Extracurricular Activities | Holly Goes Abroad

Back in the States, there’s one aspect of high school and college that people seem to prize most of all: extracurricular activities. Be it sports, honor societies, clubs, performance groups, or community service, American academic institutions send a very clear message that they expect you to be busy at all times. Is this a uniquely American view, or would this obsession with being busy remain prevalent when I traveled abroad? What sorts of clubs and activities are available to students at Oxford? Would I be able to participate in them as a visiting student? These are some of the questions I’ll be answering in today’s installment of Holly Goes Abroad.

Activities Fair

In the beginning of Michaelmas term, all freshers (and visiting students!) are invited to visit the university-wide activities fair to explore what societies (what they call “clubs” here), organizations, and student campaigns Oxford has to offer. Like most third year college students, I’ve gone to my fair share of activities fairs in the past and thought that this would be no different.

I stand corrected.

The Oxford University activities fair was ENORMOUS. We wound our way through the Exam Schools for hours, simultaneously overwhelmed and excited by the plethora of options before us. They’re not joking when they say they have a society for nearly everything. There’s a society for every academic subject. Every sport. Spelunking in caves. Volunteering in nearby public schools. Tea drinking. Board game playing. Gushing over Harry Potter, Star Trek, Doctor Who, Lord of the Rings, and virtually any other fandom you could think of. The list goes on and on and on and on, and after joining email lists for more societies than we could ever feasibly attend in a week, we finally made it out the other end.

The point of the activities fair is to expose you to everything the university has and then allow you to weed out what you really enjoy and what you’re not quite interested in anymore in the following weeks. Now that I’ve been here for more than an entire term, I’ve finally narrowed down my list to just a few commitments.

VSP Representative on the Mansfield JCR Bench

I’ve been involved in the Student Government Association at my college back in the States ever since I was a freshman, so I was ecstatic to learn that the Mansfield JCR Bench (the SGA equivalent) has a position for representing the interests and voices of visiting students at the college each year. Determined to take on this exciting position, I campaigned and was successfully elected last term (thanks, friends!). It’s fascinating seeing how other colleges around the world operate their student government systems, especially because there are so many layers to the Oxford JCRs. Not only must they take the views of their specific college into consideration, but there’s also a larger tier that looks after the entire university as a whole. I can’t wait to continue becoming even more involved in this group as the year goes on!

Football

Yes, that’s right: I play sports now?! To be fair, the Mansfield/Merton Football Team is incredibly relaxed and no exorbitant amount of playing experience is necessary. I had never played soccer before, but my brother has played since he was much younger so I’ve watched countless games over the past decade or so. Because I’m awful on the field, I’ve been assigned to the position of goalkeeper. As you can imagine, it’s as nerve-wracking as it sounds. However, I really love the feeling of being part of a team and working towards a common goal. Fingers crossed that this season goes well!

Film Society

I’m also a loyal member of the film club back at Wheaton, so when I learned that Mansfield has a film society that meets on a weekly basis I immediately knew that I had to attend. It’s such a great way to spend Monday nights– relaxing with friends, eating snacks, and watching movies I otherwise wouldn’t have gotten a chance to watch.

As much a I deeply enjoy participating in a lot of extracurricular activities, being here has taught me something important: it can be equally as enjoyable and worthwhile to take some time for yourself. Back home it often felt as though extracurricular activities should be prioritized over academics, especially in high school when students are trying to build “strong” college applications. Perhaps it is simply because I’m in the unique position of only being here for a year abroad, but I feel so much less pressure to be constantly busy with extra clubs, meetings, and other activities. And it feels incredible. 

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

What are your favorite extracurricular activities? Do you ever feel pressure to be constantly busy? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

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Oxford Union | Holly Goes Abroad

Today I’d like to talk about a wonderful, fascinating, and controversial aspect of Oxford University: the Oxford Union. Founded in 1823, the Oxford Union is a hub for debate and speech both by students and guest speakers alike. Each week there are a plethora of events, from celebrity speakers and formal debates to pub quizzes and even sometimes balls. There are also libraries and study rooms available for members in the various Union buildings.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see some incredible speakers at the Oxford Union: J.J. Abrams, Sir Ian McKellen, Monica Lewinsky, and Alec Baldwin, just to name a few. Usually for these more famous speakers you have to get to the Union well in advance and stand in line to make sure you get a seat. This typically involves my friends and I studying in the Union library while simultaneously checking up on the line from the window, then running across the street to grab a burrito for dinner before heading over to wait in line. It’s amazing to hear these people speak in such an intimate setting, especially since members of the audience get to ask questions at the end of the interviews. Seeing these famous figures speak in person makes you realize that they’re just normal people in actuality. I’m so lucky that my time at Oxford has been filled with surreal experiences like these– I would never be able to see McKellen (GANDALF!) speak back in the States!!

