Oxford as a Visiting Student By Nanette O’Brien, January 2009 I am writing this piece at the start of my second term as a full-time Oxford undergraduate at St. Anne’s College. At the moment, there is a feeling of intense communal energy in college. It is Thursday of 0th week (the week before classes officially start) and collections (exams that test material learned in the previous term) begin on Friday. Everyone is preparing, staying late in the library while exchanging greetings with friends they haven’t seen since the end of last term. Though none of us particularly looks forwards to collections, the energy around us is inspiring, and we grit down and get the studying done. Two years ago, I was a visiting student at this same college in English Literature (coming from Northwestern University where I studied music and creative writing), and fell in love with it so that I knew I had to complete an English degree here. The life of a typical visiting student is similar to that of any other student at Oxford. Americans abound all over this city, in many shapes and forms, but they are predominately visiting and graduate students. Usually they are happy to be your friend if you’d like a whiff of the old home scent, but otherwise I’d recommend, for obvious reasons, mixing with your British counterparts as much as possible. As a visiting student, I was so thrilled to be in a new country and academic situation that I was almost never homesick and certainly not in the beginning. However, morale can get low when work feels overwhelming. For instance, as I explained, I have just come out of winter break—the first two weeks I spent as an interview helper at St. Anne’s, meeting and greeting and guiding prospective students, while also getting to know my fellow helpers better, and getting vacation work done in the afternoons and evenings. And here we come to the source of stress: vacation work. Normally in England the break at the end of term would be called a ‘holiday’, but it’s called a ‘vacation’ at Oxford because you’re not supposed to stop working. This means there are one or two vacation essays and the entire reading list for the coming term, as well as studying, or ‘revision,’ for collections. Still, when I went home, I managed to take Christmas week completely off, and finished my work in the last two weeks of break. For a visiting student, the vacation is also an excellent time to get some travelling in, for this is not possible during term time because of the work load. Some industrious and efficient people manage to get away for a weekend during term, but as a visiting student, your room at Oxford is available the whole school year and you have the opportunity to travel more extensively around Britain and Europe. Flights from London to Europe are cheap and you can bring a backpack for two to three weeks, and come back to Oxford to finish your vacation work. During term time, you might like to vary your studying style and location. The St. Anne’s library is one of the biggest and best-stocked college libraries, it is my personal favourite. STACS, the college coffee shop is just a minute away if you need a break. But for those who like to venture out a bit further, the Bodleian library and the Radcliffe Camera are probably two of the most beautiful sights in Oxford as well as good study sites. It’s also worth checking out the faculty libraries, the centralized department libraries that are also well-stocked, and some are beautiful places to work. If you like a little chatter in the background, the city also boasts several charming independent coffee shops as well as the big chains. One of the most challenging aspects of Oxford, besides the work, is finding a balance between work and social life and extra-curricular activities. There are hundreds of clubs to join, newspapers to write for and music groups to perform in, but most people have to choose just a couple activities, or one activity they are majorly committed to in a leadership position in order to maintain their work standard. I play violin in the Oxford University Orchestra and am a member of the poetry society and that’s enough for me, but there is plenty more out there. My social life is pretty low key on week nights, with the occasional pub trip, and on the weekends I will go out to a movie, or bar or dancing at a club with friends. Some people go out clubbing more often, and it’s possible, but I suspect they are getting less sleep. There are many benefits from studying abroad at Oxford: in the humanities you may find the intensity and focus on your weekly essays vastly improves your writing and critical thinking skills as it did mine. I was thrilled with the progress I made so quickly. This time around, I think I made smaller strides because many of the technical problems with my writing had sorted themselves out. But critical thinking is something I always need to push myself in, and it is a challenge that is at once daunting and thrilling. Oxford is a fantastic and beautiful city, full of passionate, serious, whimsical, funny, brilliant students and teachers. It is truly a community of learners and thinkers.