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Life After Oxford

Time August 2nd, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

Well, it’s been about a month since I left Oxford and the United Kingdom for the States. Between Brexit and the national conventions in the US, there has been no shortage of news-making activity in either my new home or my old one in those few weeks. And while it’s certainly not news-making, there’s been plenty of activity going on my own life as well!

I came home to the customary heat of California (which has always been overwhelming to me, but was even more so after six months in such a cold, rainy climate). Catching up with friends and family was both familiar and new–when I saw my mom and the close friends I hadn’t seen for so long, it really did feel like no time had passed, though there was so much to talk about (I know, I know…it sounds cheesy, but it’s true). Plenty of time was devoted to hanging out with my pets and with the lovely animals that I grew up with at the vet hospital where my mom works. And, of course, I indulged in some delicious Mexican food. There is so much tasty food in California (well, much less now, since I ate quite a bit of it), but I had especially been craving good Mexican food ever since our dining hall in Oxford served “burritos” made with wild rice pilaf and stewed kidney beans (it’s just not right!!!).

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A Few Bits of Advice

Time June 20th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

For those planning on or thinking about studying abroad, I’ve come up with a few bits of advice based on my own experience. Some will be of particular interest to certain groups (other first generation students, students planning on travelling with IFSA-Butler, students interested in Oxford, etc) but others will be more general. Here goes!

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Heading home

Time June 20th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

Wow. As I type, I am on a bus to the airport, passing the grandiose buildings and beautiful stretches of river and field of Oxford for the last time (at least for now!). I’m listening to the same playlist that I listened to on my way here in January, with the same precariously overstuffed backpack at my feet. But I could not feel any more different from then than I do now.

When I first arrived in Oxford, I was not in a very good place; in addition to the usual anxiety of starting a new life in a new country, I was feeling emotionally unprepared for such an ambitious journey, as I was dealing with some difficulties personally and at home. The excitement of orientation put some of my worries at rest, but they returned as I started my studies. Though I know I’ve touched on it previously, I don’t think I’ve fully described the extent to which I struggled those first few months. I felt completely overwhelmed by anxiety, worry, and insecurity much more often than not. Read More »

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What’s the Takeaway?

Time May 23rd, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

Last semester, back in the States, I had a professor who mentioned to our class her distaste for the word ‘takeaway.’ I hadn’t quite considered it before, but I quickly realized I’m not a fan of the word either. When I think of the phrase “So what’s the takeaway?” my mind conjures up a very bureaucratic scene of men in suits and ties, PowerPoint presentations, and coffee mugs–sending a shudder through me. The worst part of the word ‘takeaway’ is not its business-meeting-jargon-ness, but that it implies that we can ‘boil it down’–“it” being the content of a presentation, a book, an experience, etc–to a quick, quippy message that we can tuck in the back of our minds.

I know that when I consider how my time at Oxford has affected me, I will need to figure out what the takeaway is. For my resume, CV, grad school applications, and for every step in my future career-planning, my time at Oxford will need to be boiled down to the useful skills and tools I have extracted that have better prepared me for my life.

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Sickness and Home Sickness

Time May 10th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

With six weeks left before I leave Oxford, I have recently been torn (more than usual) between counting down the days before I can return home and wishing I had more time to explore this beautiful city. This past weekend I was stuck in bed due to a nasty cold, making both desires even more extreme.

There’s nothing like being sick to make you wish you’re at home with your family, or even just in a cozy place with the support of friends. My memories of being sick, fortunately, are accompanied by strong feelings of comfort. I am a worrier by nature, and my usual attitude towards any sickness is panic for my life (drastic, I know). My mom has always been a master at quelling those unreasonable worries. At school, I’ve always been lucky enough to have had compassionate friends who are quick to check in on me if I get sick, bringing plenty of vitamins/baked goods/warm, fuzzy feelings in tow. Read More »

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What Am I Doing Here?! (and other travel concerns)

Time April 25th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | 1 Comment by

As much of a cliche as it is to say, now that I’m settling back in at Oxford for a new term, I am realizing what a life-changing month I’ve just had. It was beautiful, rewarding, exhausting, terrifying, incredible, and eye-opening. Let me explain.

