Intensive. Transformative. Magical. Exciting.These are the words used to describe a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend six summer weeks studying Renaissance History and Literature at “the epitome of higher learning”—Oxford University. This consortium of six colleges every year send their students to St. Anne’s College. “We’re an equal partner,” says professor Tony Lilly, the Sweet Briar representative of the Virginia Program at Oxford which is not merely an American style college term in England, but rather an abbreviated Oxford term.
“They said ‘Okay, we’ll let you use our dorms, we’ll let you use our classrooms and you gonna use our teachers and you are gonna use our system,’” says Dr. Lilly.
Olivia Myers, a participant of the program and also the recipient of the lauded Simpson Scholarship, went to explain, “Basically we would have lectures once a day—sometimes maybe twice a day, but usually just once a day in the mornings for an hour and that was it. And we’d have a different lecturer everyday. So it was basically just like a guest speaker type deal. Afterwards we would have coffee and tea and cookies and we could ask the lecturer as many annoying questions we wanted. And they would answer them. They were great.”
Cassie Fenton, another recent alum of the program, describes the tutorial sessions. “We were put in small groups of 3 students and we were paired with two tutors, one for history and one for literature. Every week, we had to present a paper for our tutors, and then you had to defend your points in a discussion with your small group and professor. Essentially you were being critiqued on your abilities out loud.”
In the hours they are not researching in the library, or listening to lectures, or defending theses in tutorials, students venture out of St. Anne’s College to explore.
“Oxford is a phenomenal city,” says Dr. Lily. “It’s a huge university town, it’s really cosmopolitan; there’s something going on every night. Everything from galleries and plays and museums to clubs and dances and parties right? So students really have this opportunity to meet people from around the world and participate in the culture of this really, incredibly, vibrant city which has been a center of western culture for hundreds and hundreds of years.”
“Prestigious. The whole place. There’s just knowledge pouring out of everywhere, but the people are very friendly,” says Myers. “It’s a very young crowd and everyone’s super friendly and they like to go out and have a good time at night and it’s a lot of fun.”
And the history is evident everywhere. “Every corner of Oxford has historical significance or cultural significance so you walk in the city and its really just like you’re in a different universe. So every moment is full of magic,” says Lily. “You could walk into a bookstore and they got Roman ruins in the basement.You could walk into a pizza shop and they’ve got Renaissance frescoes on the wall. It’s just part of such a long sweep of history and time that you don’t often see in this country.”
Fenton adds, “You can just feel the history of the city. Whether you’re in an academic building, a cathedral, in a pub, or even just out on the street, you can see traces of centuries upon centuries of historical influence, and even within that, you have the carefree and fun-loving essence of any college town.”
Aside from a tour of the colleges of Oxford and playing croquet or cricket with the British director of the program, there are group activities like touring Hampton Court Palace, visiting Stratford-Upon-Avon, and attending a play in the Globe Theatre.
“I particularly loved our outings to The Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. The production of Hamlet that we saw was one of the most unique adaptations I have ever seen, and it was absolutely incredible,” remembers Fenton.
Students can also travel throughout U.K. and the continent for a reasonable price. Some scholars journey to London, Bath, Wales, Scotland and even Spain during the long weekend they have in the middle of the program. Olivia Myers traveled Edinburgh with a few friends:
“It tied in with what we were learning about, cause we were talking about the birthplace of Kind James the 1st/6th. We went to a castle in Edinburgh where he was born and we got to see where his mom stayed and had lived. That was so neat. And we actually were there in Edinburgh over their Jazz Festival? Which we didn’t realize was a thing—we got to hear all their cool jazz and everything. It was really neat. I was very impressed.”
The program’s growth in both academic and social self-confidence is tremendous. “They learn ‘I can go to a foreign country. Find my way to the college. Live in a room on my own, in a house full of strangers. I can hold my own with these world class scholars and have fun, come back.’ And what an incredible growth experience. What an amazing way to learn about yourself. So in terms of academic qualities and personal growth—I think it’s one of the best things we offer our students –regardless of your major, regardless of your academic pursuits—it’s an unparalleled experience” Lilly proclaims.
Myers strongly advises prospective students to, “Definitely push yourself to get out there and make friends and explore. Go out on your own and explore Oxford and look around. Don’t just sit around and wait for someone to include you, you get out there and do you. Make connections with people in the program, but also don’t be afraid to go out by yourself and make other connections. But also, strangers are kind of creepy so be careful who you talk to.”
And Fenton recommends to “pack light, and travel outside of Oxford as much as you can.”
But first, talk to Tony Lilly or shoot him an email. “We can plan what courses you wanna take and what preparation you might need and financial plan. It’s cheap for what it is, but most people don’t have seven grand laying around so it takes some planning as with any program and I can help with that.” Before turning off the computer and deciding to stay home and work at JC Penney for the summer, consider this: the trip includes accommodations, three meals a day, group excursions, and access to esteemed British professors and the Bodleian Library—one of the most incredible libraries that has been around since the 1500s.
“It’s a top rate education. … If students look around and compare you’ll see that other programs in that price range either don’t include all meals or don’t include trips or don’t include a British faculty—they cut corners. And we’re very glad that we’re able to offer students an inclusive experience.”
Scholarships and financial aid are available.You can apply for Honors Travel grants and other study abroad scholarships. “Because this applies as a Sweet Briar program,” says Lilly, “you can apply and Federal financial grants or loans you can apply to the regular school year. So a lot of students take that options, take out a grant or a low interest loan to help pay for study abroad.”
“The bottom line is it’s one of the most cost effective trips that any college student will ever find,” Lilly concludes.
As each of the interviewees discussed the Virginia Program at Oxford with me, I could see how passionate they were. I saw the glint of excitement in their eyes, the smiles when they told me of their favorite memories, and the frustration in their expressions as they tried to search for the words to describe the unique and magical experiences they had while abroad. Talk with a single one and you will be converted.
By Mary Grace Williams