinners at each of the colleges. Another opportunity to wear a suit and tie.
- Balliol College, Christ Church, Harris Manchester College, Jesus College, Oriel College, St Anne’s College, St John’s College, Trinity College, Lincoln College, and Worcester College
- OICCU Getaway
- Went to Whitemoor Lakes right before Hilary term with the Christian Union. Got to meet some cool people and learned a lot.
- St. Ebbe’s Ledbury
- I had the chance to venture out into the English countryside for a retreat with my church during the first week of Easter break. Also learned a lot here and got to know people from church better.
- OICCU Getaway
Oxford China Forum
- Interesting discussion on the future of US-China relations.
- Head of Product at Meta - Naomi Gleit (Oxford Union)
- Mao and Markets (Oxford China Centre)
- The Risk of Conflict in the Taiwan Strait: Strategy, Technology, and Deterrence (Oxford China Centre)
- China’s “No Limits” Ties with Russia: the View from Beijing with James Miles, senior The Economist journalist (Oxford University Strategic Studies Group)
- Is there any evidence for the resurrection? with Peter Williams (OICCU)
- Is the Kalam Cosmological Argument Convincing? with Professor William Lane Craig (Socratic Society)
- Events Week Talks with Rebecca McLaughlin (OICCU)
A major part of my time at Oxford was participating in the faith community there. I regularly attended St. Ebbe’s, a church in Oxford, and participated in events run by the Oxford Intercollegiate Christian Union (OICCU), the student-run Christian group on campus.
One aspect of both St. Ebbe’s and OICCU that I appreciated was their willingness to hear and discuss tough questions related to faith. St. Ebbe’s regularly held anonymous Q&As where students could send questions they had, and OICCU held weekly sessions where students could ask questions about what evidence there was for God’s existence and the intellectual viability of Christianity over free cake and coffee. Christians at Oxford had an intellectual eagerness to talk about these difficult topics and I found the focus on apologetics extremely beneficial for my learning. Most importantly, these events made it easier for non-believers to have a safe space to engage with Christianity.
When it came to the church community, I had a fantastic time at FOCUS/iFOCUS (the name of the small group program which includes both British and international students) at St. Ebbe’s. All the students would meet weekly on Thursday evenings at church for dinner and Bible study. We got split up into small groups with either British or international students (depending on your preference) and one to two small-group leaders at the beginning of the academic year and stayed in these groups for the rest of the time. I ended up choosing to group up with the international students.
Overall, I loved how structured the Bible studies were. We would cover one book in the Bible over the term (or two terms if the book was longer), and the church would print out packets with the passages inside so we could annotate and take notes. The leaders did an excellent job asking provocative questions to spark discussion and I learned a great deal from them as well as the other students (some of whom study theology or had significant Bible knowledge).
It was wonderful to grow closer to those in my small group over the year and I’m so grateful to call them friends. My small group and other students within the broader community at St. Ebbes truly made me feel like I belonged even though I was only going to be there for a year, and are a large part of why my year abroad was so memorable. From inviting me to various college formals to periodic check-ins to the iconic iFocus socials, I cannot thank them enough. I ended up getting baptized at St. Ebbe’s and I’m proud to have called it my church home during my year abroad.
On the topic of Christian talks at Oxford, many largely focused on the intersection between faith and relevant issues to students like inequality, climate change, relationships, etc. It was clear that both OICCU and the church community in Oxford cared a lot about what it means to practically live as a Christian in the modern world and sought to equip students to think Biblically about many of the social issues we face today.
OICCU also had the monetary and social capital to plan large-scale events such as their annual Events Week. During Events Week, OICCU invites several big-name speakers in the Christian world to lead talks in the afternoon and evening on hot-button issues. These events are meant to reach non-believers and there were again ample opportunities for students to ask questions and discuss with their peers.
Another highlight for me was Cafe 360 which was an event for international students where you could get free boba at a nearby boba shop on Fridays and hear students give a short talk on Christianity. It was a fun way to meet new people and hear how faith has impacted the lives of students.
I was extremely impressed with the Christian community at Oxford. There were many intelligent people with a firm grasp of what they believed and who were passionate about sharing their faith. The sermons and lessons I heard were all excellent and it was clear the pastors put a lot of thought and work into crafting messages which were Biblically sound and included clear applications for the listeners.
Travel was another significant part of my time abroad. Over the academic year, I visited 12 countries and 25 cities.
On a superficial level, traveling was fun because of the novelty and sense of adventure. I loved all the great food I had, ranging from the unique (like whale meat) to different versions of food I already enjoyed (like the steak I had in Florence), as well as the initial thrill of seeing iconic sites like the Parthenon, Coliseum, and Great Pyramid of Giza. Scrolling through pictures online is one thing but you can only experience the sense of wonder by being physically there. No person or form of media can completely describe to you the entire experience. The smell of the air, the feeling of the sun on your skin, and the energy of each city is distinct and ineffable. It must be experienced first-hand.