Some Union buildings looking pretty sinister.

I also love attending the formal debates at the Union that occur at least once a week. The topics range could be anything and everything, from privacy policies in our technological world to celebrity culture’s impact on the feminist movement. Debate speakers are a mix of Oxford students and well-known figures in the fields of whatever the debate subject is at the time. Debates can be fascinating, tense, hilarious, frustrating, or empowering– you never know what you’re in for that night!

A blurry photo of J.J. Abrams!!

The controversial aspect of the Oxford Union is the fact that in order to attend these events you must become a member, which requires an exorbitant membership fee. I suppose the deal is better for matriculated students who live in England because they can simply pay for a lifetime membership and get their money’s worth over several decades. However, for someone like me who is only at Oxford for a year, the expensive cost is pretty ridiculous. Of course, I have found ways of justifying buying one to myself– I’m only here once so I might as well experience everything while I can, if I go at least once a week for the entire year then it makes it worth it, etc.– but it’s still a hard bargain to swallow. Besides, what about Oxford students who cannot afford to buy a membership? In my opinion, if you attend Oxford University you should automatically be considered a member. I understand that this ideal situation would leave the Union with no substantial form of income, but couldn’t that be negotiated and changed over time?

While I love going to Oxford Union events, I will admit that it is a  bit of a problematic pastime.

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever attended an event at the Oxford Union? If you could listen to anyone speak, who would it be? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Winter in England | Holly Goes Abroad

Whenever I tell people that I’m studying abroad in England, the first thing they often lament is the awful weather. It’s so rainy! Pack your rain boots! You’ll freeze! The sun will never come out! Here I was thinking that the streets of Oxford would constantly be flooding and my sneakers would be soaking wet every morning as I walked to lecture. Fortunately, that is definitely not the case!

While winter has certainly been grayer and wetter than autumn thus far, it isn’t nearly as cold as I expected. Over winter break back in the States, we got over a foot of snow where I live in New Hampshire. After wearing puffy winter coats, shoveling the driveway every few hours, and enduring temperatures close to zero degrees Fahrenheit, winter in England hardly feels like winter at all. The temperature tends to hover somewhere around forty or forty-five degrees Fahrenheit, making it feel more like March than January. And there are birds singing outside my bedroom window?!?! What season is it??

Check out all that snow back in New Hampshire.

There are even miraculous days of sunny blue skies to break up the gray monotony every once in a while. It feels strange to walk around and see green grass in the middle of January… where is all the snow? Where is all the slush? The shovels? The plows? It’s quite nice to not have to worry about walking in the snow; however, I know that if I hadn’t gone home to so much snow over break I would have really missed it. Winter just doesn’t feel the same without a foot of snow to trudge through!

A photo of the Rad Cam that I took in January. LOOK AT THAT GRASS.

Even Michaelmas term wasn’t as rainy, cold, or gray as people told me it would be. To be honest, I don’t really mind the weather in England, or at least the weather in Oxford. It’s so mild compared to the wild seasons of New Hampshire!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

What is winter like where you live? Do you get a lot of snow? What’s your favorite season? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Burns Night (and Haggis?!) | Holly Goes Abroad

A few days ago I had the pleasure of celebrating an interesting and hilariously fun tradition: Burns night. This Scottish tradition is typically celebrated on January 25th in honor of Robert Burns (1759-96), who is considered the national poet of Scotland. There were bagpipes, several toasts, many lines of poetry read in thick Scottish accents, and even haggis. Robert Burns is most well-known for poems such as “Auld Lang Syne,” “Scots Wha Hae,” “A Red, Red Rose,” “To a Mouse”, etc.

Robert Burns

There is actually a specific order to Burns night, which Mansfield College tried to adhere to fairly accurately. A large part of the night is devoted to the haggis, involving piping it in with bagpipes, addressing it, and even toasting to it. I had never had haggis before, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually quite good (ours was fried, so that may have helped a bit). If you’re like me and had no idea what haggis even was before trying it for the first time, allow me to save you a Wikipedia search:

Haggis is a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck; minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, traditionally encased in the animal’s stomach though now often in an artificial casing instead.

