Name: Marianna Zhang
Class of: 2018
Major: Psychology and Philosophy
Location: Oxford, England
Program: Direct enrollment program through St. Catherine’s College, Oxford
Best part of your trip in five words: Rugged landscapes: caving, climbing, walking
Looking for an academic challenge, rising fourth-year Marianna Zhang decided to spend a quarter at Oxford in a direct enrollment program. Instead of classes, Zhang took tutorials: one-on-one meetings with a tutor once a week designed around her own interests in philosophy and psychology. Each session allowed her to speak in-depth about an intellectual topic with an expert in field. Then, before the next meeting, she would be responsible to complete a number of readings and hand in a 4-8 page paper.
“It was like office hours taken to the extreme,” she said.
Zhang’s two tutorials both explored philosophical questions regarding cognitive science, psychology, and language. One tutorial focused solely on the topic of metaphor and was taught by a psychologist and an anthropologist, which allowed her to approach the same idea through both a cultural and a scientific lens. In her second tutorial, she worked with a neuroscientist to explore the philosophy of cognitive science. The two grappled with such questions as “what is cognitive science, what counts as cognitive science, how should cognitive science be practiced?”
Zhang said that her interest in the Oxford program was purely academic and that she was looking for a different type of intellectual challenge not usually offered in the United States. But considering that the program was largely independent—she only had two hours total hours of tutorials each week—she found herself with a lot of free time to fill.
“Of course you have a lot to do, you’re writing an essay every week,” she explained. “But it’s up to you when you’ll be working. I actually found myself engaged in a lot of interesting social activities too which I hadn’t expected.”
Zhang decided to join climbing and caving clubs and would be sure to get through all her work during the week to have her weekends free to explore the natural caves and cliffsides throughout the U.K. Although she had some climbing experience through the UChicago climbing RSO U-Rock, she never really climbed a natural rock formation. (After all, the Midwest isn’t particularly well-known for its rolling hillsides.)
“To take my interest onto a real rock in the outdoors was incredibly cool,” she said. “It was so fantastic. It was such a supportive club. They were happy to lend out gear and take you to these incredible places, some of which are as unexplored as you can get on Earth. I wasn’t expecting to spend a lot of time outdoors [when I enrolled].
“I really felt like I was really getting to know the landscape, climbing on these British rocks, going down underground,” she added. “I’ll never forget some of those trips.”
What She Brought Back
Zhang soon discovered that tea is the answer to nearly everything in England. During her first few weeks abroad, she fell ill with what Oxford affectionately refers to as “Freshers’ Flu.” Even though Zhang was a third-year student while she was abroad, she still was considered a newly enrolled student and had to go through orientation week all over again with the rest of the “freshers.”
As is bound to happen in any new environment filled with strangers, Zhang caught a bad cold.
“I went to the college nurse and she, being very British, told me to drink lots of tea,” she said. “So, I went out to the Oxford souvenir shop and bought this mug. I drank a lot of tea out of this mug and it helped me get through freshers’ flu.”
Zhang didn’t use to drink tea before studying abroad, but now that she’s back she can’t go a day without it.
“Now, I use the mug every morning [for tea],” she said. “I drink black tea with a splash of milk; it’s incredibly soothing actually.”
Oxford is divided into a number of different colleges, each of which function as an academic, social, and residential unit. Your house and all of your classes are on your individual college campus. Almost like the UChicago house system, the different colleges participate in intramural sports and have their own culture and traditions.
“We have a junior common room, which is like house council,” she said. “They will host trivia or movie nights. The house lounge was a place for people to socialize, and every Sunday night it would be packed with people watching Planet Earth [or] The Great British Bake Off.”
One big difference about Oxford’s house culture is that each house lounge is attached to a pub, attesting to the importance of drinking culture in England.
“Pub culture is very big,” said Zhang. “People will just casually go out to a pub and just have a pint of beer and that will be a big social setting. All of my clubs had pub nights once a week. Tuesdays was caving night, Wednesdays was hiking club.”
Her T-Shirt and shot glass–both of which she picked up during freshers’ week–are a reminder of her college’s social scene. Your housemates are important, but so are your pub-mates.
Zhang showed up to her first walking club outing thinking the group would be going on a leisurely walk. What she didn’t know was in that in England, walking actually refers to hiking. So, when she showed up to an intense hike in only her everyday sneakers, the rest of the group was shocked.
“The group told me: ‘no this won’t do. I don’t think walking means what you Americans think it means.’”
After that, Zhang was sure to show up to the next meetup prepared. She bought her first pair of walking boots, which held up through a number of adventures all over the most untamed parts of the U.K.
“These went through Welsh mud, all sorts of abuse,” she said. “But they held up!”
An odd, yet practical souvenir that has practical value, Zhang got the spoons as a gift during a Christmas dinner.
Christmas is serious business in England and almost every social club will host a black-tie event to celebrate.
“You dress up in black tie and pay 40-50 pounds for a three-course dinner,” Zhang explained. “The [clubs] rent out some sort of fancy venue with vendors.”
Zhang attended three Christmas dinners, picking up the spoons at her climbing club’s event. Near the end of the dinner, each guest received a party favor hidden in what’s called a “cracker,” which is a long gold tube that can be pulled at both ends. When pulled, the tube emits a massive crack and pops open, releasing a little token.
“At Christmas dinner, we would pop these crackers all at the same time so you hear this massive crack,” said Zhang. “[The spoons were] my party favor and I now use it every morning for breakfast.”
The dinners are a festive and lively tradition, where participants can both reflect on the year’s events and joke around with their friends.
“People would roast other members of the club and cheer to particular accomplishments,” she said. “It was really good times, just sort of end of quarter dinner where we reflect on what happened and celebrate the friendships that we formed.”