I was traveling with a confused identity. No, I don’t mean just this: “Where am I coming from? Um…well, I’m from California, but I study in Washington, in the States…but right now, I’m studying in the UK, I mean obviously not right now…but I just came here from Athens. The last country I was in? Oh, Spain! Yes, Barcelona. Yes.” (Met with a sigh and a wave to pass me through passport control). Besides that. I mean that I kept asking myself, “What am doing here?”–what intentions do I have as a visitor to this place, and what does that mean for who I am and what I will gain from this experience? Shockingly, more often than not, I didn’t have an answer.

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Getting Lost: the Good and the Bad

Time April 4th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

Today, in a state of extreme anxiety, I found myself hopelessly lost in an airport of a country whose language I barely understand. The day was supposed to go so smoothly–I had arranged to meet a friend at the Barcelona airport, and we would then head of to the place we’d be staying at. Simple enough. But it’s funny how so many little things can add up to one very big mix-up.

I had relied on a deceptively simple terminal map of the airport, agreeing to meet my friend at the main information desk. After my flight landed (half an hour late–the first layer of stress, as I was going to be the second to arrive and had made clear to my friend when to expect me), I rushed off to find the info desk, only to discover that there were many info desks. And my friend was not at any of them. I worried that he had gone to look for me when my arrival time had come and gone, which would make it even harder for us to find each other. Trying–unsuccessfully–to connect to the spotty airport wifi with my outdated iPod touch (I don’t own a smart phone, which was no problem until I learned that I am an easily stressed and directionally-challenged traveler!), I realized how unprepared I was. I didn’t know my friend’s flight number, or even the origin of his flight–he’s studying in Paris, but I didn’t know if he would have flown from there, or if he had traveled somewhere else just before meeting up with me–so I couldn’t get help from the info desk. I couldn’t call him, because my cheap UK phone doesn’t work outside of the country. And I couldn’t even figure out where I was in the airport, let alone where he was! Further still, because I didn’t have wifi and had relied on the fact that my friend would know the address of the place we are staying at in Barcelona and how to get there, I felt entirely stranded and alone.

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Oreos, the travel comfort food!

Time April 4th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

When I last posted, I was about to start my spring break. Now, having been traveling for a few weeks, I am in a unique position. I had only spent eight weeks in England–hardly enough time to make a home for myself. But still, as I have been going around seeing all new places, I find that in addition to missing California, I often think about my room in Oxford, the new friends I had made, and all the small habits I had gotten used to there.

After visiting a friend from college in Prague, where she is studying at the film school, I realized how convenient it has been to study in a place where I speak the country’s language. In my first few posts, I remember talking about what a vast change England was from the US. Now, after visiting the Czech Republic, I feel I was coddled! For example, I was overwhelmed at first going into the supermarkets in Oxford and not recognizing any of the brands or many of the product names. Wow, well it’s a lot harder when all of those unfamiliar brands and foods are in Czech! I have so much respect for my friend Hannah, who is currently learning the Czech language as she studies film. I will say one thing–in Prague, it is at least comforting that the cars drive on the same side of the road as in the US (not the case in the UK!).

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‘Being’ and ‘Doing’

Time March 1st, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

So a few days ago I tackled a little bit of what it’s like at Oxford academically. Now I’d like to talk a about what it is like being here in general and what I’ve been doing besides academics.

Let me just start out by saying that as a first gen college student, this place is intimidating.

I keep thinking back to what it was like in my first few months at Whitman,when I was trying to learn what was normal and expected on a college campus. Whitman is sort of a ‘legacy’ type of school. Many of my fellow students’ parents went to Whitman when they were younger, and it isn’t uncommon for students to have siblings that are currently attending or have recently graduated. When I got to campus, it seemed like everyone else already had friends from high school at Whitman to show them around or at least had parents who were professors at other schools who could give general college advice. I felt like I had shown up from another planet: I was not just a lost freshman, but a lost freshman who knew no one, had no idea how college worked, and certainly didn’t have the courage to ask anyone for help. Luckily, I started to meet other first gen students with similar experiences, and I realized that it wasn’t abnormal to feel alienated. Last fall, I got to help out with first year orientation, and I saw how many new students were in the same situation I had been in–and how consistently first gen students tend to feel marginalized in a new college atmosphere. I realized that my being confused and overwhelmed and out of my element and completely terrified (about nearly every aspect of college, from academics to social life) was 100% normal. This realization is huge in learning to cope and to feel comfortable asking for help.

