Saturday, April 9, 2011

Some Thoughts on Hilary Term

So I guess the big question that I have to ask myself when considering my first quarter abroad is: Did Oxford live up to my expectations? The second question would of course be: Did I have a good time? The answers to both of these are interrelated, certainly, but do not necessarily overlap. Let's take a look at them one by one.

So what exactly were my expectations coming into Oxford? I'm realizing now that I never really spelled them out formally, but I do know that I certainly had some preconceived notion of what I would find easy and difficult, and what I would and would not get an opportunity to do. I think my expectations would fall roughly into the following categories:

1. Academics
I knew that the Oxford course load was going to be rigorous. My friend, who is an absolute genius and probably one of the most brilliant people I've ever met, was at Stanford in the fall and said that the workload was quite intense. So I knew that a mere mortal like myself was going to find it even more so. In that sense, Oxford did completely live up to my expectations. The workload was enormous, and I can honestly say that I don't think I've ever worked harder from a pure academic standpoint in my college career.

On the other hand, I can honestly say that I did expect the writing part of the Oxford experience to be, while not easy per se in the sense of volume, something that was within my comfort zone. I'm pretty self-confident in my writing abilities, and my time at Stanford so far has tended to support those feelings. I've been a finalist for some of the biggest writing prizes at the school and have, in general, not had to worry about getting good grades on papers regardless of what I was writing about.

So in this sense, Oxford was a big shock. The Oxford tutors did NOT think much of my writing style, and I had to struggle very hard to feel like I was even keeping up. It was a very disconcerting feeling, especially since none of my housemates seemed to be struggling in the same way. I felt like I'd suddenly gone from being one of the better writers to the one of the worst. As my writing is one of the only academic things that I think I'm good at (I can't count, don't do science, am a pitifully slow reader, and haven't studied a foreign language for four years now), it was a definite crisis of confidence moment to realize that my best (and I really did think that some of the papers I submitted were among the best I'd ever produced) wasn't good enough.

But, the upshot of this was that, by the end of term, I had figured out the style that my tutor wanted and was able to execute it with regularity. I really don't believe that the writing style he so strongly preferred was, in truth, necessarily better than my own (and I read a good deal more articles that were structured my way rather than his), but I was proud of myself for being able to be flexible and adapt in tough circumstances. I definitely came out of the term feeling like a stronger and more seasoned writer, and now feel more confident that I'll be able to adapt to a wider range of stylistic preferences. As one of my big goals was to improve as a writer, the tutorial process certainly did do that, even if in a much more painful fashion than I was expecting.

2. Friends and Social Life
I'm a pretty shy and introverted person naturally, and so definitely coming to an all-new academic environment with a group of 45 Stanford students whom I'm never met before (seriously, I had never met a single one of them - how is that even possible after two and a half years at this place??) was something that I was seriously fearful about. I had had a pretty good fall, though, from a social standpoint, and so I was cautiously optimistic that I would be able to come out of my shell a little bit more even here. I really wanted, especially, to get to know and befriend some of the Oxford students.

Well, I would say that for the most part this part of the Oxford experience lived up to my worst expectations, and not to my loftier goals. I had a really hard time making friends, and especially friends from Oxford. I also discovered a classicism and a snobbish social atmosphere at Oxford of the sort that I only could have dreamed of before. Part of me realized that I didn't really want to be a part of that society, and for a while it was very hard for me to reconcile being at Oxford with being a part of such a culture. In the end, however, I did meet many people who defied those stereotypes and who made me re-realize what a special and wonderful place Oxford is, though in a more complicated way than I'd first imagined. I also did get pretty close to a few people in the Stanford house (and was very, very glad that I did because I got to meet some really incredible people!) but I definitely was on my B game socially. I don't really know why, but I seemed to get off on the wrong foot and stay there for most of the quarter. So that was definitely a bit of a disappointment. Oh well. Perhaps next term!