It sounds strange– and it is!– but I definitely wouldn’t let that dissuade you from trying it at least once!

It was really interesting celebrating this Scottish tradition in England, considering the rivalry between the two nations. The speeches were lighthearted and the accents were on in full force, but it’s clear that the tension between the two nations still exists and is entrenched in both cultures (to a certain extent and largely depending on the individual, of course). All in all, Burns night made me want to visit Scotland even more!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever celebrated Burns night? What are your favorite traditions? Do you like haggis? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Returning to Oxford | Holly Goes Abroad

Long time, no see! Now that I’m back at Oxford for the start of Hilary Term it’s time to get back on track with chronicling my study abroad adventures. Today I’ll be talking about the strange feeling of returning to Oxford after being home for several weeks, lounging around my house in pajamas and eating mainly dessert and granola.

in some ways it feels as though I never left Oxford at all. It took no time at all for me to get back into my usual morning and night routines (showering, what time I wake up in the morning, making breakfast, etc.). The city streets felt just as familiar as they did when I left in December and I had no issues finding my way around on my first day back. I walked into the local grocery store and knew exactly where the oatmeal, apples, and Ritz crackers were located on the shelves. The accents and different vocabulary was less jolting than when I first arrived last term. All of this surprised me–  I had expected to come back to Oxford and have to readjust to everything all over again. It was comforting and reassuring to know that many things had stuck. 

Of course, I did have a bit of readjusting to do. One of the things I dislike most about traveling is changing time zones. To start, there’s the obvious inconvenience of being tired, hungry, or wide awake at times when the opposite should be true. Eating “breakfast” on the plane at seven in the morning in England felt strange when it was actually only 2 a.m. back home. I was exhausted by the end of the day (I can’t fall asleep on planes, so I had been up for about 36 hours at that point). However, time zones are also awful because they make it much more difficult to communicate with people back home. Oxford is five hours ahead of New Hampshire, so when I wake up in the morning it’s still nighttime there. I’m not sure if I’ll ever quite get used to the strange feeling of knowing that my friends and family are still sleeping (or sometimes just going to bed) as I wake up and go about my day.

All in all, I’m ecstatic to be back in Oxford with the usual routines of reading, writing, pub crawling, and exploring the city. This term my tutorials are English Literature 1910-Present and Writing Feminisms, both of which I’m really excited about. I can’t wait to spend the next six months in this breathtaking city!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever returned to a new favorite place after a short amount of time? Does it take some getting used to or does it feel like you’ve never left? (Or both?) Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

OXMAS | Holly Goes Abroad

The festive fun might just be beginning with the start of December, but Oxmas is actually already over…. But what is Oxmas, you ask? Oxmas is Oxford’s version of celebrating Christmas much, much earlier than everyone else. The vast majority of students move out of their accommodations during the first few days of December (I’ll be on a plane flying home as you read this), meaning that there would hardly be any time for Christmas festivities if they waited until November was over to celebrate. Thus, Oxmas was born!

Without Thanksgiving, there is nothing creating a clear distinction between when you should and shouldn’t start getting in the Christmas spirit. Decorations around the city began going up around the middle of November, with shops playing Christmas music and Christmas markets popping up on the weekends. (There was even a Christmas tree at our Thanksgiving dinner…) There were too many Christmas parties, socials, dinners, and other events to possibly count. I actually went to two carol services– two more than I had ever been to in my life before. Everyone is genuinely, unironically festive despite the fact that all of this happened before it was even December. 

 Celebrating Christmas so early may feel strange to some people, but I loved it. I’m one of those people who starts listening to Josh Groban’s Christmas album the minute the clock strikes November 1st, so Oxmas was an incredibly welcome surprise. What I didn’t anticipate was how disoriented it makes you feel. Every time I left one of these events I felt as though Christmas was right around the corner, like it was December 20th and I just had a few more days to wait… until I realized that, in actuality, it was still November. But that means that I get SO MUCH extra Christmas fun this year!

One of the best Christmas events I attended was the Christmas formal dinner at Mansfield College. The hall was beautifully decorated and the food was absolutely delicious. Being served turkey, vegetables, and potatoes reminded me a lot of Thanksgiving (albeit without squash and stuffing, the best parts). I had also never done Christmas crackers before, so I was pretty surprised and a bit confused when we all popped open the crackers and put on shiny paper crowns. There was a moment during dinner when the feeling of being at some sort of real-life Hogwarts just hit me– how can this place be so amazing?!

