When Stan Rosenberg, director of the Scholars’ Semester in Oxford, refers to the program as an “academic boot camp,” he’s not waxing dramatic. I discovered just how apt his metaphor was during my first term at the University of Oxford, in which I underwent a grueling session of intensive study, research, and writing that, while exhausting, whipped me into shape academically like nothing else that I had previously experienced.
The basic training in this “boot camp” consisted primarily of challenging one-on-one tutorials unique to the Oxbridge system, in which Scholars receive individual attention from renowned thinkers by meeting with a member of Oxford’s faculty to defend a paper that the student has researched and written. In addition to tutorials, Scholars also take rigorous courses taught by the program’s faculty, and attend numerous University lectures. During this time, students have full access to Oxford’s renowned libraries: buildings that become almost like second homes for some Scholars, who average sixty hours per week or more preparing for their tutorials. At first glance, then, the Oxford student’s day would seem like nothing but long, grinding hours of study. But it is, and should be, so much more than that.
The Oxford style of learning is based upon independent study, a method which translates into some very appealing prospects for a college student: attendance at all University lectures is entirely voluntary (meaning that you can sleep in) and tutorials only meet weekly or bi-weekly (meaning that you have relative freedom in planning your days). Studying takes up much of one’s time, of course, but such a flexible schedule allows for many opportunities to engage in other activities. I volunteered at a homeless drop-in center called The Gatehouse by serving tea and sandwiches to the city’s homeless, while many of my classmates acted in plays, joined University sports teams, worked, or traveled. I was able to visit Paris, Rome, Barcelona, and Cologne during my time abroad, in addition to touring England and Scotland.
Despite all of these exciting activities, some of the aspects of Oxford life that I appreciated most were unexpectedly some of the most mundane. Because walking is a major form of transportation in Europe, I ended up strolling the streets of Oxford for an hour or more each day. While tiring at first, I came to love being able to walk to wherever I wanted to go, and gained a new appreciation for the beauty of nature simply because I was out amongst it more often. On foot, I came to know the city in an intimate way, feeling as if pedestrianism forged a link to Oxford’s historic past for me. Sometimes it seemed as if I were literally following in the footsteps of the intellectual and spiritual giants who had once stridden the same paths.
St. Mary’s, the University church where figures such as John Wesley preached, became a frequent destination for me when I rambled. Despite the dire warnings that I had received in America about Europe’s postfaith culture, I found that St. Mary’s housed a vibrant Christian community, as did in many of the Anglican, Catholic, and Baptist churches that I visited. In these centers of worship—some which were hundreds of years old—I gained a sense of reverence for tradition and an appreciation for ecclesiastical history that often seems lacking in States-side churches.
Even more alarming than the rumors I had heard about the churches in the U.K. were the American predictions about the unappetizing foods I would encounter there, but I fortunately found my concerns about both entirely unfounded. I can’t think of any classmates who didn’t enjoy eating at the local pubs (including The Eagle and Child, where C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien used to meet), getting ice cream at George and Danver’s (G&D’s), or patronizing the nearest kabob van.
Tea also became a major staple of life for me, although it wasn’t the only British idiosyncrasy I came to love. As a result of note-taking from Powerpoint presentations with British spellings, even as I type now I’m having to delete, for example, the tyrannous extra u’s from which our forefathers liberated Americans back in the Revolutionary War. I, for one, reveled in the “oppression” despite my spellchecker’s disapproval, and likewise enjoyed the small but manifold cultural and linguistic differences I discovered in my interactions with Oxonians. Encountering, and sometimes clashing, with another nation’s worldview has both provoked me and humbled me into reconsidering and accepting, for better or for worse, my American-ness.
It was lessons and experiences like these, despite their apparent insignificance, that truly made my time at Oxford valuable. I had journeyed to Oxford expecting an intense intellectual experience, but I often foundmyself surprised and overwhelmed by how much I was learning, not only academically, but also personally, spiritually, and socially. It was this sort of holistic growth that allowed me and so many of my peers not only survive at Oxford, but to thrive there.
Messiah students can apply for the Scholar’s Semester in Oxford—which is offered through the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU)—for both the fall and spring semesters by submitting an application, letters of recommendation, and a short essay.
— Hannah Meyer '06 worked for the Office of Publications before studying in Oxford.