Now that I’m at Oxford, I have many of the same feelings, but magnified. I’ve changed in that I’ve already had nearly three years’ experience in college: I’m no longer a total newbie. But learning the lingo here (both British terms and Oxford-specific terms), trying to find my way around formidable academic buildings, and adjusting to a very unique social scene (I think much socializing happens at ‘bops,’ which are dances/parties usually at clubs, but as a non-drinker I haven’t gotten the courage to go to one yet) have all made me feel completely overwhelmed again. The funny thing is, rather than feeling alienated by the other visiting students around me, I feel so much more comfortable opening up to them. Yes, they are very similar to the usual student at Whitman–upper middle class, often with professors as parents. But it feels like no one has an advantage here, because we are all equally lost. The environment here is so different that regardless of background, we are all pretty clueless and in need of help. I have made several close friends already by admitting to them that I am very nervous and confused here, and by hearing similar sentiments from them in return. Just like at Whitman, I’ve learned that it is perfectly normal and acceptable to feel these things and accept them for what they are.

Oxford does feel like a place for the ‘higher-ups’ of society sometimes. A friend and I were talking a few days ago about all the towers and spires of the old buildings here, and how they make us feel like we need to live up to some magnificent standard of excellence to be worthy in the presence of such grandiose architecture. It sounds silly, but that really is the vibe that I’ve gotten here. Confusion and nervousness don’t help in making me feel worthy of those spires. But I think that beneath the magnificence of this place, every student is just a scared teen or twenty-something, even the most brilliant minds here. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself!

Anyway, as for doing: it is incredible to be living in a city with so many opportunities for exploration. I’m from a pretty rural area, and I normally go to school in a similarly rural area. I’m not used to being able to walk down the street and find world-renowned museums to wander through, or constantly have the opportunity to attend talks by famous people who come to visit (I just saw Jill Stein speak last week, and friends of mine saw Gloria Steinem and Shia Labeouf as well!). Plus there are beautiful churches everywhere–I walked into the University Church (gorgeous, I’ll attach a photo I took the other evening, it is the large building with blossomed trees in front) one Saturday and there was a wind ensemble practicing right in the center, filling the whole place with music. What an experience! The University is made up of many smaller colleges (I go to Hertford), so another fun activity is visiting other colleges for events. Two nights ago I saw a play adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray at St. Hilda’s College, and I often see a friend of mine perform in the choral evensong at St. John’s.

There’s also the fact that Oxford is so close to many other great locations. A few weeks ago I took a lovely trip with IFSA-Butler to Bath, once home to Jane Austen and also the location of the ancient Roman baths! It was terribly cold and rainy, but I’ll attach some photos to show just how wonderful the trip was. In general, I’m open to pretty much any and every travel opportunity. It is thrilling to come to a place where there is so much to do and see. As spring break approaches, I am getting fidgety just thinking of all the plans that I’ve made…but more on that soon! :)

 

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Out of the Tunnel: Serious Academic Adjustments!

Time February 26th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

It’s been awhile since my last post, but for good reason. Navigating the academic system here at Oxford has been much more challenging than even expected, and after nearly a whole term (yes, I can hardly believe it, but my first of two terms ends in just two weeks!) I think I am finally figuring out just what in the world I am doing here. But it hasn’t been easy. In a few days I plan to follow-up with another post detailing the other, non-academic aspects of life here in order to counter-balance this overload of academic experience. But given the fact that my studies and relevant concerns have consumed most of my time during my first month at Oxford, I think it is only fitting to devote a blog post to my struggles with the educational system here.

To start…I have mentioned this before, but it is crucial to understanding just how different my experience here has been: the University of Oxford operates on a tutorial system. Each week, rather than attending the usual 4-5 classes I would at Whitman (totaling approximately 12 or more hours of class time) , I attend 1 or 2 hour-long tutorials per week. And unlike at Whitman, my work never deviates from a standard schedule of one essay (1500-2000 words) per tutorial. In preparation for my essays, I spend vast amounts of time reading, either alone in my room or in one of the many (many, many, many–like seriously, check this out) libraries of the University. After weeks of solitary reading and writing, I can see why this is one of the most challenging universities in the world. The system is very personally engaging, but also extraordinarily isolating. I’ve never been a fan of group projects, but I could definitely go for one right now! There are lectures, too–generally giant rooms filled with students who need to get a broad understanding of a subject to prepare for exams–but these are not exactly social environments either. People rush in as the lecture begins and rush out of just as it ends, and tend to drop in and out from week to week because attendance is neither mandatory nor enforced.

