The Radcliffe Camera on a rare sunny day. Credit: Tallulah Hawley
The Radcliffe Camera on a rare sunny day. Credit: Tallulah Hawley

All abroad! In conversation with Oxford’s visiting students

Tallulah Hawley: “What college are you studying at this year?”

Emily L.: “I’m at Wadham College, and have been for all three terms this year. My home university is Sarah Lawrence College, in New York.”

TH: “What are you reading?”

EL: “I’m a third year, and I study mainly history—though I’ve taken Economics and Development classes here, as well. I appreciate the fact that we have a little more flexibility than the typical Oxford undergraduate, in this regard, especially to take advantage of classes here that Sarah Lawrence, for example, doesn’t really offer, or offers very few listings for.”

TH: “How is Oxford different from SLC?”

EL: “The biggest difference I think is the liberal arts curriculum at home. Everything here is so focused, which is great for academic rigor, but I did like being able to take a silly one-off class to break up the workload. It’s nice to be able to dabble in a subject for a semester and learn some stuff that you’ll never, ever use. And I do think in some sense it can help you become a better student—-if you’re drawing connections between subjects, that is. Like yeah I’m never going to use any knowledge of working women in 20th century cinema in a career as a film critic, but you can still engage with the feminist history of women in film in a really fun way.

In general, though, I think I was lucky to have had experiences at Sarah Lawrence that, in many ways, mirror the Oxford tutorial. Though the majority of classes and learning is done in seminars and lectures, in a more traditional American college environment, when you’re writing your end-of-semester research paper, you do have those one-on-one meetings with professors to discuss your work. It is definitely more laid back than an Oxford tutorial, but the core concept remains the same, I think—you’re bringing in something that you worked on and the professor picks it apart, gives you direction for future work, and gives you feedback to help you learn more effectively. Not a universal Sarah Lawrence thing, maybe, but that’s certainly been my experience, and I think it made tutorials feel much less stressful initially.”

TH: “So far, what’s your favourite Oxford custom?”

EL: “May Day was super cool! What’s better than waking up at 5am and then having a pint by 7am?”

It’s nice to be able to dabble in a subject for a semester and learn some stuff that you’ll never, ever use.

Emily L.

TH: “And your least favorite?”

EL: “The winters with the early sunsets were tough. I didn’t know how good we had it until I was in the thick of it.

Definitely the craziest thing was a guy on the phone to his mother demanding to know if he was a ‘mutt’ which, like, I can only guess the context of. But I really don’t think that’s something unique to the university. I just kind of have bad luck with the people I run into on the street, I think.

The sub fusc was crazy initially, I’ve gotta say. Like the summer before I got here I couldn’t believe that people actually wore it for exams. It just seems like something from a different era. But I guess a lot of things in Oxford are rooted in that kind of tradition, which is cool. But the outfits do look stupid.”

TH: “How do you think the study abroad experience differs from the matriculated student experience?”

EL: “I think to some extent, the pressure is off. When I attend lectures, it’s for my own benefit, or for success in tutorials, rather than for a future examination. I thank God every day that the material I’m learning they’re not going to test me on. I genuinely cannot imagine taking a course and then being tested on it the following year.”

TH: “Do you have any advice for students studying abroad here?”

EL: “Get really, really good at self-imposed deadlines, really quickly. You will be so much happier and less stressed if you’re good at sticking to those. And this is basic, maybe, but try and enjoy the time you have here. It really does go by so quickly; with eight weeks a term, you feel like you’ve barely started and then all of a sudden, it’s over. It’s so easy to get caught up in the schoolwork that you forget to take your time and do other stuff. Or at least that’s been my experience!”

River Thames near the Folly Bridge. Credit: Aine R.

Tallulah Hawley: “Where are you studying this term, and what is your major?”

Aine R.: “⁠I’ve been studying at St. Catherine’s College for two terms (Hilary and Trinity 2024), and my home institution  is Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. ⁠I’m a third-year Psychology and Religious Studies double major.”

TH: “How have you found your terms at Oxford different from your experience at Macalester?”
AR: “⁠From setting to academics to general culture, I find Oxford to be almost opposite of my home college. Oxford is a large university with a high level of postgraduate enrollment located in a small city, while Macalester is a tiny, undergraduate-only college nestled inside of a major metropolitan area. At Oxford, my courses have been set up to provide a deep look into very specific areas of interest, while at Macalester, even courses within my major areas of study are generally set up to provide a broader overview of the material, whether that’s temporally, thematically, or geographically. In terms of general feel, I find that Oxford is unsurprisingly a bit more formal and buttoned-down, whereas I’m accustomed to the casual, dynamic vibe of my home institution.  I think that Macalester’s small class sizes, as well as the opportunities I’ve had to partake in independent study coursework, prepared me well for the tutorial system. 

TH: “Do you have a favourite occurrence so far?”

AR: “⁠Easily May Morning! Such a joyful, colorful experience.”

TH: “What has stood out to you negatively about your experience here?”
AR: “⁠My least favorite thing about Oxford is certainly the University’s gutless repression of student pro-Palestine demonstrations, but, barring that, it’s the relative difficulty I’ve experienced in cultivating community. I suspect that this is possibly college-specific and exacerbated by being a visiting student, but the way my terms have been structured—with almost exclusively one-on-one tutorials and no lectures—haven’t provided me with many opportunities to meet other students organically, especially matriculated students. I’ve had to be more intentional about reaching out, attending events, and joining societies, which isn’t a bad thing, I just wish that the academic side of things lent itself a bit more to collaboration and socialization.”

TH: “Is there anything weird or shocking about Oxford?”

I find Oxford to be almost opposite of my home college.

Aine R.

AR: ⁠The strangest part of my experience has been St. Catherine’s handling of the College’s RAAC situation! Our dining hall is presently a tent that I find reminiscent of an outdoor wedding, and our JCR has moved locations since the start of term. Neither of these things are unpleasant, just strange and at odds with the expectations I had coming into this experience. Unfortunately, several facilities, including the library, remain closed. 

Wadham College’s front lawn. Credit: Tallulah Hawley

TH: “In comparison to matriculated students, how do you find that your experience has differed?”

⁠AR: “⁠I think that, in general, the visiting student experience involves less academic pressure than the matriculated student experience, given that visiting students are not required to sit for exams. My time as a visiting student has not required intensive examination cramming, and tutorials feel more relaxed, an opportunity to discuss, reflect, and explore themes of the greatest interest to me, rather than worrying about what I need to know for a high-stakes assessment. Although this likely isn’t true for visiting students who are accepted as part of subject-specific agreements, I also think that visiting students tend to have more curricular freedom than matriculated students. There are obvious social and relational differences as well, but I don’t feel that I’ve been here long enough to comment on those nuances!”

I also think that visiting students tend to have more curricular freedom than matriculated students.

Aine R.

TH: For upcoming students studying abroad, either at Oxford or anywhere else, what could make their experience better?” 

AR: “⁠My advice to incoming study away students is to be proactive from the outset about meeting new people and forming relationships, both with your fellow visiting students and with matriculated students. It makes the entire experience much richer, and, especially in those first few weeks, far easier. At the same time, embrace the less-structured schedule and don’t be afraid to explore the city and nearby areas on your own! Some of my favorite memories involve boarding the train on a weekday whim, with only vague ideas about my destination.”