But on a deeper level, I would say I gained three major things from my travels: a higher level of confidence in my ability to navigate the world, a much greater appreciation for history and culture, and memories I will treasure for the rest of my life of all the things I’ve seen and adventures I had with my close friends. I’ll expand more on each below.
More confidence: Traveling to a foreign city is a stressful experience. You don’t know the language, you aren’t familiar with your surroundings, and you have to be on guard for people looking to take advantage of tourists. Admittedly, knowing English and having Google Maps can get you pretty far nowadays, but it’s empowering knowing I can go back to any of the countries I visited in the future (or venture to new ones) and find accommodation, explore the sights, and locate great food without too much trouble. I’m super grateful to my friends who I traveled with for teaching me so much about how to be an expert world traveler. They’re a big reason why I had so much fun traveling and why everything went so smoothly.
After going to so many places, traveling anywhere else in the world feels so much more doable. This is a major mindset shift for me. Whereas traveling felt super intimidating in the past, now it feels like there’s a much lower barrier to going somewhere new. I now have a much stronger desire to see different parts of the world and hope I’ll have many more adventures to come!
Appreciation for history and culture: Before traveling I did not have much exposure to European/Middle Eastern history or art, and had always treated these general subjects as things I was forced to learn about in high school. But after seeing masterpieces like Michelangelo’s David and walking through world-class museums like the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, it sparked my desire to want to learn more.
Being in the cities where famous artists like Michelangelo and Picasso worked and where world-changing historical events occurred inspired me to dive into the culture and periods that influenced these artists and led to wars, revolutionary innovations, and social change.
Beyond mere intellectual curiosity, when I spoke to people and discovered (and internalized) that thousands of years of history still affected people’s lives today (most saliently in Israel and Egypt where it continues to contribute to violence and conflict), learning about history and culture took on a much more immediate importance than it had before in my high school history class.
Getting exposed to so much history, art, and culture helped me gain an appreciation for how the modern Western world came to be (the immense impact of Christianity and the cultural legacy of the Greeks and Romans being a few of the contributing factors), and has set me on a path of lifelong learning about all of these topics.
Memories to last a lifetime: In the end, what is most memorable are the unique experiences and relationships you form during your travels. They have a lasting impression on you. The competitive games of Contact on the road, dog treat challenges, and intentional “bonding” questions with my friends are just a few of the things I treasure and will miss. I will never forget the breathtaking views from the mountain peak we skied down in the French Alps or the pure joy of racing our electric scooters on the Malaga boardwalk. These are a small sample of the countless memories we got to share together at a special time in our lives when we were at the cusp of adulthood, but still able to enjoy all the freedoms that come from having fewer responsibilities. Our adventures are the stories we will be telling our friends and family for years to come. It’s a wonderful privilege to have had this opportunity and one I’m immensely grateful for.
My year at Oxford has overwhelmingly been positive but it was not without its challenges.
Because Oxford was such an amazing opportunity, I put a lot of pressure on myself to have the “perfect” study abroad experience when I first got to campus. I had heard about all the great times previous visiting students had and looked forward to living up to those expectations. I wanted to meet people, not miss out on any activities, and crush my academics.
In a nutshell, I wanted to do it all.
This caused me a lot of anxiety because I was so worried about trying to optimize my time at Oxford that I wasn’t able to slow down and enjoy the experiences themselves. It also didn’t help that I got extremely sick my first four weeks of Michaelmas term which made it difficult to socialize and participate in the extracurriculars I wanted. I remember one night being so dizzy and nauseous that when I got up to go to the bathroom I felt as if the walls were closing in on me. I couldn’t stand straight and had to lean on the wall to get out.
Those first few weeks were pretty dark as I felt both isolated and frustrated I wasn’t “doing Oxford right,” while everyone around me was making friends and having fun. Luckily, my good friend from back home who was also studying abroad at Oxford took care of me and I slowly got healthy which I am eternally grateful for.
In the end, I learned to let go of my idea of the perfect study abroad experience. I reflected on my past, from recruiting for college baseball to taking a gap year, and realized the way I grew from all these opportunities was all unexpected. I knew regardless of what happened I would learn and grow at Oxford, and most likely in ways I never would’ve foresaw before coming. All I had to do was trust in the process and enjoy the day-to-day.
Oxford has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s a bittersweet feeling that my time there has come to a close.
But I am ready to return to the US.
I come back with more confidence, a better sense of where I still have room to improve, and countless new friends and memories.
I know what I learned in my year abroad will help me take on the challenges I will face in my upcoming internship this summer, acclimating back to Swarthmore in my senior year, and navigating all the big decisions that come with graduating from college.
Goodbye for now Oxford— thank you for everything.
Special thank you to Daniela Padron-Castillo and Henry Lei for their valuable feedback and input on this piece.
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