It is hard not to get personally attached to your work here when you are expected to be so independent. My general attitude towards the week is often largely influenced by the one tangible thing I produce: my essay. A good essay means a good week, because I have made myself and my tutor proud! A bad essay means a bad week, and tends to make me wonder what could have gone wrong (after all, the essay is the culmination of a week’s reading, thinking, and writing). As you may imagine, my first few weeks were not good ones. I had no idea really what my tutor expected, and my anxiety at producing something worthwhile ironically made most of my writing much worse. Even little things got in my way (it took me at least three weeks to fully understand that my tutor did not want an original title, as US professors expect, but was extremely agitated when I did not use her essay question as the title).

The term is remarkably short (8 weeks!) but luckily, I have had time to get my bearings. And it has made my recent successes so much more fulfilling. Over the last few weeks I have become increasingly adept at taking apart vague essay questions and figuring out each aspect that needs to be addressed. I have learned to incorporate my readings into solid arguments, both showing that I have read and understood the author’s ideas and proving that I can utilize the most relevant parts of those ideas to make my own strong point. Clearly I’ve written many essays in my lifetime, but there is something about the ones I am tackling here that make them trickier. It could be the phrasing of the questions, or more likely the approximately two-day time frame during which I have to write them. All I can say is that when I received my comments on my last paper, which were consistently positive and were accompanied by a congratulations from my tutor, I could not have been happier.

As I mentioned, I have two more weeks until break. While I hope to continue improving academically until then, I also hope to take advantage of my new skills to worry less about homework and focus more on the experience of being here. In my last post, I mentioned all of the unstructured time that I have here. Honestly, most of it (until this week) has been spent either 1) reading and writing or 2) worrying about not reading and writing or not doing it well enough. Having had a similar experience when I first got to Whitman, I know that I have a tendency to value myself based on my academic success, and panic if I’m not meeting my own standards. But I found a balance there and I can do so here as well! There is plenty to learn outside of the library. I have been on a few adventures, which I am excited to write about in a few days. Hopefully by then I will have gone on a few more as well. :)

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Meetings, or “Consistency in a Time of Change”

Time January 18th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England | No Comments by

As the title suggests, my life during the past week has been over-run with tight schedules, informational meetings,  and mandatory sight-seeing (no complaints there). Those who know me already understand that I thrive on this type of busy-ness. At Whitman, my days were filled to the brim with obligations. So having places to be has been comforting in these first few days.

And comfort has been greatly appreciated. Remember in my last post when I said that my transition to living in the UK would be challenging? Well, not to brag, but I’ve already been proven correct! My main three difficulties:

  1. FOOD. I knew this would be a slight problem when moving to a new country, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t having a hard time eating here. For over two years, I have followed a vegan diet (for ethical reasons). It has become a huge part of my life, and a non-negotiable one. I mean, I’m at Oxford to study ethics, so I’m not going to compromise my moral beliefs to do so. Eating as a vegan is not difficult in England in general (the term ‘vegan’ was coined here, after all). But eating with others is a challenge, because many restaurants have very few options for me, and I don’t want to be the one forcing my own restaurant choices on people I’ve just met. The college dining hall has been a mixed bag. I can always cook, but I am realizing that small things get in the way. Different units of measure, for example (Celsius?! Gah!). Unfamiliar grocery stores (Sainsbury’s, Tesco) and brand names (Walker’s crisps instead of Lay’s chips, etc). Plus there’s the fact that I do want to eat with others, because food always helps in making friends. Which brings me to my next point…
  2. FRIENDS. Making friends is not quite my strong suit. I am extremely introverted, so long periods of social interaction wear me out. Honestly, the past week has been exhausting for me, because so many of our activities have been geared towards bonding between visiting students. I appreciate this, particularly because my biggest fear is that when these activities end I will hole myself up in my room and never again see the light of day (until my one hour of scheduled class, of course). But at the same time, between jet lag, sleep deprivation, less food than I’m used to, and much, much more walking than I’m used to, meeting people has been even more taxing than it normally is for me. Luckily, the people around me are wonderful, and I am excited to spend more time getting to know them. I have already had some awesome conversations with people from all over the US, and soon I hope to meet some great people from England as well. Just maybe after some alone time to rest.
  3. FREE TIME. Now this is a big one. At Oxford, the educational system is highly independent. Starting next week, I will have my first tutorial — a weekly one hour meeting with a professor. In preparation, I have plenty of reading and an essay to turn in. But without my usual list of extracurricular commitments and the many hours spent in class that I’m used to, I will have some serious free time on my hands. As I mentioned earlier, packed schedules, while hectic, are comforting to me. As my orientation schedule thins, however, I will need to cope with filling this time meaningfully. Okay, so this isn’t a huge problem necessarily, but it will take getting used to. One thing I can say is that the more free time I have, the easier it is to miss my mom, my home university, my friends in both California and in Washington, and (not to be dramatic or anything) everything I know and love. So filling up free time? Yeah, I need to figure that out soon, or this is going to get depressing.