Christmas remains my favorite holiday, but Oxmas has definitely jumped to the top section of the list! Now that I’ve celebrated Christmas for about two weeks, I’m ready to go back home and continue on for another month. I wish I could celebrate Oxmas every year!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever been in Oxmas during Christmastime? How early do you start celebrating Christmas? What is your favorite Christmas tradition? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Thanksgiving in Oxford | Holly Goes Abroad

This past Thursday was my second favorite holiday (after Christmas, of course): Thanksgiving!! Every year since I can remember all of my family members have come over to my house for Thanksgiving dinner. Sitting crammed around our too-small dining room table is one of the few times each year when we’re all gathered together in one place and I always look forward to the food and festivities. Needless to say, I was quite sad when I realized that studying abroad would mean that I wouldn’t be home for this lovely holiday. Fortunately, Mansfield College already had this problem covered!

The smaller high table at the front of Chapel Hall.

Since Mansfield is used to hosting visiting students from the States each year they always put on a Thanksgiving dinner in the Chapel Hall. We weren’t quite sure how it was going to go, but we needn’t have worried– it was amazing! They served the usual turkey with all the trimmings and even had pumpkin pie for dessert (we had all been craving it for days now). Not only was it great to have a familiar meal, but it was also really fun to share the experience with my friends from the U.K. who had never been to a Thanksgiving dinner before. (They were so confused about the corn bread for some reason…)

Of course, nothing is comparable to Thanksgiving dinner back home. I think it’s safe to say that we all found this a bit too formal for our liking, especially since most of us are used to a relaxed, casual dinner with family. We missed the quirky twists that each of our families inevitably puts on the traditional meal (I missed the cheesecake my mom always makes) and spent a majority of the time talking about all of our different ways of doing Thanksgiving. Who knew that there were so many variations on turkey, stuffing, and squash?

The front of Chapel Hall– they’ve already started decorating for Christmas!

Despite these differences, I had a fun, delicious, and incredibly memorable Thanksgiving in Oxford. I must admit that for an American holiday, the British do it pretty well! I hope you all had a lovely Thanksgiving if you celebrate it! ❤

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever celebrated Thanksgiving (or another big holiday) somewhere other than where you usually celebrate it? What’s your favorite Thanksgiving tradition? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Brighton, England | Holly Goes Abroad

Recently my friends and I decided to break the cycle of reading and writing essays for the first time since coming here by taking a trip to the beautiful seaside town of Brighton. I haven’t spent much time outside of Oxford yet this term because we’ve had so much school work, but I figured it was high time to explore a new place. Brighton is a few hours away from Oxford, so getting there was a bit of a process. We ended up taking a bus from Oxford to London and then another one from London to Brighton (much cheaper than a direct bus, but also MUCH longer).

Downtown Brighton is adorable and has such a great array of shops, cafes, and restaurants. It was so difficult not to do all of my Christmas shopping there! The vibe is very artsy/indie/hipster/chill in this area, which is a nice change of pace from the always intellectual Oxford. I loved all the amazing graffiti and murals that are scattered all over buildings, walls, and signs on the streets. Everything is so colorful and bright and cheerful! (except the weather!)

After exploring downtown for a bit we headed over to the pier, which was SO FUN. It feels like what I always imagined a classic carnival would be! The ocean was absolutely gorgeous and it was surreal to be standing on a shore different from that of where I live in the States. There’s something so peaceful and satisfying about staring out at pale blue water that you’ve never seen before and you’re not sure that you’ll ever see again. (Eating fish and chips while gazing out at this beautiful view wasn’t too bad either!)

Our last stop on the trip was to the Seven Sisters, which are those white cliffs in the photo above. There are two different trails leading up to this viewing point, both of which take under an hour to walk. Pictures can’t do this breathtaking, magnificent view justice. I felt so lucky to be looking out at this amazing sight on such a beautiful day with my friends. It’s truly one of the most incredible places I have ever been.

