I woke up this morning exhausted, still a little bit sick, and unsure if I ever really fell asleep last night. I got up out of my bed and fumbled across the tiny sleeper car to open up the window. Grey skies. Sigh. I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting. Actually, that’s a lie—I had a romantic notion of train travel across Britain, fueled by a bizarre Victorian-era fantasy of afternoon tea while watching the rolling hills of the countryside. But in reality, much of the United Kingdom has been swamped with heavy bouts of rain this week, and it was 6:30 in the morning… far from “afternoon tea.” I blame the National Railway Museum in York for filling me with these romantic notions.
A knock came at the door. Breakfast was delivered to my room—a smoothie bowl, orange juice, and English breakfast tea. As I slumped back in my bed, sipping my tea, I couldn’t help but watch the remarkable contrast between the bright green hills and the depressingly grey clouds. It was, after all, the only thing to do for that last hour of the journey. But then finally—a break in the clouds. For just a brief few minutes, the bright rays of the sun shone upon the Scottish countryside, lighting up the small homes on the hills. It was a brief but beautiful sight as the landscape quickly changed from rural Scotland to the Glasgow cityscape.
This is my third month living in England as a visiting student at the University of Oxford. I’ve been affiliated with Brasenose College, one of the thirty-eight colleges that compose the university, and it has a reputation as “the happiest college at Oxford.” Some fun facts: Brasenose was founded in 1509; that’s before Ferdinand Magellan tried to circumnavigate the globe. The most famous alum: probably David Cameron (don’t worry, everyone I’ve met is much more pleasant than the former prime minister).
It’s been a journey—mostly good, a bit funny, and at times just ridiculous. I think I’ve acclimated pretty well: I add milk and sugar in my tea, I spend many nights a week at my college bar, I’ve learned how to pronounce cities like “Edinburgh” and “Slough” almost correctly, I’ve grown used to asking about dress codes for events, and I’ve figured out which piece of silverware to use in a formal dinner setting. My phone, much to my frustration, has started to autocorrect words, such as “realize,” to match its British spelling (‘realise’). It’s stupid, and it makes me want to throw my phone against the wall.
This term, I did a tutorial in anthropology theory; tutorials are a style of learning unique to Oxford and Cambridge, where I had a one-on-one, once-a-week meeting with my tutor (mine was a fellow at All Souls College since Brasenose doesn’t actually have anthropology) to discuss my weekly essays and go over the material. Tutorials are a bit of an antiquated system, and there’s no real reason they continue to exist beyond just tradition. But it’s one I really prefer; the individual attention and frequent writing and personalized feedback has really helped me improve my ability to write and more critically understand social theorists. It’s even come to the point where I’ve been able to trick a few people into thinking I understand late nineteenth-century philosophy!
While my anthropology tutorial—as well as the Spanish tutorial I’ve been doing—is taught through Oxford, I’ve been doing a Stanford seminar with about six other students taught by the faculty-in-residence this quarter, an experimental course on arts in prisons in the United Kingdom. It’s not my favorite thing in the world, but it’s been an eye-opening look at the criminal justice system in England and Wales, complete with a visit to a youth prison facility and a prison for sex offenders.
The “arts” piece of it has been a bit more whimsical to me since I’m personally more interested in the “prisons” aspect, but now with just a week of the class left, I’m really grateful I took it, mostly because I got to meet someone—a Stanford Law School graduate, actually!—who does amazing work in advocating for youth in prisons. Instead of trying to recap her life story, I’ll share this, which is available publicly online:
When she was 16-years-old, Christa’s best friend was raped, and she became determined to be a district attorney. But when she got to law school, she signed up to teach the Fourth Amendment at juvenile hall, and her life path changed. She saw something powerful happen as the group of Chicago kids she taught developed into a community where even gang loyalties relaxed. She was personally transformed by the experience of hearing them long for something better than what they saw ahead of them. Christa transferred to Stanford Law School after her first year but took her juvenile hall experience with her. She started a Street Law program at Stanford, similar to the program in Chicago, to teach incarcerated and other at-risk youth about the law. But this time, Christa built her own curriculum and was soon being asked to speak about it at national conferences.
In one of my more embarrassing moments here, I actually started bawling at the end of her final day with us. I was trying to thank her for how much of an impact she had on me, and then I broke down crying. Stupid, right? The next afternoon, I called my parents, told them I wanted to stay at Oxford for another term, and that I was staying so I could study human rights law. Both my parents were initially not pleased—I was supposed to go to Santiago in the spring, which was already a very last minute decision, and just days before the withdrawal deadline, I wanted to back out. But when my parents heard I wanted to study law, my mom was immediately in favor of me staying.
My sudden realization that I want to pursue a human rights career is by no means the only reason I wanted to stay. I’ve made such amazing friends here, something I didn’t expect to do since it’s notoriously difficult for Stanford students to really feel integrated during their time here. But thanks to a perfect storm of being a little bit pushy, forcing myself to be more extroverted than I’ve been since my first month at Stanford, a stroke of good fortune, and running into some incredibly warm and inviting Oxford students, I can say pretty confidently that I’ve made at least a few friends. It’s truly such an experience to walk down into the Brasenose bar and realize that, on any given day, I know enough people to feel comfortable.
I’ve only just started becoming comfortable enough with people to really get to know their fuller personalities and their stories. I’ve been criss-crossing the United Kingdom, spending time in southern England cities like London, Windsor, and Bath, heading further north to Birmingham and much further north up to York, as well as to pretty random places, like Swansea in Wales. As you might have guessed, this week I’m in Scotland—I’ll be in Glasgow to visit some Oxford friends for the next few days, and then I’m off to Edinburgh to join the other Stanford students on the trip we take every term. (Next term, the trip will be in Cornwall, the weekend before Easter.)
I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve done a good job of meeting a variety of people and seeing as much of this country as I can, even if that’s meant a few long nights because I always choose new experiences with Oxford friends over regular study times and travel within Britain over travel across continental Europe. And yet, right now, I feel like if I left, I’d be closing a chapter of my life that I’m nowhere near finished reading. How convenient is it, then, that I have until the end of June?
Come mid-April, I’ll be surrounded by a new crop of Stanford students. They’ll come in with the same sense of magic and excitement that I did, and with luck, the magic will never disappear—even if it becomes shaped by the contours of reality. The week after Easter, I’ll be cheering on a few of my Oxford friends who will just be finishing exams. I’ll be spending my time reading and writing about international human rights law and social class in Britain, as I pivot to studying a mix of law and sociology. I’ll be spending my free time sitting on the grass to celebrate what the British call “summer” but I call “an exceptionally warm winter,” And of course, I’ll still be exploring the random nooks and crannies of the United Kingdom.
Exactly three months ago on January 13, I had just finished my first week in Oxford, nervously wondering whether I would enjoy being here, whether I would make any friends, and whether I would want to stay. If you would have told me that I’d actually be here until the end of June, I would have been in disbelief. But I don’t know why I’m so surprised. From the week I turned twenty years old, just nine months ago, I’ve chosen to chase after adventure after adventure, taking great leaps of faith that have led me doing everything from a cross-country trip across the United States, three weeks of studying the Venetian Republic in Venice with a brief stop in coastal Slovenia (complete with a brief archeological dig!), a week-and-a-half in Israel and Palestine meeting with people from both sides of the Green Line, and traveling through Western Europe where I did everything from stumbling upon the yellow vest protests in Paris to meeting my brother’s bone marrow donor in Berlin.
Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.” And now, the adventure continues, against all odds.