to a journal about my year at Oxford. . .


I am an undergraduate at Columbia University studying art and architectural history. My interests cover medieval cathedrals, medieval art, map making, and urban studies.

During the 2017-18 full academic year, I was fortunate to study History of Art as a visiting student at Saint Catherine’s College, Oxford.

This blog documents my experience abroad – my tutorials, my work, and my experience at Saint Catherine’s. I posted to this website every other week; posts are ordered chronologically. Scroll down for more or browse by month.

I hope this website will be both encouragement for others looking to study at Oxbridge and a personal memento of this personally transformative experience.


Myles Zhang Cursive Signature

New York, September 2018



Thoughts on Oxford

One year later. . .

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

Virtual Tour of Oxford by Bike

Above is a 19 minute long virtual tour of Oxford by bike along the green route traced on the image below. The film footage is overlaid with an interactive GPS tracker to show where I am on the bike route and audio narration of all the sites we are passing. I recorded this tour on my very last day at Oxford, just as students were about to take their final exams and graduate. So as you watch, you might just see a few students wearing their formal academic gowns.

Graphic Map of Oxford with Green Line

Every week, I enjoy taking my little, red bike around Oxford, between its various medieval streets and back alleys. I cycle round each bend and curve on the rutted, medieval road. There’s a sense of spontaneity and unpredictability to Oxford’s ancient plan. I’d like to think the experience could be analogous to the academic experience of a student – of desiring to graduate yet not quite knowing what surprises the future has planned. A year ago, I could not have seen around the next bend of the academic road and to have anticipated I would be studying here.

More about this bike path and biking in Oxford can be found on my interactive map.


Pictured above: My red Apollo brand bike. The bike is a few years old and rusty on the wheels, but works perfectly fine otherwise. A few weeks ago, almost at the end of Trinity Term, my rear wheel was severely punctured and I had to fork over £28.00 to fix my flat.

Pictured Below: The Thames Bike Path is a beautiful and scenic little path that leads up the Thames to Stratford-upon-Avon and down the Thames as far away as London. I like to bike every week – sometimes twice or three times a week – on the section between Oxford city centre and three miles north to Port Meadow.

Thames Bike Path near the Oxford Train Station

The Food at Saint Catherine’s College

Meals are served here three times a day at scheduled hours. I enjoy having common meals with all members of the college; it’s a good opportunity to meet new faces. The dining hall, probably more than any other place in Oxford, is where I’ve met and cultivated most of my friendships – over food.

Click here for past menus from Catz, or visit my interactive map for more about life at Oxford. A schedule of the meal times is displayed below.

Saint Catherine's College Meal Times


Profile Picture in the Dining Hall of Merton College
With a friend at formal hall in Merton College, Oxford


A Brief Reflection on the Crusades

During my second term at Oxford (Hilary), I had an immensely enjoyable class on the Medieval Crusades 1099-1291. I had signed up for this further subject as an optional extracurricular, knowing that my performance in the course (positive or negative) would in no way count toward my Columbia degree or my focus of study at Columbia: Architectural Theory and History.
In reflection, the most important insight I gained from this course (and Oxford more generally) is not knowledge of specific facts, events, or dates. Frankly, I will probably forget these specifics and details twenty years from now – the timeline of the Fourth Crusade or the fate of the Fifth, the phases and patrons of English architecture, the causes of the Black Death, etc. etc. But, the aspect of this course that will remain with me is an appreciation for primary source historical documents and the nuance these documents can shed on our understanding of history. And the aspect of Oxford that will remain with me is a deeper respect for scholarship, and the work required to produce scholarship.
I entered this course with the maybe naive hope that didactic and exact parallels could be drawn between past and present. Now, after the course (and the final essay I submitted), I’m not so certain that such parallels exist; I’ve begun to doubt myself more and to question the degree to which my interpretation of the Crusades and of history is somehow coloured by contemporary events, the modern understanding of Christianity, and the contemporary reinterpretation of the idea of a Crusade for political rhetoric or propaganda – both among members of the Muslim State or in American culture. In short, I think my dedicated and passionate Oxford professors have helped me earn a deeper appreciation for nuance and uncertainty.
Not knowing isn’t exactly a comfortable place to be in. But, maybe, it is also a sign of intellectual maturity and intellectual growth… for which I have my Oxford experience to thank.

In Retrospect…

Emotional growth is something realised only in retrospect. Spending my junior year studying abroad at Oxford and travelling across Eastern Europe with funding from Columbia, I had time to reflect on the differences between my host culture and the familiar urban world of NYC, where I had spent much of my life. These travels leave me with an aching, yearning sense of homesickness for my Columbia family, teachers, and mentors. And yet, although I am now far from home, I can carry forward the lessons learned at Columbia and the Core Curriculum, applying old ideas and texts from Lit Hum and CC to fresh contexts. It’s a process of synthesis, of walking down the street, seeing something familiar, and then realising: “Wow, I learned about that painting in Art Hum my freshman year.” Or maybe, it’s the moment I realise some text I read years ago in French language class is relevant to a research paper I am now writing in English architecture. Study abroad is a sum of these magic ah-ha moments, after which I can accept that Columbia might be only four years, but the lessons learned there can last and enrich a lifetime.