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Oxford University conjures up images of ancient buildings, Hogwarts-style traditions and a host of famous writers and researchers. But what is it really like to be a student in the city of dreaming spires?
Text by: Emma Shires
Photos by: Emma Shires and Pedro Alvarez
Country: England

efore I studied at Oxford, I imagined what the city, its students and the university would be like: full of students wearing tweed with perfect Latin and Ancient Greek. Of course most Oxford students are not at all like this. However, it is true that Oxford has special traditions that you won’t find in most other English universities. These customs continue to fascinate students from all over the world, making the Oxford student experience unique, exciting and sometimes rather confusing.

Oxford is structured differently from most English universities. It is split into various colleges that are independent of the university. Students usually live, eat and socialize in their colleges. They also have their “tutorials”, small group classes, normally of up to four students, based on academic debate, in their colleges as well. The university then has a department for each subject where students go for their larger lectures and to use facilities such as laboratories.

Each college is said to have its own personality, and when applying to Oxford, you have to select your college as well as your subject. For the majority of students, this is an entirely baffling process until you know more about the university. I picked St Catherine’s College because of a professor I admired and because it is one of the most modern colleges and known for its multicultural mixture of students and more egalitarian approach.

On my arrival at St Catherine’s (or Catz as it is colloquially known), I had my first Oxford culture shock. For dinner, all the new students went to formal hall together. Formal halls are meals held by each college at least once a week where its students are expected to dress formally for a three-course meal with wine. Before dinner, we met in the “common room”, Oxford’s term for a student lounge, where we were given sherry, a drink that I’d never seen anyone below the age of 80 drink in England before. We then all proceeded into the dining hall and found our places, where we had to remain standing to wait for the professors to get to their special dining table, called “high table”. Even in my modern college, high table was set apart from the rest, with throne -like chairs, a more sophisticated menu and specially designed cutlery. We waited for one of the professors to say something in Latin and bang the gavel before we could sit down. It felt as if I had walked into another universe where a whole new set of social rules applied.

The next Oxford surprise awaited me a few days later, when I attended my matriculation service. Matriculation is the day when the university formally welcomes you into its academic community. It involves dressing up in traditional academic dress, known as “sub fusc” in Oxford; attending a special event with lengthy speeches in Latin; and drinking more sherry. My friend John, who had studied at Cambridge University before, wasn’t allowed to matriculate, because Oxford, Cambridge and Trinity College, Dublin, have an agreement that once you have matriculated at one institution, you can pass freely to any of the others. Of course, this didn’t stop us from teasing him that it was because Oxford didn’t like “tabs”, Oxford’s colloquial term for students from Cambridge.

Inevitably, after all the formalities, we ended up in the pub, where I was pleased to discover that I wasn’t the only one suffering from culture shock. Although we had all heard about some of Oxford’s traditions before we arrived, it was still a strange experience to be in the middle of them. Nearly all my new friends had a feeling that they were imposters in a world that was meant for children from wealthy old English families. This is another silly myth about the university’s students, as there is no way to buy your way into Oxford—academic excellence is the only entry requirement. This means that the student body is a wonderful mixture of people from all social backgrounds and countries. The multicultural atmosphere was one of my favourite things about Oxford, and it is thanks to the university that I made two lifelong friends from the USA and met my Chilean fiancé.

Here are some other terms and traditions that were part of my Oxford education:

Blues:

Blues are sports awards given to Oxford and Cambridge students for performance at the highest level. To achieve one, you must have played in a match between the two universities.

Bop:

Oxford students call the parties that are held inside colleges “bops”. Bops normally have a theme that you are encouraged to follow by wearing fancy dress, and you can only attend them if you are a member of the college holding the bop or if you are invited by someone who is.

Bullingdon Club:

This is one of Oxford’s most famous social clubs, founded in 1780 for hunting and cricket. Entry is extremely exclusive, reserved for the wealthiest male students. In the past, it was known for its rowdy and destructive behaviour, which included excessive drunkenness and violence. The club was banned from the city in 1894 after breaking all the windows in Christ Church College’s dining hall. Many people think the club no longer exists, but the club’s activities hit newspaper headlines as as 2013.

May bumps:

Over four days every May, Oxford’s college rowing teams have a slightly unusual set of races. Each race begins with the firing of a cannon and with each boat lined up one after the other, about 30 metres apart. When a boat bumps the one in front (literally touches the other boat), the boat in front has to stop rowing and allow the boat behind to overtake. As with normal races, the aim is to be the first boat to complete the race. The following day, places are reversed, with boats finishing first on the previous day starting at the back.

