Reflecting on my First Term Abroad (posted by Jimmy in England)

December 15, 2012

80 days ago I flew across the Atlantic where I began my 9 month journey abroad. At that time I could only dream of what I wanted my experience to resemble, and looking back on it I firmly believe that it has been everything I hoped for and so much more. I left Oxford over a week ago after deciding to return to UR in order to be with the Men’s Basketball team before winter break. My original plan was to spend the two weeks after term traveling across Europe. I quickly changed that after watching our first home basketball game of the season. As crazy at it may sound, I prefer being with the team more than traveling across Europe during the cold winter months. Plus, I will have then entire spring and early summer to travel, so I decided to move my flight up two weeks and enjoy college basketball. With all of that in mind, I am officially done. Over the last 80 days I have written on orientation, academics, beauty, lectures, challenges, a TedX conference, Thanksgiving, a stomach virus, and end of term festivities. This entry will carry a more reflective tone as I try to encapsulate some of the ideas that I have learned in preparation for my next term. So what did I learn?

I learned that I am in charge of my successes and my failures. I touched on this idea briefly in my last entry and want to elaborate on it. There was a direct correlation between my work habits and my outcomes. When I planned everything and had a specific schedule I felt that I was headed in the right direction. When I failed to do this, I was either behind on my work or scrambling to complete it. This didn’t just apply to academic work, but I realized that it applied to life. In the immortal words of William Ernest Henley, “It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Oxford cut away all of the distractions that I typically used when I wanted to hide from my work. I couldn’t take weeks off in order to cram at the end of term for a final. Every week I had to be ‘on my toes’ and ready to learn. I couldn’t hide in the back of a classroom when it was a 1-on-1 meeting with a Ph.D. discussing the piece that I wrote. They, like the University of Richmond, hold their students up to such a high standard. After going through an intense 8 weeks I can see why Oxford continually produces some of the most important leaders in the world. Simply put, they demand the best out of themselves all the time and they go through a rigorous 1-on-1 academic battle every week. When you consistently do that for years, you develop critical thinking abilities and confidence in defending your arguments. I caught a glimpse of the importance of being able to analyze situations rather than simply memorizing facts. This was my biggest academic achievement during the first term.

I also learned that social interactions have such a strong influence on me. My parents always used to say that our environment, the people who we constantly interact with, is so important to the people who we become. When I arrived at Oxford, there was not one person that I knew. It took me a while to realize the depth of being all by myself 3500 miles away from home. Up until I left for college, there was always someone (family, friends, and coaches) that I knew. When I left for college, there was still familiarity with other friends attending UR and an immediate connection with the basketball program. I realized once I arrived at Oxford that there was not a single person that I knew. I was completely by myself….and I loved it. It was challenging, but made me appreciate all of the amazing friends and family that I have. The old saying about never understanding the importance of something until it is gone carries so much more meaning.

Where do I go from here? I am currently on break until January 10th. I will try to catch up on some rest and prepare for my next two terms. After that I will be back in Oxford until June 15th. In terms of blogging, I will take a break for a few weeks and will return upon my arrival in England. I would like to thank all of the people who have been following while I am abroad. I would also like to thank Chris Klein, Abby Ward, and the entire Office of International Education at the University of Richmond. Not only have you renewed my blogger contract for the 2013 spring semester, but you also may be the best international education department in the country. Am I biased? Absolutely! But, of all the students that are studying abroad, I feel like I was the most prepared even though I had never previously been to England. Other students were upset with the lack of communication or help that they received from their universities and programs in preparation for their abroad experience. Just like everything else at the University of Richmond, your department does things in a first class manner. You don’t allow anything but your best, and it shows. If it wasn’t for the massive amounts of email reminders to study abroad, I would not have applied to Oxford. In closing, I want to say if any students have never thought of going abroad, it is not too late! Go home after finals, relax and think about it. At this time last year, there was not a chance that I would be spending my junior year at Oxford…. Be open to new ideas and I will see you in mid-January!

Never say never because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.- Michael Jordan

Christmas Lighting Ceremony and 8th Week! (posted by Jimmy in England)

December 1, 2012

After a very eventful Thanksgiving I thought it would be impossible to have a better weekend in Oxford. I was wrong.  Even though the British do not enjoy Black Friday, they do know how to have light festivals.  The morning after Thanksgiving I woke up and attended a Health and Disease tutorial.  Our director of studies told me to attend the evening’s light festival. This was bold advice considering our college was hosting Olympic gold medalist Andrew Triggs Hodge at our formal dinner that evening. As I walked back from the tutorial I saw that the center of the city, a mile in each direction, was being  blocked off and decorated for the evening’s events.  The Oxford Christmas lighting ceremony, an annual tradition where the tree in the center of the city is lit and children from local schools parade around town, was that night.  Jordan and I were prepared to attend for a few hours before the St. Catherine’s formal ball.  It was the 50th anniversary of the establishment of St. Catz and the festivities would be extravagant. Anyways, that night Jordan and I attended the lighting ceremony before the ball.  Since we live in an apartment in the center of the city, we were able to walk out our door and experience the ceremony.  A large Christmas tree was lit and the rest of the festival was based on the American carnival.  There was a ferris-wheel, merry-go-round, carnival food, games, and thousands of families roaming the streets. The event was incredible.  Jordan and I bought Brazilian cheese-balls before we experienced an a cappella performance by the Oxford all male “Out of the Blue.”  Even though they are English, they rely heavily on American pop culture songs including “California Girls”, “Hit me baby one more time,” and “In the Jungle.”  The performance was brilliant, but we had to leave early in order to prepare for the formal ball.

