For most of the flight across the Atlantic Ocean, all that was visible outside the window was the sea. Hours were passed in darkness and failed attempts to sleep. And then, emerging through the morning clouds, came England. From 30,000 feet, it looks like a quilt of pastures and meadows. Clumps of trees are scattered around and, now and then, a castle appears. From what can be seen at this distance, we could be living in another age.
Then came the rain. As the plane fell below the clouds, the weather turned grey, bleak and wet — a typical forecast in the British Isles. Then baggage claim, customs and a shuttle bus to the small medieval town where I’m living for the academic year. Long ago, it was the place where herds of oxen would cross the shallow part of the river, the “ford,” and the locals called it “Oxanforda.” Eventually, they built a university there.
The first thing to say about Oxford is that it’s overwhelming. Its stone walls and cobblestone streets, its regal spires and massive wooden gates, are spectacular to behold. The university is not a single institution, but a constellation of 38 separate colleges, each with its own name, quadrangle and student body. It’s like the equivalent of 38 miniature Colleges of William and Mary crammed into one town.
Each of the colleges has its own look and feel. My college, Hertford, is known for its warmth, friendliness and academic rigor. Its dining hall, faculty offices and chapel are all tucked closely around the quad, a picturesque plane of grass surrounded by stone buildings. Ivy and moss has even crept up some of the walls, and the college cat, Simpkins, roams around the grounds. Oxford has an Olympian grandeur and epic magnificence, and when you walk among its buildings, you feel like you’re dreaming; trumpets could even be playing in the distance. Part of the charm is the history. The university is centuries old. And you feel the presence of everyone who has come before you, the sense that you are now part of a great tradition of learning, friendship and achievement — much like at the College. There is the same sense of the past, the same reverence for aged traditions, and the same modern savviness that gives the school relevance — even an edge.
But buildings alone do not make a university. As a visiting student, you are immediately surrounded by an energetic brigade of administrators, faculty and students who are there to make you feel at home. The first week was a whirlwind — one social event after another. If Oxonians have any — and I mean any — chance to don a black tie and jacket, they’ll take it. They have formal dinners, jazz and cocktail events, costume parties and clubs — all of the clubs, every night. Before I came I was worried that the Oxford social scene would be stiff and repressed. I was wrong. They party longer and harder than anyone I’ve ever seen.
Coming to Oxford has been one sustained feeling of awe — at the people, the culture and the beauty of the place. I always thought of it as an unattainable achievement for only the most brilliant people in the world, the Mt. Everest of learning. But, despite its medieval splendor and formidable reputation, this is a place where people go to work, to be inspired, and to grow. The same is true of any other university, especially the College.