3. Horses
One of the biggest reasons that I was feeling so OK with going abroad was the quiet expectation that I would get to be around horses a fair deal while I was there. I was also feeling quietly confident that my own two horses would be in the best possible hands, and could even believe, without it being too much of a stretch, that they would be in better shape when I came back than when I left them. Since I'd basically had to table all my competitive goals last year between one injury or another, I was banking hard on having my horses going well so that, despite my 6 month absence, perhaps this year wouldn't have to be a total wash as well.

I would say that in all this was one of the bigger letdowns of the trip. I did get to see horses almost certainly much more often than I would have in any other program, and even got to ride four times, but it just wasn't the same. I had a totally traumatic experience watching a horse die right in front of me at the racetrack, and felt rusty and rustier every time I went out to play polo. I hated the polo girls, was depressed by the incredible cost, and generally came away from most of my horse experiences feeling bittersweet at best. In the end, I found it best to stay clear of horses altogether rather than constantly remind myself how very far I was from my own riding life.

The upside of this was that I rediscovered my love of running, which I'm incredibly, incredibly thankful for. I'm now hoping to run a marathon at the end of next term, which is something that I would simply not believed had you told me last September. I still missed riding desperately, but it was great to find another way to use my body and be active outside. Definitely an unexpected good twist to a bad situation!

4. Health/Personal Fitness
I'm generally a pretty fit person, and I try to eat well. I avoided the "Freshman 15" when I first came to Stanford and have generally kept the same weight through most of my college career (I've even been ale to still fit into a lot of clothes from high school right up until last fall). I've also travelled pretty extensively for longer periods of time, and have never had serious issue with getting out of shape or flabby. So, I was pretty confident that I would be able to go abroad and not have any sort of body meltdown.

Well. How wrong I was! The combination of not riding two or more horses and doing a few hours of low-level cardio work in the barn every day, and not having generally healthy Stanford food to eat made for some shocking changes to my physique that I was quite unhappy with. Since I struggled with eating issues in high school I've always made a pact to try to be happy with what I look like, as long as I can still keep doing the activities and living the lifestyle that I want to, but this was a stretch. Not feeling like I could even get into, let alone look good in, any of my clothes was depressing to say the least. While I didn't feel super out of shape (I had started running, after all, and it was going pretty well), I also certainly didn't feel as fit or fresh as I have in the past. Besides riding, the almost sole focus of my spring break has been trying to get back on track physically, and coming up with a better strategy for next term.


So did Oxford live up to my expectations? In many ways, no! There was hardly a single thing that I came to England believing I understood that didn't actually turn out radically different. I must say that I'm proud of myself, however, because, with the exception of the health/fitness which was still sorrowfully lacking when I finished term, I found a way to turn almost all of these unmet expectations into unforeseen positives.

The thing is, too, that my response to the second major question - did I have a good time? - is almost unquestionably yes. Yes, I had many homesick days and there were a few tears shed from time to time, and almost nothing turned out the way I'd thought it would, but I still finished the quarter glowing with respect for the academic experience I'd been so lucky to partake in and an ever-growing love for Oxford as a place. Indeed, I think I felt even more warmly towards Oxford at the end of the term than I could have imagined, because I knew that all the good feelings I had about it had been earned through struggles and real decisions on my part to make things better. Unlike Stanford, which for the most part I have loved pretty much unconditionally since arriving (with some obvious exceptions, of course, but on the whole I could describe Stanny in no other way), my love for Oxford was slow and the result of many setbacks and hardships, which makes it almost all the more special. I certainly won't be jumping to transfer to Oxford full-time any time soon, and simply cannot WAIT to get back to Stanford in the fall, but I also know that Oxford will always hold a very special place in my heart.

Now that I know a bit more of what Oxford is all about (and also have learned enough to understand how foolish it would be to claim that I know all of what Oxford is about!!), I'm even more excited to jump into Trinity term. Hopefully I can set some more realistic expectations and spend more time enjoying them (and hopefully, no more tears!). As to what those expectations are, that will have to wait until next time =)

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