 Ferris Wheel at the Oxford Christmas Light Ceremony, a big Oxford tradition

Ferris Wheel at the Oxford Christmas Light Ceremony


After Jordan and I got ready, we walked to St. Catherine’s in time to see the fireworks show.  I will say that it compared to the 4th of July ceremonies in the states.  After the fireworks display, we headed to the formal ball.  The formal balls at Oxford seem to be a big deal.  All males must wear black bow-ties and a suit and entertain their tutors from the first term.  The night was very interesting.  I will say that it was a different experience seeing my professors in a ‘party’ setting.  All of the tutors attend and get to experience the evening’s festivities.  That night was definitely incredibly memorable.

Firework Celebration at St. Catz 50th Anniversary, before the formal ball

Firework Celebration at St. Catz 50th Anniversary

Black Tie Formal Ball Attire, which I wore to the St. Catz 50th Celebration ball

Black Tie Formal Ball Attire

The day after the formal ball, I began to prepare for 8th week. Oxford terms last eight weeks and although it might not seem like a lot, I am ready to take a break.  Every week I have had either 2 essays due or an essay and a 10 minute presentation.  By the 8th week, students are worn out.  That Saturday I set my weekly schedule for my HIV tutorial and my Health Prevention tutorial.  I knew that it would be a long week, but the idea of finishing kept me energized.  Before this year, I had never pulled an all nighter, but in the last 7 days I have been through 3.  Looking at it from the other side, I will say that they were all my fault.  If there is anything that I have learned from my time at Oxford it is that you are the reason for your success or failure.  My nonchalant attitude in the first few days of the week forced me to make up for it in the back end.  With my last tutorial completed I can say that I have successfully completed an Oxford term.  It feels amazing.

I will leave you all now for a few days.  I will take the next segment to prepare my final post for the term.  In that post I will highlight how much I have learned and where I will go in the next two terms.  I have had a wonderful time here and look forward to writing this last post!

Thanksgiving in Oxford (posted by Jimmy in England)

November 23, 2012

Ever since I can remember, Thanksgiving Day has always consisted of a series of repeated events.  I would wake up, go into the kitchen and start eating with family.  We would all watch the parade, maybe play a little football outside, listen to Christmas music, eat more, watch some football, eat more, sleep and then prepare for what is known as Black Friday.  There would be endless amounts of different appetizers, stuffing, turkey, potatoes and of course pies.  The feast would go on all day and it was all about enjoying the company of family.  During college, Thanksgiving has also been a time to relax after 13 long weeks at school and prepare for that last haul before finals.  Last year if someone had asked me where I would be during the next Thanksgiving, Oxford wouldn’t have even been a fathomable attempt at an answer.  Yet even though I missed Thanksgiving this year, I will say that the day was pretty memorable.

I woke up early in the morning to prepare for my cancer tutorial at 11 o’clock.  Yes, I had a tutorial on Thanksgiving.  The previous three days had been marked by very little sleep. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but this summer my 3 friends and I started a non-profit organization called Chance To Play.  We aim to use sports as an outlet for families dealing with a medical issue.  We wanted to release our website on Thanksgiving as a way to show how thankful we are to the people who have helped us and for the opportunities that we have been given.  Needless to say, that is where the lack of sleep came from. (If you would like to check out the website, please visit us at it’s awesome! ) Anyways I was very excited about the launch and it is what got me through the devastating idea of having a tutorial on Thanksgiving.

After the tutorial, I slept for a few hours; what’s Thanksgiving without the typical mid-day nap?  After the nap, the true American festivities began.  The people who run St. Catherine’s College, the college that I am affiliated with at the University of Oxford, are amazing people.  They knew that the visiting students would be missing their normal festivities, so they planned an evening for us.  It started at 18:30 when we all met at the college for champagne with the Headmaster and Deans.  About 30 undergraduate visiting students, along with a few graduate students, attended.  It was one of those full circle moments where you realize how far you’ve come along.  The drinks were in the same room that our welcoming ceremonies were in and this was the first time that we had been back.  A little bit less than two months ago, none of us knew each other and at the time we were all imagining what the next chapter of our lives would entail.  After having been through 8 weeks I can say that we’ve come a long way.

Thanksgiving table at St. Catz, my college at Oxford University

Thanksgiving table at St. Catz

After the drinks, we went to a hall where all of the visiting students were given their own table to enjoy a Thanksgiving meal.  I don’t want to betray the familial ties, but I will say that it came close (it wasn’t as good, but very close) to a typical Thanksgiving dinner. They went all out with potatoes (mashed and sweet), gravy, stuffing, breads, wines, green beans, turkey, bacon, sausages and of course pies.  It was incredible!