I thoroughly enjoyed my short trip to Brighton and would go back for another visit in a heartbeat. If you’ve never journeyed to this adorable seaside town before, definitely add it to your bucket list!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever been to Brighton, England? What’s your favorite seaside town? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

Formal Dinners | Holly Goes Abroad

One of the questions I get asked most about studying abroad is How is the food? Fortunately, food at Oxford is excellent! Today I’ll be talking about formal hall, a three-course meal in your college’s dining hall at which you have to wear your gowns (black cape things) and sometimes even gowns (long dresses). I’ve eaten at formal hall a handful of times now, so I’m definitely ready to gush about it!

Formal dinner in Chapel Hall at Mansfield College

Each college does formal hall a little differently. At Mansfield College where I currently study, we have formal hall every Wednesday and Friday; however, it’s pretty expensive compared to a regular meal so people usually only go every once in a while. Other colleges, such as Merton, have formal hall every night (this is a pretty good indicator of which colleges have more money). People always joke here about making a bunch of friends from other colleges so you can go to their formals, but they’re only half kidding: going to formals at other colleges is a blast!

Formal hall at Merton College

When I first time I ate at formal hall I was taken aback by its fanciness. I had to ask people what silverware to use first, which glass to put wine vs. water in, how to open the weird glass bottles of water they place in the middle of the table, etc. A tutor speaks in Latin before we eat, resembling a sort of dining cultish chant (okay, that’s a little exaggerated– it was pretty strange, though!). Most importantly, the food is delicious!

Personally, the most impressive aspect of formal hall is the way they handle allergies. When you sign up to go to formal you write down any dietary restrictions you may have, which ultimately get written on a little card like the one shown above. You place this card in front of you during the meal to let the server know and they will adjust your meal accordingly. I’m always so surprised when they bring out a dessert that I can actually eat with my nut allergy because usually that’s the part of the meal that I have to skip. My favorite dessert so far has been apple pie…. how did they know I was craving autumn desserts?!

Formal hall may be expensive, but it’s definitely worth it for special occasions. Where else can you feel like you’re dining in the Great Hall at Hogwarts?

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

Have you ever been to formal hall at Oxford? What’s the fanciest meal you’ve ever eaten? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY

British vs. American English | Holly Goes Abroad

When I first told my friends and family that I wanted to spend a year abroad in England, many of them tried to reassure me by saying, “Well, at least they don’t speak a different language!” Little did they know that sometimes it feels as though it actually is a different language. There is a surprising number of words that I’ve heard and have had to ask what they mean or how they should be used in regular conversation. Usually I forget to use them and end up resorting to the American version… but it’s the thought that counts, right?

Here are some British vs. American English comparisons that have taken some getting used to:

“Porridge” vs. “Oatmeal”

Before coming to England I had this vague idea in my head that porridge was a different kind of oatmeal. I stand corrected: they’re literally the same thing. Now I just feel like Goldilocks and the three bears when I eat breakfast every morning.

“Are you alright?” vs. “How are you?”

This one really throws me off. How do you respond to this? Am I supposed to say “Yes, are you alright?” Usually I just end up smiling and then mumbling something incoherent before hurriedly asking them how they are. Really, really smooth.

“Football” vs. “Soccer”

This example encompasses countless differences regarding sports. Here they say “boots” instead of “cleats,” “pitch” instead of “field,” “match” instead of “game”…. the list goes on and on!

“Timetable” vs. “Schedule”

Every time someone says “timetable” my mind immediately thinks of Hermione’s Time-Turner in Harry Potter. Maybe they really are wizards here…

“Tutor” vs. “Professor”

Every week I attend tutorials led by my tutor, which is just a different word for professor. This brings up an interesting question: What do I call them? It’s normal back home to say “Professor Snape” but I don’t think it would be right to say “Tutor Snape”…. so maybe “Dr. Snape” is better?

“Bop” vs. “Dance”

When I first learned that there would be a bop at the end of Fresher’s Week visions of High School Musical’s “Bop to the Top” raced through my mind. It turns out that a bop is actually just a school dance, though different from back home in that they serve alcohol. They are also themed, which makes it even more hilarious and cheesy.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little foray into the linguistic challenges I’ve encountered thus far! It makes me grateful that I’m not studying somewhere with a completely different language. Adjusting to a new culture is difficult enough, but an entirely different language adds a huge wrinkle into the mess!

Click here to check out other posts in my Holly Goes Abroad series!

What other differences have you encountered between the same language spoken in different countries or areas of the world? Have you had any experiences like this? Which one of these differences surprises you most? Let me know in the comments section below!

Yours,

HOLLY