May morning:

The arrival of spring used to be celebrated all over England on the first of May with dancing and flowers. Now the tradition has largely been lost, but in Oxford the day is still very important. Nightclubs in Oxford normally close at 3 a.m., but on 30 April they stay open later so that students can stay partying until 6 a.m. when everyone gathers in the city centre to hear the Magdalen College choir singing from the college’s tower. In the past, students used to jump into the river after the singing, but this has now been outlawed by the proctors.

Michaelmas:

The first term of the academic year, beginning in October and running until early December. The name derives from the feast of St Michael and All Angels, which falls on 29 September every year. The second term in Oxford is called Hilary (January to March) and the third is Trinity (April to June).

Oxford time:

Back in the days when the United Kingdom had regional times, Oxford time was officially five minutes later than Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Of course, time is now standardized across the UK, but parts of the university still recall this subtle difference, with some lectures and events starting at five minutes past the hour. The Christ Church College bell still chimes 101 times at 9 p.m. Oxford time (9:05 GMT) each night, just as it did at its foundation: one bell for each of its original students.

My sub fusc clothes remained in my closet until exam time at the end of the academic year, eight months later. For each exam, we had to wear this outfit and, traditionally, show which exam we were taking by wearing a carnation: white for your first exam, red for your last and pink for all the exams in between. I was told it was bad luck to buy your own carnations, so my friend Hannah and I bought them for each other.

Once our final exam was over, one of the most fun Oxford traditions awaited us: “trashing”. Students wait for their friends to finish their last exam, and when they come out, they cover them in champagne, confetti, flour, and a fake flower lei. This means that the streets of Oxford are covered in colourful leftovers for a few weeks, despite the best attempts of the proctors—the university’s version of police—to limit the trashing.

The proctors are another interesting Oxford phenomenon, distinguishable by their black bowler hats. The most famous ones can be seen on patrol outside the entrance to Christ Church College, an iconic college made even more famous when it was used as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. Proctors can seem terrifying to tourists who try to enter the college where they are patrolling, only to be stiffly told they must pay and use the tourist entrance around the corner.

My Oxford University experience ended once my exams were over after completing a one-year master’s program. After my initial hesitation, I completely fell in love with the university’s unique charm. Some of the traditions might seem stuffy and old-fashioned at first glance, but they are an important part of the university’s history, and many of them help to reinforce in its students the seriousness of their studies. In any case, Oxford’s approach is clearly working as the University still produces many of the world’s leading politicians, businessmen, academics and writers.

Key facts about Oxford University

● Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is not clear exactly when it was founded, but it is known that teaching took place as early as 1096.

● There are 38 colleges at Oxford University, each with its own character and traditions.

● There are currently about 22,600 students at Oxford (11,603 undergraduates and 10,499 postgraduates) from over 140 different countries.

● For the current academic year, Oxford received 18,000 applications for its 3,200 undergraduate places.

● The university has over 12 million books in its various libraries and adds around 5,000 to its collection each week.

● Oxford was ranked the top university in Europe by the 2015/2016 Times Higher Education World ranking.

● Oxford has produced 26 British prime ministers, 26 Nobel Prize winners and over 120 Olympic medalists.




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The Oxford mystique


Oxford University is very different from most English universities. It is split into various colleges that are independent of the university. The students usually live, eat, and socialize in their colleges and also have small group classes there. When I studied there, I picked St Catherine’s College because it is one of the most modern colleges.

However, even St Catherine’s follows some old Oxford traditions. For dinner, all new students must go to formal hall together. Formal halls are three-course meals with wine that each college has once a week. The students must dress formally to attend and are given sherry before the meal. The professors sit at a special table called high table, which has throne -like chairs, a more sophisticated menu, and special cutlery.

Another odd surprise at Oxford was my matriculation service. New students have to dress up in sub fusc, traditional academic dress, and attend a special event with lengthy speeches and drink more sherry. I didn’t have to use my sub fusc again until final exams, eight months later. You have to use this outfit for each exam and show what exam you are taking by wearing different colored carnations.

One final strange tradition at Oxford is trashing. After you finish your exams, you wait for your friends to finish their last exam. When they come out you cover them in champagne, confetti, flour, and a fake flower lei.

Although at first I found Oxford to be a bit stuffy and old-fashioned, after a while I fell in love with it. Even with its many odd traditions, Oxford University still produces many of the world’s leading politicians, businessmen, academics, and writers.


 

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