The menu for the evening, at our Thanksgiving celebration at St. Catz, Oxford

‘ The menu for the evening

One big family to feed at the Oxford Thanksgiving celebration for students

One big family to feed

Once the meal was over, two of my friends and I went to the University Club.  Jordan is a visiting student from Oklahoma City who goes to William Jewell College in Missouri.  We became friends over our mutual love of the NBA and the Oklahoma City Thunder.  Sports connect us all.  Jess is a visiting student from Oregon who goes to school outside of New York City at Sarah Lawrence College.  She’s the visiting students representative and is helping produce a play in Oxford in the spring.  There are so many amazing people at Oxford with different backgrounds and different interests.  It has helped me realize how big of a place the world is.  The University Club is a recreational hall for Oxford students…. it also was the only place that we could find the American tradition of Thanksgiving football!  We showed up in time to see the Texans beat the Lions in overtime and then stayed to watch the Redskins beat the Cowboys!  I couldn’t think of a more American way to celebrate Thanksgiving!

In looking back on it I can truly say that I will remember this one for a while.  Although I wasn’t home I did have a great time enjoying the day with friends.  Like every Thanksgiving, it gave me a time to realize how thankful I am for everybody in my life and all of the wonderful opportunities that I have been given.  Who knows where I will be next Thanksgiving, only time will tell!  HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!

Stand up, on this Thanksgiving Day, stand upon your feet. Believe in man. Soberly and with clear eyes, believe in your own time and place. There is not, and there never has been a better time, or a better place to live in. -Phillips Brooks.

Battling a Stomach Virus and a Trip to the Hospital (posted by Jimmy in England)

November 16, 2012

Mom and Dad take a breath, I wasn’t hospitalized.  I do think that the choice of title is witty though.  So what happened then? Let me take you back to last Friday.  Why?  Well Friday was obviously the best day of the year! It was November 9th and that meant that college basketball season was officially starting.  It had been 284 days since the final buzzer went off in the first round of the Atlantic-10 Playoffs.  We had lost 80-72 to La Salle in Philadelphia and this buzzer signified the end of our season.  So 284 days later I was the happiest person on Earth.  That day I went to a talk in Oxford with two friends and since I was in a great mood I offered to host dinner in my apartment the next night. Had I not been in some euphoric state of happiness due to the upcoming Spider game, I do not know if I would have offered.  Anyways, that is besides the point.  The next night a bunch of people came over and we enjoyed Mexican style chalupas with many toppings ranging from avocados, to beans, tomatoes, sour cream, and even shrimp.  The nurse that I saw on Wednesday believes that is where I caught the very infectious norovirus.  It is easily transmittable and there are many ways that it can spread, especially through contact with undercooked food or contaminated objects.  It wasn’t until Sunday night that I started to feel the ramifications of this little virus.  I was starting a presentation on England’s NHS, the government provided health care system and had a horrible pain in my stomach. Oh the irony in being sick for the first time in over a year when you have to write a paper on the health system. I knew it couldn’t be appendicitis because I had my appendix removed when I was a kid, but I wanted to rest just in case it was anything serious.  I went to bed and woke up the next morning with a horrible headache and a fever.  I slept all day and tried to stay hydrated, but nothing seemed to work to combat my symptoms.  The next day I felt very weak and went to the college nurse who told me I had a stomach virus.  What have I learned from all of this?

I learned that nothing treats illness better than being at home and having your Mom cook soup and help you if you need anything.  When you live by yourself being sick is horrible.  You learn to appreciate the people who help you out when you can’t help yourself.  I also learned Paracetamol is the British version of our Tylenol; both are made from the same compound.  I learned that being sick slows you down, but that is sometimes a good thing.  You realize what is important when you move a little bit slower and can only use so much energy.  I can now say that the virus is gone and I am back to my healthy self.  Well almost healthy. You have to subtract the fact that I pulled an all nighter to write a paper for my tutorial because I didn’t do any work when I was sick.  I look forward to using this weekend to catch up on some more sleep and cheer on the Spiders as we play at Minnesota! By the way, just to clear up the reference to the hospital, I walked across town yesterday to listen to a lecture at John Radcliffe Hospital.  Sir John Bell was disussing how new research is allowing doctors to redefine diseases.  There have been recent breakthroughs that will allow doctors to easily define cancers based on their abundances in blood plasma.  It looks fascinating!

Other than being sick, I had a great week.  Last Saturday I visited the Botanic Gardens of Oxford.  It is the oldest botanic garden in Britain and was founded in 1621 to grow plants for medicinal research.  I probably cannot do justice to the history of these gardens because I was taken by the natural beauty when it was being explained.

 Fall in Oxford at the Botanic Gardens, the setting of the original "Alice in Wonderland"

Fall in Oxford at the Botanic Gardens

A winding stream in the Botanic Gardens, next to Christ Church

A winding stream in the Botanic Gardens

The gardens are right next to Christ Church, which I explained in an earlier blog.  A fun fact that I learned: The story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland come from these gardens.  The author of this story, Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, worked at Christ Church.

