Don't Burn Library Books (and other things to know before going to Oxford)
By Adele Johnsen '02
It was our first formal hall dinner in Oxford, and we were late. My two American friends and I had donned the black undergraduate gowns required for attendance at the Sunday evening event. We'd dressed nicely. But we hadn't known that we were to arrive and be seated before the college principal, his fellow academics, and the choir paraded to the head table. "Hurry! Hurry!" urged the woman taking tickets at the door, and we rushed in, seating ourselves at the first table with three available chairs. As the principal and his procession entered, we glanced nervously around the imposing, dimly lit dining room, feeling foolish for having made such a fuss. And then we realized our next mistake. The students surrounding us were dressed in the distinguished short-sleeved robes that designate graduate status; seating ourselves at their table (in our sleeveless undergraduate gowns, no less), we had cluelessly invaded the territory of our academic superiors, and we were conspicuously out of place.
I've long wanted to study at Oxford. Famous in literature since Chaucer's sallow "clerk of Oxenford," renowned for its great range of writerly alumni, Oxford is a paradise of poetry and prose, perfect for a lover of literature, an English major like me. A year here would be a good academic and personal challenge, I thought, and a comfortable cultural experience: though England is another country, it shares a language, a similar culture, and many basic values with the States. I didn't anticipate feeling like a foreigner. In fact, when a group of Smith seniors back from their years in the United Kingdom held a question-and-answer session for interested sophomores in my house last year, our questions related largely to European chic; most of us were more concerned with looking like misfits than with feeling out of place.
But the challenges of studying abroad run deeper than wardrobe adjustment, even in England, and more than a few times I've felt as though I don't belong. Steeped in centuries of prestige and tradition, Oxford adds to the difficulties of cultural adaptation with lingo and laws all of its own. Some of the rules seem silly. For instance, it's a violation of academic order to sit at a dinner table filled with full-gowned students (as my American friends and I quickly learned), and one cannot, under any circumstances, walk on the grass-at least not before attaining the academic rank of a fellow. Traditions can be stranger still: before a student is allowed to use the Bodleian Library system, she must publicly swear an oath, promising, among other things, never to remove a book from the library and never to set a book afire within the library's walls. I now realize that, even if I'd asked the Cushing House seniors all the right questions, I couldn't possibly have come here prepared for the differences I'd encounter, for the ways in which they would influence my experience. It was easy to talk about looking like a foreigner among packs of fashionable black-clad Brits; the smaller ways in which I would feel like an outsider would have been more difficult for the returning Americans to express, and much harder for me to understand.
Though feeling like I don't fit into this new social and cultural order can be frustrating, the process of finding my way and making myself familiar here has been an invaluable aspect of my junior year abroad. I've grown and been challenged in ways I wouldn't have if I'd spent the year at Smith-not only in terms of cultural understanding, but in terms of academic and personal experience as well. The breadth of my "books read" list has expanded exponentially since I arrived at Oxford, where, in two eight-week tutorials, I've covered everything from works of Homer, Virgil, and Plato to James Joyce's Ulysses, Virginia Woolf's The Waves and the writings of Jeanette Winterson. And, thanks to the fast pace and more solitary nature of the tutorial system, I've been pushed to work and think more independently -- and finally overcome my shyness in speaking in class (which I'm sure my Smith professors will be happy to hear). I've seen much more of the world and made many special and unique memories in the process: this year, I celebrated Christmas with my family at a Carols Round the Crib service in London's St. Paul's Cathedral, learned of Bush's final election victory at an Athens newsstand during a trip to Greece with my boyfriend, soaked off stress in a Turkish bath in a weekend trip to Budapest, and made visits to Smith friends studying and working in York and Geneva, London and Rome. Both personally and intellectually speaking, my world has never been so broad.
And perhaps that's the beauty of a study abroad experience-mine or any other. Upon my arrival and throughout my adjustment here, I have been surprised at how foreign and out of place I've felt. Now I'm amazed at how comfortable Oxford and England have become. In challenging myself to face something so unfamiliar, I've found another home.
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