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Clarifying life at Oxford

Letter to the Editor | Thursday, October 16, 2003

This year, six juniors from Notre Dame are spending the year studying at the University of Oxford. While The Observer has chosen to run a column written by one of these students, Geoff Johnston, there remain five others (Margaret Doig, Darren Luft, John Skakun, Alexandra Stewart and me) who are also experiencing, well, life outside of the Dome. Moreover, the six of us have the opportunity to really understand the higher education system in another country and another culture. As the Notre Dame bubble can sometimes feel so small and isolated as to be almost claustrophobic, I think there is some worth in sharing with our classmates our experiences in a school system so old and rich with history that it makes the yellow mud-bricks look like a joke.

Unfortunately, Johnston’s column failed in a number of ways to convey our experience justly. One of the advantages to studying abroad is to gain a greater understanding of and appreciation for other cultures and then to carry this knowledge home and enrich one’s own society. This goal becomes difficult to realize when the information imparted is quite simply wrong. Although some of the students here have failed to extend us such a courtesy, I think it is only fair to the students of Oxford and the British culture to correct some of the misstatements in Jonston’s column.

First of all, his characterization of the British as rampant alcoholics is completely inaccurate. The students at this school have a very healthy drinking culture that is both social and mature. Alcohol is viewed here as a natural part of social society; in fact, most orientation activities for new freshmen involved unlimited free liquor. And instead of having uncontrolled binging, humiliating displays of public intoxication and eventual illness, the students here used their drinks as a tool to relax the social atmosphere. All of the pubs, clubs and bars have pleasant atmospheres with quality alcoholic beverages being consumed for pleasure, not drunkenness.

Also, everything you’ve heard about lousy food is true – at the dining hall. We’ve found plenty of excellent food in local sandwich shops, restaurants, and even many pubs. The greatest obstacles to edible food have been money and time. This most certainly is not a consumer culture, as the complete lack of available food after 11 p.m. testifies.

The food situation here illustrates a final point I would like to clarify, and that is the general fitness of the citizens of this country. The people here are all in incredibly good health. As far as I can see, this is the primary result of three notable aspects of the society. First, the food portions here are incredibly small, almost unthinkable by American standards. Second, the health care system as a whole is outstanding.

Finally, they exercise quite a bit. The primary difference between here and the United States is the lack of interest in muscle bulk, hence the poor weight facilities. Everyone is not only fit, but they are extremely lean by our standards. While they are not nearly as serious about college athletics as in the United States, people enjoy running or playing any number of sports.

Without a doubt, the school and the culture here is utter unlike that at Notre Dame. The dorm rooms, with our own bedroom and bathroom, make our Notre Dame rooms look like prison cells. Students here are given much greater freedom to make adult decisions, both in their academic and social lives, and it works. The school is a part of a beautiful, interesting city and equally interesting country.

Erin BlondeljuniorOxford, EnglandOct. 15