Queue Waiting for Entrance to Christ Church, at Oxford, the place where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Queue Waiting for Entrance to Christ Church, the place where Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University at the time was Henry Liddell.  He had a daughter named Alice and Reverend Dodgson used to tell her stories.  She loved them and asked if he could write them down and the rest is history.  People keep telling me (and I really am starting to believe it) that this place is magical. I look forward to experiencing some new things this weekend and I will report back in a few days!

“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night. Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” -Lewis Carroll

TedxOxford (posted by Jimmy in England)

November 6, 2012

“We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we’re building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world’s most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other.” The preceding excerpt is the mission statement of TED. What is TED?  Well, since it is a name in the English language, there are probably many Teds.  The TED that I am talking about is neither a person nor an inappropriate comedy with Mark Wahlberg and his fuzzy grown up stuffed animal.  TED is an acronym for Technology Entertainment and Design and it is a non-profit organization that was founded in 1984.  Originally TED was an annual conference in Silicon Valley that brought together brilliant minds to discuss various research ideas.  Since then, TED has absolutely exploded.  There are now two major conferences each year, one in Long Beach California and the other in Edinburgh. They cost $ 6,000 to attend and thousands of people listen to 50 speakers over 4 days.  Past TED speakers include Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Richard Dawkins, Google Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and many Nobel Prize winners. 1 million dollars is given to one speaker to help fund his/her idea. In 2012, TED became so valuable that videos started being streamed on Netflix. TED also holds what are known as TEDx conferences which allow the same speakers to reach a broader crowd in various different cities.  And that is why I mention it.

On Saturday night, after a long week of tutorials and presentations, I was doing what every normal 20-year-old college student does; I sat anxiously next to my computer by myself in my room and listened to the greatest event occurring that night.  The Richmond Spiders Men’s Basketball team had an exhibition game against Randolph Macon so I tuned in from across the Atlantic and couldn’t have been happier.  Earlier in the day, I was talking to a student about theatres in Oxford and she told me to visit the Oxford Playhouse website.  During the game I checked it out and saw that in less than 10 hours, they would be hosting TEDxOxford.  Due to my impulsive nature, I immediately bought one of the remaining tickets and went to bed.  I had seen many TED talks online and had always wanted to attend an event.  The concept of seeing ‘ideas worth spreading’ was thrilling to me and I couldn’t have been more excited.

The next morning I went to the Oxford playhouse and prepared for the 6 hour event that would host 11 speakers, 3 videos and a few hundred people. I have been able to do so many wonderful things during my time at Oxford, but TED was by far the best event that I have attended.

Stage of TedxOxford- Ideas Worth Spreading, an event with speakers, and videos from around the world

Stage of TedxOxford- Ideas Worth Spreading

The diverse ideas carried so much momentum and truth that it was truly inspiring.  Here are a few of the highlights:

Frank Warren is the founder of, which up until Sunday, I had never heard of.  If you get a chance, watch his Ted Talk online.  He started by having people mail him secrets and he puts them on his website.  It has gone viral and has over 568 million visitors. The secrets vary from hilarious to deeply serious, but all share a common thread- they deserve to be heard.

Arthur Benjamin is a visiting professor from Harvey Mudd college and he calls himself the ‘Math Magician’.  He rattles off complex multiplications in his head like it is simple arithmetic. He invited three students on stage to perform calculations on the calculators from their iPhones and he raced the calculator.  He squared 576, 9604, and 676 faster than the students could type the digits into the calculator.   Needless to say, he’s a genius.

Michael Tobin, the CEO of Telecity group was named the UK’s Service Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young in 2010.  He spoke about specific adventures of his various management teams.  A few years ago, he wanted to show his team that fear is a mindset and that if they wanted to succeed they had to sit with their fears and overcome them.  “When you are scared, move through it,” he said. So he took his team to a shark tank in the UK and made them sit in the tank next to these huge sharks for a few minutes.  Prior to being forced in, many of the team members were ready to quit instead of jumping into a shark tank.  He said that after the experience they had the most successful year of business in his career.  Mr. Tobin explained another time he had to merge two rival companies together and associates from both companies would have to work with each other.  Many of the people were reluctant to work together so Mr. Tobin took them to an ice hotel in Sweden where temperatures are below freezing. It is mandatory to sleep two people in a bed to generate extra body heat, so he took all of the people who did not want to work together and made them sleep in the same bed together.  He said that by the end of the trip, the rival companies were in the past and the merger was a success.  His last story was in regards to a specific year when most of his associates were complaining that they wouldn’t fill their quotas.  He took his team to the Auschwitz concentration camps and told them to stop moaning because their lives were easy in comparison.

The best talk of the day was by James Rhodes.  Unfortunately, his TED talk probably won’t be put on the website because he cursed a little bit too much and referenced a few inappropriate things.  Anyways, he is an English classical pianist and he is the man.  If you have the chance, check him out on YouTube because his work is unbelievable. He argued that people get stuck in their beliefs and can never see the world with a diverse point of view.  He urged us that, “whenever you are absolutely convinced of something, do the reverse of it for one week and see what happens.”  He said that we live in a world that is filled with unconscious distraction and that it has become acceptable to wander off when we are interacting with people.  His main point, and the main point of the conference was, “People need to stop apologizing for who they are and classical music needs to stop apologizing for what it is.  Go do what you love and be who you want to be.”

