Walk a mile in Oxfords

If you’re a sophomore, you’ve more likely than not been presented with the possibility of breaking free from the Purple Bubble and vanishing into that nebulous ether known as “abroad.” To go or to stay are your options, where, when and why your questions. What’s an Eph to do?

Everyone’s “abroad” experience is different. We swam across the Atlantic to Oxford as a part of the Williams-Exeter Programme at Oxford with dreams of idyllic life amongst the gothic spires, bespectacled dons and toothless chavs, but reality and expectations diverged upon arrival. Certain things, the depression-era exchange rate, for example, were better than they looked in the view book, while others, such as flipping through our friends’ Mountain Day pictures 3,000 miles away on Facebook, were a bit harder to deal with. Still, one thing’s for sure: this ain’t Williamstown.

What being abroad is all about depends on who you are, where you go and what you do. A unique aspect of life here at Oxford is the fact that a week’s only scheduled obligations are oftentimes just two hour-long tutorials. With no structure imposed upon us, it’s our job to create it for ourselves. Some do so through sports, finding themselves biking down empty Oxford thoroughfares at 6 a.m. each morning on their way to a picturesque section of the Thames, where they gallivant about in oversized rowboats.

For others, structure comes in the form of a drinking society fraudulently posing as a darts team. With so much freedom, however, it is easy to forget that those two tutorials each have an entrance fee of 2,500 words, preferably single-spaced.

Oxford, like most cities abroad, is filled with enough distractions to make sitting down to read and write a task requiring some serious self-discipline – not that it’s necessarily a bad thing. Oxford has some of the best pubs Britain has to offer, and the drinking age, 18, means that they’re perfectly accessible to students. The Exeter College Bar will serve more drinks on Wednesday night than the ’82 Grill served last year, and it’s a great place to go for meeting friends over a cheap beverage. If someone plays for a varsity sports team, they may suddenly realize that they are training at odd hours at night and stopping by a pub afterwards for a “dodgy pint.” The English tolerance, oftentimes under development since age 14, is not something to be taken lightly.

Oxford social life extends beyond the pub, involving an unique array of diversions. While there are of course clubs, there is also formal hall, not to mention balls. Wednesday nights frequently involve sitting suit and gown-clad at long oak tables in the College’s 17th-century gothic dining hall – or, rather, standing until the Rector, a Morty-Dumbledore melange, bellows “Benedictus benedictat,” bangs her staff and allows us to sit and eat.

But sometimes it’s the little things that stand out, such as how, while we write this, the Bosnian man sitting next to us in Blackwell’s coffee shop is telling an interviewer all about his experience with religious tensions in the Balkans. Last week Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke at the theater across the street, which also happens to be next door to the Bodleian Library, Britain’s medieval version of the Library of Congress. When it comes to location, Tunnel City can’t measure up, but I expect that when I walk back to Exeter College, the homeless man hawking magazines on the corner will make me slightly nostalgic for a Spring Street-style utopia. Such, however, is reality, and one great part about being abroad is that you have to learn to deal with it.

Speaking of reality, those two essays are often the toughest part of it to face. But once we force ourselves to tackle them, we remember what exactly our abroad experience is meant to be all about: intellectual and personal growth. It might sound corny, but writing two 10-page papers each week on material that you’ve mostly taught to yourself can be an incredibly rewarding experience. Reading in the Bodleian under the critical gazes of old portraits and gargoyles is an experience approaching the spiritual, something distinctly at odds with late-night cramming in Sawyer or Schow.

We all take our hiatuses from Williamstown life for different reasons, but each of us ultimately ends up appreciating the chance to explore the wider world. Breaking free from the Berkshires and travelling to Oxford was one of the best decisions we ever made, and we advise you to do the same. If too much reality seems rather overwhelming, however, you’ll have an entire year back at Williams to put it all into perspective.

Jonathan Galinsky ’10 is a history major from Johnstown, N.Y. Emily Rockett ’10 is an English major from Worcester, Pa.