Being a Visiting Student at the University of Oxford
Being an international student feels very different, and I believe that my United States identity shapes much of my existence in the United Kingdom. Many Oxford students have travelled to the United States and are familiar with at least one North American city. British students typically inquire about United States politics and the country’s university system. Occasionally, I find it difficult to adjust to British culture, where people often speak more directly than in North America. From my experience, visiting students also sometimes face prejudice from Oxford’s administration and matriculating students, as they are not considered to be true “Oxford students” and are prohibited from many aspects of student life, such as holding student government positions (such as president or secretary). On its website, the University of Oxford writes, “Visiting students are members of an Oxford college but are not awarded a degree or any other qualification from Oxford, although colleges can provide a record of achievement, for example for credit purposes at the home institution.” However, certain colleges within Oxford make significant efforts to welcome visiting students to Oxford. St Catherine’s College (my college at Oxford), which has the highest number of visiting students (41) of any Oxford college, hosted a complimentary Thanksgiving dinner for North American students, which graciously featured turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. This event caused me to miss the United States less during Thanksgiving and served as one of my favorite days at Oxford.
I have loved serving on the Oxford University Student Union International Students Campaign, which organizes events for both matriculating (full-time) international and visiting students and attempts to integrate these students into campus life. At Oxford, colleges can decide whether or not to accept visiting students, and in 2014, 15 out of the 44 colleges lacked any visiting students. Because Oxford’s visiting students are largely juniors from the United States, it is sometimes difficult to find common ground with matriculating “freshers” (first years) who are mostly two years younger, as well as with second and third year students (undergrad is three years in Britain), who already have a close-knit group of friends and are not always searching to meet new people.
The matriculating undergraduate students of Oxford undergo exams at the end of each term, and the exam scores invariably account for one hundred per cent of the students’ grades, although exams for freshers do not appear on their transcripts. The fact that students must wear gowns (an old-fashioned cape-like garment) and complete the exams inside the dreaded examination schools often makes the experience a daunting one. However, because the academic year is divided into three terms (trimesters), there is slightly less pressure to achieve optimal marks in each class throughout the year. Visiting students, who study for one term or one year during undergrad at Oxford, are fortunately exempt from exams.
I spend each day at Oxford studying in various libraries and coffee shops, where coffee sells for between £1.50 and £2 ($2.25-$3) and many pastries and cakes are also available. Many cafes offer “afternoon tea,” which is usually English breakfast tea served with sugar, milk, with a side of sandwiches, scones, jam, and cream. Afternoon tea is a popular social activity throughout the United Kingdom and costs between £15 and £20 pounds ($20-$30) per person in Oxford.
I work in the dining hall at St Catherine’s College for five hours per week, where I serve formal dinners to students and lunches to business conference (where the food is of a superior quality and the business people are consistently less polite). This work pays £6.70 ($10) per hour and exposes me to British and continental European culture, as my manager is Greek and the majority of the full-time staff is Polish. While some University of Oxford students work part-time in the dining hall, most of the part-time staff are students from nearby Oxford Brooks University and “secondary schools” (high schools). This demographic is likely the result of the largely wealthy student body at the University of Oxford who might prefer to pursue extracurriculars instead of working in their free time. The workers are entitled to a free meal after each shift, where there is ample time to socialize and learn more about the structure of British universities and secondary schools. While working in the dining hall, I enjoy speaking in Spanish with several part-time workers from Spain, which is especially exciting because there are remarkably few native Spanish speakers within the Oxford student community. In 2014, there were only 97 graduate students from Spain and 42 from Mexico out of 10,173 Oxford graduate students, while 62% of its graduate students were international.
At the University of Oxford, the subjects offered are usually more Eurocentric than at many United States universities. Oxford contains no “Black Studies” department (or the like), although there is a small African Studies department for graduate students, of which all of the “tutors” (professors) are white. Of the British students (who comprise 83% of the undergraduate student body) at Oxford, the vast majority are from middle-class and wealthy areas that have historically sent students to Oxford, as less than 9% of the university’s undergraduate British students were from socioeconomically disadvantaged “postcodes” (zip codes) in 2014.
The United Kingdom’s universities still maintain numerous visible remnants of the nation’s imperial past, continuing a “proud” tradition of once ruling as the world’s largest empire. One of Britain’s prestigious universities is offensively named Imperial College London. At Oxford’s Oriel College, despite months of heavily media-covered student protesting to demolish an enormous sculpture of the notorious colonialist Cecil Rhodes (after whom the Rhodes Scholarship is named), the college has not removed this statue that bears extremely racist ideals.
Although universities in the United States are often far from being post-racial, the great ethnic and socioeconomic diversity at many North American colleges prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce after graduation. Attending Oxford provides students with the opportunity to see how a thoroughly homogenous student body can deprive its members from which they could hugely benefit. While it has been rewarding to study abroad in the United Kingdom, I would hope for the University of Oxford to promote more diversity in its student body and faculty in the future.