“The chance for greatness, for progress and for change dies the moment we try to be like someone else.”-Faith Jegede

Challenges as Opportunities

October 26, 2012

When I applied to be a foreign correspondent for this semester I did so to offer a different perspective on the whole study abroad experience.  I felt that my main purpose would be to inform potential study abroad applicants at the University of Richmond about the benefits of spending a semester (or year) away from campus.  My first 5 posts have mainly highlighted the wonderful intricacies that exist in an Oxford lifestyle.  I believe, however, that I would be doing an injustice to all those applying for a study abroad position if I did not discuss some of the challenges that also are present when a student goes overseas.  Many tasks in life have challenges, but we have the benefit of using them as opportunities to better ourselves. As George Patton once said, “Accept challenges so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory.”

When the visiting students were sitting in one of our orientation meetings we were told that by the 5th week of the term Oxford students begin feeling “it.”  Whatever “it” meant, we didn’t know for sure, but we could imagine.  At the time, we thought that it probably meant the typical stress and anxiety that college students feel during the middle of the semester when they are piled with work.  We usually fail to realize how blessed we are to actually be in that position in the first place, but we can talk about that another time.  What we failed to realize at the time was that if normal Oxford students felt this way at week 5, then we would probably feel it sooner since not only were we new to the workload, but we were also new to the country.  So what is “it”?  Well “it” is the combination of many different factors that begin to wear you down as a student and this reflects in your personal life.

The biggest factor obviously is academic work.  By the third week, you’ve already written three to five 2000 word research papers, which may not seem like a lot, but it can get to you.  That may be why I have yet to travel out of the area; I apologize to any readers if my lack of traveling has hindered your understanding of studying abroad.  Most students travel throughout their time, but this specific situation is atypical.  Being here for a year, I have less of an incentive to see the world in the cold weather when the beautiful European springtime awaits.

Outside of all the work, the Oxford system celebrates independent learning.  There is no mandatory class and individual study is encouraged.  I was thinking about it earlier today and realized that I met many of my best friends at UR through our experiences in a classroom (Shout out to Alyson, Lindsay, Meredith, and John).  How do you deal with the lack of social interaction at the academic level?  You handle it like everything else in life and make it an opportunity.  Because most of the visiting students are in their 3rd year of university, many of us celebrate our 21st birthday abroad.  There is a lack of significance in turning 21 in England when compared with the ‘right of passage’ as seen in the US.  But on Wednesday we went out to a local Indian restaurant to celebrate one of the students birthdays and it was a great time.  It’s the little things in life that matter.

Another big challenge is the lack of social interaction with the community.  At UR, there are endless opportunities to volunteer in the community and help better the city that we live in.  Most students at Oxford do not have the time to volunteer since their workload is so great.  Maybe it is being away from home, or the inability to volunteer weekly in Richmond, but I was going through a little bit of withdrawal this week.  Again, how do you change that?  You make something happen.  I decided to email the director of KEEN, a non-profit organization that provides social, sporting and recreational activities for children and young adults with special needs in the Oxford area.  They allowed me to volunteer last Friday and so in the afternoon I was able to draw, sing, and play Duck-Duck-Goose with a bunch of kids. It was big time!

Drawing with children during my KEEN non-profit volunteer experience

Drawing with children during my KEEN volunteer experience

99.9% of my experience here as been incredible.  But it would be foolish to say that challenges do not occur.  I am sure that there have been many more challenges this past month, but like everything else in life, we must make them opportunities. While writing this I realized how blessed I am to not only study at Oxford, but to also study at UR.  All of my challenges at Oxford are mere common activities at UR.  So for those who are considering study abroad, I encourage it, even though we are all already lucky to be studying at an amazing place like Richmond.

St. Catz (St. Catherines), one of the constituent colleges at Oxford

St. Catz, one of the constituent colleges at Oxford: my abroad university 


The University of Richmond, my home university

The University of Richmond: my home university

The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life.  Attitude, to me, is more important than facts.  It is more important than the past, the education, the money, than circumstances, than failure, than successes, than what other people think or say or do.  It is more important than appearance, giftedness, or skill.  It will make or break a company…. A church…. A home.  The remarkable thing is we have a choice everyday regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day.  We cannot change our past… we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way.  We cannot change the inevitable.  The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.  I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.  And so it is with you… we are in charge of our Attitudes.

