This post is actually an article I wrote for the English Department newsletter about my experience in the Oxford Summer Seminar last summer. It was an amazing experience, and in case my feelings are not clear, I strongly encourage everyone to apply. More logistical information is available on the seminar website, and information about the scholarship offered by Commonwealth Honors College can be found here.
I could pretend that when I got off the bus at Gloucester Green in Oxford that I was full of the open-minded, articulate insights of an eloquent world traveler, but that would be a lie. When I got off the bus, I was sweaty, tired, and overwhelmed. I had hoped before the trip that I could be the kind of person that set her feet on new soil and immediately began making astute observations about culture.
I was not that person. I was a first time international traveler, and I was bewildered beyond belief. This is a direct quote from my travel blog, almost immediately after I arrived at Trinity College: “Is it bad that even though I know that England is a place where real people live, I feel like I’m in Disney World? Probably.” That was it, all I could muster as far as eloquent insight.
Oxford was both everything and nothing like I expected. On the one hand, everything is so old and stately and beautiful. The architecture is medieval, gothic, neo-classical – the city is the mismatched record of all of its history. The lawns are masterpieces of landscaping, perfectly manicured, upon which lesser mortals like students are not allowed to walk. There are museums and gardens and bookshops; there are pubs on every corner. Pubs and colleges alike boast the attendance of big names in literature and history. Everything is steeped in ceremony; all the walls are carved with symbolism; all the colleges are walled. On the other hand, there was so much that I did not expect. We found one of the only surviving three story wooden frame buildings from the fourteenth century, and it housed a pizza place; we stumbled upon a plaque marking the location of one of the original thirteenth century gates to the city on the wall of an L.A. Fitness. There was a food truck immediately outside of Trinity College that sold the best lamb kebabs and fries (or chips, if we’re being authentic) with anything you could want on them for cheap. We stumbled onto the set of a television show set in Oxford not once but three different times all over the city. Magdalen College houses a herd of deer in the middle of their college.
Out on the streets of Oxford was not the only place I was delighted and surprised. That wonderful melding of feelings happened perhaps nowhere more often than inside the gates of our own Trinity College. The painted blue iron gates of Trinity are unique in Oxford; where the other colleges have wooden doors to keep out wondering eyes, Trinity’s gates invite the world to gaze on the splendor of its grounds. I had the unique pleasure of brushing by curious tourists to unlock the small side door and hear, as it closed behind me, “oh, she has a key-!” We lived in rooms off the landings of staircases instead of on hallways; we studied in the cozy corners of a quintessential Oxford college library; we dressed up once a week for a three course formal dinner and had drinks on the lawn with our tutors. In our tiny classes we were encouraged to share our ideas by our tutors, unbelievably knowledgeable academics who treated us like intellectual equals and delighted in our triumphs. We befriended the college cat and discovered there were tortoises living in one of the gardens.
I returned home at the end of the summer with an invaluable bank of memories. Perusing them now, I find that the moments that I valued the most in my experience were the little things – afternoon tea in the dining hall, brief words of affirmation from my tutors, spontaneous walks with new friends through the covered market. For me, Oxford was a city that could never be boring. It offered endless opportunities to learn and explore and laugh. I was wrong when I arrived – Oxford is not Disney World. Yes, around every corner there is a new opportunity to be surprised and delighted, but it is not a place of empty joviality. Instead, it is somewhere to learn about history, about literature, about architecture, and – for me – a place to learn about myself. I would choose Oxford over Florida any day.