But enough about the challenges. As I mentioned before leaving, I have experience adjusting to new places, and I’m going to use what I’ve learned to my advantage. Once I’ve really gotten settled, once the serious studying has begun and I have rested up enough to do some more exploring in Oxford, I know things will go smoothly.

Before finishing up this post, here are a few highlights and photos* from the trip so far. I want to stress how incredibly wonderful the adventure has already been — all this talk of challenges may give off the impression that I am not enjoying myself, but that’s not the case at all. I am so lucky to have had several beautiful days in London with IFSA-Butler before coming to Oxford, where I walked along the Thames, toured the British Museum and the Tate Modern, and viewed all the landmark sights of the city. I heard some pretty great stories about my mother’s teen years from a high school friend of hers who lives in London. I made friends with a vegan professor, who I was able to grab dinner and chat with. And I was even stopped by a BBC reporter for a video interview (which I unfortunately turned down, as I simply do not have the political expertise to comment on British goings-on).

*the pigeon is just one example of many chunky city pigeons — seriously, they must eat so many scraps.

I’m sure I will have even more to say after classes start (oh, and photos of my breath-taking college!). Speaking of which…I should probably get back to studying.

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Raincoats and Rain (in California?!)

Time January 5th, 2016 in 2016 Spring, College Study Abroad, England, First Generation Scholars | No Comments by

It’s been difficult to figure out what to say about my upcoming departure (in just two days…!). So to start, I’ll begin with a classic topic: the weather! In preparation for my trip to England, I recently purchased my very first raincoat! I know it sounds strange, but as someone raised in the dry Central Valley of California, I haven’t seen much rain in my lifetime. Even in Washington, where I go to school, I live on the drier Eastern side of the state. But as if life is preparing me for what’s to come, my hometown has become one giant puddle the past few weeks, and my new raincoat has been put to good use!

Now to the real stuff: in this first post, I was tempted to include great sweeping claims about the excitement of international travel, the prestige of attending a world-renowned university, etc. etc. But to be honest, I’ve been terrified for the past few weeks. At school, I am constantly busy, with hardly a moment to think about anything besides assignments, meetings, and various obligations. But since I’ve been at home on break, I’ve had endless time to fret about leaving. I’m worried about getting lost when I get to London (the last time I was in a big city, I boarded the wrong bus and ended up in a different city altogether before I realized something was wrong!). I’m afraid I won’t be intellectually prepared for the rigorous academic standards of Oxford. And most of all, I’m scared that I won’t have the amazingly-incredible-once-in-a-lifetime-experience that I’ve imagined in my head for the past year.

The truth is, though, I know I’m prepared. For all of it. That isn’t to say it won’t be challenging. I can guarantee that I will get very, very lost at some point (more likely at several points — I’ll share the stories). Getting used to the tutorial system will be a strange adjustment from my usual classes. And my time in the UK will certainly not always be a beautiful fantasy. But these are all things that I can and already have managed. When I left for college, I felt all of the same anxieties. I was headed for a state I had never visited, to live in a place where I knew absolutely no one, and my family was not able to be at my side to help me through it. So far, studying at Whitman has been well worth the initial challenges, and I know that studying abroad at Oxford will be just as rewarding and memorable. Like my last few rainy days in California, my life has already prepared me for what’s to come. It’ll be a great time — I just need to not let anxieties get in the way! Oh, and I also need to finish packing…which may prove to be even more difficult.

 

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