-Charles R. Swindoll

The Smartest Man in the Room (posted by Jimmy in England)

October 22, 2012

I woke up this morning and couldn’t exactly remember what had happened last night.  I tried to piece together the bits of information that were coming back to me but there was just so much missing.  Good thing that I wrote everything down. Let me take you back to when it all started.  During orientation week, thousands of college societies set up in a big auditorium so that every student has an opportunity to explore their interests.  Various societies include Sports Clubs,  A capella, Harry Potter Society, Philosophy Society, and my personal favorite, the Scientific Society.  I signed up for a few different societies and on Monday I received an email about different lectures that the Scientific Society holds throughout the year.  This week’s seminar was to be given by Ian Fleming.  There are probably many Ian Flemings in the world, but two of them particularly ring a bell in my mind.  The first is the English author that wrote the James Bond novels and the second is the man who appears in all of my organic chemistry textbooks.  Since this email was from the Scientific Society, I presumed that the organic chemist was coming to Oxford.  For those of you that have never heard of Ian Fleming, he is one of the most important organic chemists of the 20th century.  He was the first person to determine the full structure of chlorophyll in 1967, he helped synthesize vitamin B12 during a one year postdoc at Harvard, and he created a mechanism (Silyl-Hydroxy Conversion, also called the Tamao-Fleming reaction) that is used in many organic chemistry research labs today.  He also did all of this at a time when there were not accurate ways of determining chemical products based on computers. Dr. Fleming is included in the panel that nominates Nobel Laureates for Chemistry as well.  Simply put, he’s big time.

I jumped at the idea of going to hear this man speak and so I emailed the Scientific Society and told them that I would definitely be attending. An amazing woman, Aimee, who is from Oklahoma and doing her postdoc with her husband at Oxford, responded and asked if I would like to attend dinner with Dr. Fleming before his speech!  The simplicity at which you can make things happen via email astonishes me.  Within a few hours I went from potentially listening Dr. Fleming speak, to walking to a little dinner with an extreme sense of anticipation as I prepared to meet him.  The dinner was at an Italian restaurant off of Banbury road.  I have yet to mention the fact that it has been a few weeks and I still can’t get used to people driving on the left side of the road.

Banbury Road, the location of my dinner with Ian Fleming

Banbury Road

I expected that I would be one of about 30 or 40 people at dinner and I would probably introduce myself and eat with some graduate students.  When I got there, I couldn’t have been more surprised.  Dr. Fleming was sitting with one graduate student having a conversation.  I ended up joining them, along with another undergraduate and Aimee and her husband.  There were 6 of us in total, including Dr. Fleming, and I can’t even begin to explain how incredible it was.  If you want to talk about brilliance, look no further.

I want to share some of the advice that Dr. Fleming gave us throughout the night.  First off, he knew he was brilliant, but he didn’t act better than anybody.  He is 78, but still quick as a whip.  He told us to understand that we are smart, to be thankful for it, and to get better.  He also absolutely loves what he does.  He simply loves being in a lab, synthesizing organic compounds.  “It’s all about the chemistry” he would say.  At the time that he was doing all of his research, he couldn’t connect the dots, but random things would come to him later in life that ended up helping him in all of his work.  He was asked what makes him see the answers to problems that others have questioned for years and he responded, “My group of colleagues have the ability to think about a problem longer than anybody else.  We didn’t know what we were doing, but something would eventually work.  We would stare at a problem for weeks and something would click.”

During the lecture, I sat in front of two Ph.D students, one was from Canada and another from France.  Before Dr. Fleming started, these students were reciting the periodic table from memory.  They knew every element in order, all they way through.  At the end of the lecture, the French man said, “Wow, I feel like a schmuck compared to him!” His answers to problems are so simple, but they always work.  He says that most answers stare at you, and if you just think a little bit harder, they appear.  I ended the night by simply walking home and going to bed.  There was so much information that my mind was trying to wrap itself around so I made sure that throughout the night I wrote everything down.  My mind had been blown, and it clicked that I was in such a special place with the opportunity to meet one of the most important chemists of the last hundred years.

“All the greatest men are maniacs. They are possessed by a mania which drives them forward towards their goal. The great scientists, the philosophers, the religious leaders – all maniacs. What else but a blind singleness of purpose could have given focus to their genius, would have kept them in the groove of purpose. Mania … is as priceless as genius.” 
-Ian Fleming, Doctor No

A Glimpse of the Beauty (posted by Jimmy in England)

October 12, 2012

“On Thursday at 4:30 walk to the first white house on Longwall street and knock on the window in between the front door and the entrance to the courtyard.”  That was the message that my tutor sent me for the time and location of our first tutorial. In the previous week , visiting students had been warned that the cardinal sin of Oxford was being late for a tutorial. So I naturally decided to show up a little early for my first lesson and like every other day at Oxford, it was raining. When I arrived at the house,  I knocked on the window in between the front door and the courtyard and there was no response. At exactly 4:30, a man came biking up to the house.  He was fully equipped with all the essentials of biking in the rain.  He had a neon raincoat, thick rain pants, a case for his backpack, and even goggles for his eyes.  On that note, let me tell you that this is not that out of the ordinary.  There are two guarantees at Oxford: It rains and everyone uses bikes as the main form of transportation. As he got off his bike he introduced himself as my tutor.  He opened the front door and we went into the living room.  On the outer edge of the room was a couch, a desk that faced the window, and a bookshelf containing many Human Evolutionary Genetics textbooks.  In the middle was a table and at the table there were chairs.  In those chairs we were to sit and talk for an hour about the genetic differences and variation among populations of humans and chimpanzees. The tutorial, a little daunting a first, turned out to be typical of the Oxford lifestyle.  Academic life is not a job that you go to and then leave behind at the end of the day. As seen by my experience in a random house, it is something that is part of your everyday life.  It is essential to who you are.  My first week of tutorials made me realize that.

