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  • Sofía Aguilar

Study Abroad Diaries - My Life in Oxford

After growing up in Los Angeles, California for all my life, the last place I expected to find myself in my junior year of undergrad was at the University of Oxford. Certainly, the journey to get there wasn’t easy. In collaboration with Wadham College and my home school Sarah Lawrence, the program viewed applications from all across the country, accepting only thirty students to participate in one of the most academically rigorous but rewarding experiences for nine months. And in April 2019, somehow, miraculously, I received word that I would be one of them. There, over the school year, I’d study creative writing, female Victorian writers of the 18th century, British film history, and early modern European witchcraft.

Up until that point, I’d never traveled to the UK before. Sure, I’d traveled through a couple of countries on the European mainland but nothing could’ve prepared for me for the intimate pubs on every street corner, the seemingly endless sets of stairs in Blackwell’s bookshop with the café at the top where it filled up before lunchtime, and, overwhelmingly beautiful in numbers, sizes, and styles, the libraries.

The University of Oxford boasts more than 100 libraries on campus and 12 million books, which provided a safe refuge for me and other students to conduct research, study, and write our weekly papers for our tutorials during our time there, and it became a common belief that whichever library was your favorite spoke volumes of your character.

If I wanted to study in silence, I had the Bodleian Library, affectionately known as “The Bod” where scenes of the Harry Potter franchise had been filmed, though the lower level did resemble a suffocatingly sterile garage in some respects.

Most of my books for my creative writing and literature tutorials could be found in The Radcliffe Camera, a rotunda-shaped building in the very heart of the city that was almost too beautiful to work in (which of course, I couldn’t prove to my family back home because of the strict no-photos policy).

But I spent most of my time with my fellow program classmates in the MCR, an otherwise graduate students-only facility at Wadham with a full kitchen, bar, pool tables, and study area in the middle of two floor-to-wall bookcases. Like the story of Goldilocks, I found it to be the perfect middle-ground for me because it was quiet and perfect for a two, three-hour study session when I needed it to be, while also offering opportunities for a laid back game of pool or a late-night dinner of stir-fry and rice that my friends and I would cook and eat together—blissfully both economical and communal.

Still, the “academically rigorous” label on the program’s website was no joke. Though we only spent two hours a week in tutorials—one-on-one sessions with tutors to discuss that week’s homework and plan for the next—we were required to read, take notes, outline, draft, write, revise, and submit two 2000-word essays a week, one to each tutor, often two or three days before the tutorial took place.

If that sounds overwhelming, it was at first. In the first quarter of October 2019, I couldn’t live without my daily planner and spent more hours in libraries than I’d previously thought possible. But I still struggled to adjust to Oxford’s way of reading (always skim), writing (spend no more than three days on a single paper), and discussing (treat your tutor as an equal, despite the fact that they’re years ahead of you in age, education, and intellectualism). At the time, producing quality essays so I didn’t walk out of tutorials half-wanting to cry, half-wanting to give up and go home seemed like a far-off miracle.

It didn’t help that I was more homesick than I’d ever been before, even though I’d been 3,000 miles away from home for the first two years of college. But while there’s only a three-hour time difference between New York from California, eight hours separate Oxford from Los Angeles, so my mom was waking up as I was eating lunch. When I went to bed, it was the middle of the day and my mom was working at a client’s. Everything had turned upside down and for a few weeks, I felt like the very ground beneath my feet wasn’t stable.

But by the time winter break ended and the second quarter began in January 2020, I was forming a new life and finally feeling at home. I exceeded essay lengths, still received lots of constructive criticism but always fewer and different notes than the week before, and looked forward to the next time I would meet with my tutors. I couldn’t explain how the transformation had happened except by time.

And outside of school, I embraced every extracurricular activity and social event I could—attending meetings held in pubs by the Mexican Society, jazz concerts, drag shows, Wadham’s famous Friday night bops and Sunday brunches, reading at open mic nights, and working on the fiction team at Isis Magazine.

I learned to shun Pret A Manger and go to the Tuck Shop for a sandwich superior in both price and quality. If I was in a pinch, I’d hurry to Tesco’s for their famous meal deal of a main, side, and drink for three pounds. If I could spend a little more, I went to Edamamé for sushi or the café in Waterstones for a hot breakfast tea, lox bagel, and gingerbread cookie with his outfit decorated in frosting.

I found myself, like everyone else, hilariously resenting the waves of tourists who always appeared at the worst possible moments, whether they took up all the space on the sidewalk or slowed the lines down at take-out places or crowded the Bodleian’s courtyard just as you were about to leave. Other times, classmates and I spent late nights in the MCR discussing the problematic white elitism of the whole thing and the oft-recognized but never challenged silence of Oxford’s administration on important political and social issues, especially where historical colonialism was concerned.

Still, the good kept us going. We fell in love with the cobblestone streets, the stationery stores and Paperchase pens, the bus rides home after tutorials where all we could think about was the laundry we had to do and investing in a bike when the weather got warm and when we’d find the time to skim through that week’s reading list—we wouldn’t have traded our experiences for anything.

Even now, even after our program ended the “abroad” portion in March 2020 due to Covid-19, despite the irony of finishing out the last quarter of our study abroad program in our home countries, I still feel that way. I may not have stepped foot in a real classroom since then or been able to walk the stage at commencement this past May, but I am incredibly grateful for the classmates who remained on the journey with me and the professors who made their teaching work through technological obstacles and hiccups. There are no words to describe the experience of unwillingly leaving somewhere you considered a second home and then staying stuck in another place longer than you liked.

But because of Oxford, I made friends I’ve continued to keep, can read and write thousands of words without much time or feeling the exhaustion and ask for help when I need it, without embarrassment. I still share memories and lessons and stories of a time I didn’t even know I deserved to experience until it began.

Because if I still love the city as much as I did then, I know that one day, I will return again.

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