Thoughts on Oxford

One year later. . .

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There are possibly three Oxfords. A tourist’s Oxford includes the Radcliffe Camera, the New College Chapel, the “must-see” Harry Potter scenes at Christ Church, and finally Cornmarket Street before boarding a train back to London. The second Oxford is for learned senior scholars and staff with a lifetime commitment, and for privileged students with a three-year incarceration before knocking on doors of the real world for a 9-5. Thirdly, there is the Oxford for a very few fortunate young persons from all over the world in quest for inspiration. It is this third and greatest Oxford that I will always reflect on as a former visiting student at Catz.

My home institution, Columbia University, is situated in the sleepless valley of a skyscraper canyon of New York City – the geographical opposite of Oxford in almost all ways. Columbia values its Core Curriculum, a suite of required interdisciplinary classes, stretching from seminars on the classics to large lectures on science. Naturally, I did not need to declare my program of study at Columbia until almost halfway through my four-year degree. Therefore, when Oxford asked me to select tutorials on my desired subject, which I had yet to be adequately exposed to at Columbia, I felt intimidated by the thought of sitting face to face with a leading scholar once a week.

As I soon discovered, Catz was a perfect place to launch my academic journey of study abroad. Approaching Arne Jacobsen’s gem (a Category I national landmark) for the first time on foot, I was immediately captured by Catz’s open aura with clear glass and lush landscaping, no walls, weaving into an enchanting community for students, fellows, and staff. Catz accepts more visiting students (50 from all over the world) than any other Oxford college. To ease the academic transition from abroad to Oxford, Catz’s welcome included many thoughtful details, such as matching a roommate to share joys and stress with, or help navigating the paperwork maze of visa applications. For academic introduction and advice, expert help was only an email or a staircase away at Naomi and Helen’s office.

As Columbia University writes, “Study abroad should not be a parenthesis in your life, but rather an experience that shapes and influences your future.” My future has been shaped by the Oxford experience, which often included twelve 2000-word essays and thousands of pages reading per term. The year-long rigorous academic program endows me with an “Oxford state of mind,” defined by the tutorial process – asking questions, seeking answers through reading and self-reflection, and contemplating conclusions with the tutor. My demanding professors always pushed me beyond Oxford’s medieval castles into the real world, in the present and past. In two terms, including the in-between five-week breaks, Professor Cathy Oakes assigned me cathedral visits in London, Canterbury, Northern England, and even Continental Europe. Professor Amanda Power encouraged me to brave an academic trajectory beyond her medieval studies. Professor Paul Barnwell shared with me his experience on “the long and at time hard and solitary road” and his profession “in which one continues to grow and develop like no other.”

With Oxford’s tutorial system, I enjoyed freedom unavailable in any “traditional” universities and marveled at the Bodleian and over 100 libraries, as well as dozens of college chapels. My little red bicycle took me to surrounding canals, meadows, and even cemeteries, where J.R.R. Tolkien, Isaiah Berlin, and James Legge rest. Wheels hitting cobblestones during my nightly ride left a comforting sound in my memories. My new friends accommodated me in their homes in Bournemouth and Southern Bavaria. Most of all, I even had the great fortune to find someone to share my life with.

Without a doubt, I will treasure this gift through my academic and life journey.

Best wishes, Myles Zhang