Oxford in the eyes of a visiting student

Image description: someone sitting alone in an airport

Two weeks away from the end of my studies at Oxford, I am burdened with the notion of how best to repackage my experience for my loved ones to process. If I can just encapsulate the breadth of my time here, my reality will become theirs, allowing them to form a shared understanding of what it means to study and to live abroad.

As a visiting student, I have always found the term to be derivative, at least on some unconscious level. This sentiment becomes pronounced as soon as other students ask the question, “How long are you staying for?”. The question is well-intentioned, of course, but the answer, “just one term”, tends to elicit grief while failing to capture the fortuitous nature of it all. 

I come from a background with little to no experience of international travel, as it’s simply something my family doesn’t do or can even really afford.  The idea of taking an eleven-hour flight to Europe is utterly foreign and perplexing. 

Unfortunately, this perception is not unique among African-American households, and I would argue,  endemic to the community due to a history of socioeconomic exclusion that continues to make travel inaccessible owing to psychological and financial barriers. These all too pertinent trends rear their ugly heads in data, with only 5.6% of American students who study abroad identifying as Black.

One term represents not just eight weeks of study, but the breaching of unprecedented territory and the crossing of a generational barrier.

And so the question brazenly brushes aside the context of the circumstances which bring me here. Left unspoken are the months spent planning, saving, and explaining to my loved ones what the journey I am choosing to embark on really means. One term represents not just eight weeks of study, but the breaching of unprecedented territory and the crossing of a generational barrier.

And now, three months later, all I have left to do is translate my newfound knowledge into their language. I’m uncertain how to express the abundance of travel from one place to another, or how I’ve turned strangers into close friends, or the sensation of simultaneous isolation and connection.

Initially, Oxford can be disorienting as a Black American girl tasked with capitalising on all the opportunities presented by a relic of Empire. Just as in America, I’m in constant conjecture as regards the intersectionality of my identities and the axis others choose to approach me from. Which comes first: Black, American, or girl? They all interrelate. I am not one without the other. 

Studying abroad, however, has led me to confide in my American identity in ways I had never done so before. Unexpectedly, it turned into a source of comfort when bonding among friends and America is a place that is now distinguishably home.

Each day brings the opportunity to be whoever I want to be: a chronic café-goer; an indie-night club raver; a Rad Cam enthusiast.

Oxford, I’ll tell them, is its people as much as its buildings – perpetually subject to reinterpretation. Each day brings the opportunity to be whoever I want to be: a chronic café-goer; an indie-night club raver; a Rad Cam enthusiast.

I’ve reinvented myself through mustering the courage to endure both intense academic stress and to exist just as I am, shifting from space to space as a mouthpiece for those less privileged to be able to make the transatlantic journey.

I wish I could transplant the fifteen minute walk to Broad Street or the courtyard of the Bodleian Library to my suburban Southern California hometown, or open up dozens of duplicate High Street cafés and cluster them together in protest against the Inland Empire-sprawl. 

Maybe I’ll wrap the serenity of University Parks in a box and deliver it to my mother as a Christmas gift. I’ll make certain to imitate the snugness of Blackwell’s and the spectacle of hall dinner too. I must take it all home with me if I’m to demystify and humanise the unknown.

And, yes, there are photos and videos to share, yet possibly the best way I can transmit my time at Oxford for my loved ones to digest is through preserving both the confidence and courage it took me to travel the world, to come home and say, ”yes, it’s beautiful and I’ve grown from it too.”

Image description: Suganth via Unsplash