I will be completely honest with you, academic events have taken up every bit of my time here.  No matter what I am doing, there is always some component of learning involved.  Now that may seem a bit excessive, but I absolutely love it.  Every day this week I would wake up and pick a random lecture that I wanted to go to.  I sat in on biophysical chemistry  lectures and went to seminars on various biological processes.  Is this completely academic? Yes. Do I love it? Absolutely!  I may not be travelling through Europe too much this semester, but I am gaining invaluable experience by working here.

I will admit that I did take a break last night.  I went to the Turf Tavern with some other visiting students and got some very good advice from a woman who was reminiscing on old times with a long friend.  She said, “One of the problems with people in Oxford is that they all look down.  It rains all the time, so they naturally put their heads down.  While you’re here, look up.  You’re in a beautiful city, why not take it in and enjoy it.”  With that in mind, I spent most of today just ‘looking up’ and I found a lot of different sites at Oxford. The first are the Heads at Bodleian library.  I live about 30 seconds away from there and do not know the story behind the heads.  When I find it out, I will let you know.  The other two pictures I have included in this blog are from Christ Church.  Christ Church is not only one of the 38 colleges that are part of the University of Oxford, but it is also the cathedral church of the diocese of Oxford.  It is a very good representation of the beautiful architecture of this city.

Bodleian Heads at the Bodleian library in Oxford

Bodleian Heads, the Bodleian Library, Oxford

Christ College a cathedral at Oxford University

Christ Church, Oxford

Christ College at Oxford

Christ Church, Oxford

“Life is full of beauty. Notice it. Notice the bumble bee, the small child, and the smiling faces. Smell the rain, and feel the wind. Live your life to the fullest potential, and fight for your dreams.”- Ashley Smith

Academics at Oxford (posted by Jimmy in England)

October 9, 2012

Today Times Higher Education came out with their yearly rankings of the 400 best universities in the world.  The top seven universities were:

7. University of Cambridge

6. Princeton University

5. Massachusetts Institute of Technology

4. Harvard University

Tied in 2nd– University of Oxford and Stanford University

1. California Institute of Technology

The rankings use a system based on specific performance indicators including teaching, research, knowledge transfer and international outlook.  With that news buzzing around campus and the lurking start of my term coming up in a few days, I wanted to dedicate this entire post to the academic side of Oxford.  In the months prior to my arrival, I knew that Oxford was an incredible institution, but I didn’t know what set it apart from the rest of the world.  After being here for a week, I can begin to understand why people think so highly of it.

To start, by the time you apply for admission to Oxford you are already expected to know what degree you want to receive.  This is very different from the liberal arts system of the U.S. where we can spend a few years taking different courses to see what interests us.  Included in the admissions process to the university, prospective students take specific examinations in the subjects that they want to pursue.  If they do well enough on the exam, they are offered an interview with a college professor.  During the interview, they are not asked the typical U.S. college interview questions like, ‘Why do you want to attend our university?’ or ‘what are some of your strengths and weaknesses?’ Rather, they are asked questions to see if they really grasp the academics that they have studied prior to the application process.  I spoke with an engineering student that is starting his first year at Oxford.  He was telling me some of the questions that he was asked, one being incredibly interesting. The interviewer showed him a picture of a man running with prosthetic legs and asked him to describe how we would build a replica.  I have been in university for two years and would not have a clue how to answer that.  This institution is world renowned because they demand that you know what you want to study.  They don’t allow you to take any time thinking about potential majors, they want you ready to come in and work.

A second reason that Oxford is world renowned is because of its academic system.  The school year is broken up into three terms.  Each term a student takes one major tutorial and one minor tutorial. Major tutorials meet 8 times over the course of an 8 week term and minor tutorials meet 4 times.  It may seem like only meeting 12 times in a trimester is easy…. Ask any student here and they would laugh.   A tutorial is nothing like the American lecture style learning.   Tutorials, in the simplest analogy, are a 60 minute one-on-one cage match with a tiger…. A massive tiger that is easily capable of destroying you, like the ones in The Gladiator.  In a tutorial, you meet a professor in an assigned location.  It could be an office, a lecture hall, a public café, or anywhere that you decide.  The meeting lasts for one hour and is based entirely on the work that you have done in advance.  All of the work for one tutorial, which usually includes reading mounds and mounds of books and papers and preparing one essay, must be turned in 48 hours before the meeting.  The tutor then reads your work and prepares questions/ commentary for you.  When you arrive, you have to defend your points for one hour against a Ph. D. My first tutorial is next week and I have to read 15 scientific papers and 8 chapters from 3 different text books.  Then I have to write a 2000 word essay answering a specific question outlined in the document that my tutor sent me.  At the visiting student introduction ceremonies yesterday, the Dean of the college said that the minimum amount of time that is usually spent on academic work per week is 40 hours.

Oxford does not have regular tests or mandatory lectures.  They hold end of the year collections exams which rank students and they also hold beginning of term exams which force students to retain the knowledge from the previous years.  Every subject at Oxford offers optional lectures that correspond with it.  None of the lectures are mandatory and anyone can go to them.  This means that even if someone is a linguistics or history major, they can sit in on a biophysical chemistry lecture.  This system is different from any educational system that I have ever experienced.  In America, it seems like there is a lot of structure and if you follow the right path you can succeed.  Here, you are fully independent.  You cannot hide in the back of a classroom or cram the night before a big test.  They demand that you start your work early and continue throughout the week.  At many universities across the U.S. libraries are open 24/7.  At Oxford, there are many library buildings, but all of them close before 10pm on the weekdays and some are closed on Sundays.  The most famous of the libraries is Bodleian Library.  Aside from holding many historical texts and being a frequent place of work for J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, the library’s architecture is a favorite location for filmmakers. It can be seen in the opening scene of The Golden Compass and the first two Harry Potter films, in which the Divinity School acts as the Hogwarts hospital wing and Duke Humfrey’s Library as the Hogwarts library.  

While on the topic of Harry Potter, yes, it does feel like I go to school at Hogwarts.  Aside from Harry Potter actually being filmed at various locations in Oxford, there are many strikingly similar features.  The main one is in Oxford’s formal dinners.  Every evening the colleges have optional formal dinners that go from 7-8:15pm.  Most students attend these dinners every night.  Students arrive at 7 and sit down at a table.  At 7:15, the dining staff stops admitting students and all of the people in the hall stand up.  The professors and deans walk through a door dressed in their college robes (black, like in Harry Potter).  All of the students are quiet and must stand until the faculty has sat down at the head table, which is located at the front of the Hall and is elevated higher than the other tables.  Some colleges do not have a dress code for students but others require students to wear formal dress along with a black robe.

This place may not have any ‘Defense Against the Dark Arts’ courses and I am not likely to play quidditch, but there are reasons why Oxford consistently produces people who go out and make the world a ‘magical’ place.  See what I did there?  Until next time, keep drilling life.  How good are you going to be?

Here’s to the Crazy Ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can quote them, disagree with them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing that you can’t do, is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They push the human race forward.
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.
Because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world,
are the ones who do.

-1997 Apple Commercial

The First 5 Days (posted by Jimmy in England)

October 3, 2012

In the words of Marv Levy, the Hall of Fame Buffalo Bills head coach, “Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?” I arrived in Oxford last Thursday and have been in awe ever since. I spent the first two nights living in a hostel (Central Backpackers) ten minutes from the center of the city. If you have never stayed in a hostel before, I highly suggest it. Being an American college student, I feel like I was ignorant to the way in which many people live. In the hostel, I met people from many different walks of life. I was only there for 48 hours, but I met people from Spain (southern and Basque regions), Norway, Germany, Greece, Columbia, China, Sweden, Mexico, India and Australia. Even though there were many different world views, we all shared one common interest. Whether we were studying at a university or traveling city to city to find jobs, we were all working towards what we thought would bring us happiness. After my two day stay in the hostel, I was able to move into my dorm in the city of Oxford. For those of you that do not know, Oxford is a mid-sized city with a population of more than 150,000. There are many shops, restaurants, and cafes that I plan on visiting during my stay. My room is located in Jesus College in the center of the city.

Second quad at Jesus College, Oxford University

Everybody in Oxford has been incredibly friendly. When I arrived a few days early, I was invited to attend two afternoon cream teas for postgraduate students. (Oxford runs on a trimester schedule. Trimesters run from 0th week-9th week. Last week was -1st week and this week is 0th week. Postgrads arrive in -1st week while undergraduates and exchange students arrive in 0th week. Classes start in 1st week. It’s a little confusing.) These cream teas were part of the postgrad orientation and were a chance for students to meet and listen to prominent speakers. The main speaker was Dr. Andrew Briggs, a professor of nanomaterials at Oxford. His research team is trying to build what is known as a ‘quantum nanocomputer’. I have spent the last few days trying to figure out what it is, but his talk had nothing to do with complex physics. He introduced an idea, one that I have seen is a common theme among the faculty at Oxford. He said, “When you mix the personal desire to learn with an environment like Oxford, magic happens. But the reason that we succeed is due to a combination of work and personal reflection. We spend one day in deep thought over life’s biggest questions. We leave our research labs and ask ‘who am I’ and ‘why does any of this matter’. An Oxford education is not simply about academics, but rather about finding out who you really are.” These cream teas were very helpful in understanding how people succeed at this university.

Being at Oxford has not been entirely about academics. One night I went with another American exchange student to the Turf Tavern. It is a famous pub where Bill Clinton frequently hung out while studying at Oxford. The next night I visited another famous pub called The Bear Inn, which was built in the late 17th century. They are famous for their collection of ties that they collect. Years ago, if you ran out of money at the pub you could cut off the end of your tie in exchange for a drink. The tradition became famous and the collection is still growing.

Tie collection at The Bear Inn

These last five days have helped me adjust to English life. I feel fully prepared to immerse myself in all that this city has to offer over the course of the next year. Today I start orientation. I will keep you all updated. Until next time, keep being great!

When the world knocks at your front door, clutch the knob tightly, open on up, and run forward and far into its widespread greeting arms with you hands outstretched before you. Fingertips trembling, though they may be.- Anis Mojgani

%d bloggers like this: