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Comparing Stanford and Oxford

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In the two years since I started college, I’ve often been asked by friends and family if I think Stanford was the “right” choice of school for me. I’ve never had a good answer to that question. I do love Stanford, but until this quarter, I’d never had any other school to really compare it to. I couldn’t even comment on how good the food is compared to other universities, let alone the academics, social life or school culture. 

I am currently studying abroad in the rain-soaked, castle-strewn town of Oxford, a literal and metaphorical world away from our California campus. Experiencing the Oxford system has already given me many new perspectives on Stanford’s institutional modus operandi. Some of the contrasts between the two universities have made me jealous of the Oxford student body, but I have mostly grown ever more appreciative of my home at Stanford. 

Here are the biggest differences I’ve noticed between Stanford and Oxford: 

1. The Value of Tradition: Founded way back in the thirteenth century as an academic center for monks, Oxford lives and breathes tradition. This is envious when it means having a pet tortoise at your residence. It is less envious when it means navigating uneven, creaky staircases and having to wear formal attire to final exams. With all of the centuries-old artwork and architecture, Oxford can also feel rather like a museum — a place to be seen and respected, not lived in and enjoyed. I have never experienced the same historical intimidation at Stanford.

2. Oxford is made up of forty “colleges,” which are residential buildings with their own dining halls, libraries, sports teams and clubs, each of which houses some fraction of the total student body. Social life strongly revolves around your particular college, and cross-college friendships seem uncommon compared to cross-dorm friendships at Stanford. My college, Corpus Christi, is home to only 250 undergraduates; if you thought Stanford was a small school, imagine having only 80 students in your class year.

3. Oxford is explicitly religious at nearly every turn. As I mentioned, my college is named Corpus Christi, which is Latin for “the body of Christ.” Other colleges include Christ Church College, St. John’s College and even a Jesus College. Every college has a Christian chapel; many of them were founded by Christian leaders. At formal dinners, which are hosted weekly in the colleges, a faculty member or student will say grace in Latin to begin the meal. Of course, Oxford is tolerant and welcoming to students of all religious backgrounds, but its Christian history is far more prominent than Stanford’s. Imagine the Jesus of Memorial Church, but everywhere.

4. I never thought I’d say it, but I miss Arrillaga dining. Oxford’s colleges serve breakfast, lunch and dinner cafeteria-style, where you walk up to the counter and get to choose between two or three pre-portioned entrees, a few sides and a dessert. No longer can I have cereal for lunch or a whole plate of fruit for dinner. No longer can I mix brownies into my preferred serving size of vanilla soft serve. I will do my best to never complain again about buffet-style dining.

5. Oxford is far more urban than Stanford. The colleges are neatly integrated into a bustling town, replete with shops, cafés and little grocery stores. Within a five-minute walk of the Stanford House, which is in central Oxford, you can find at least eight local dining options. The groceries here are also much cheaper than in California. While I do miss my morning walks through the uncrowded, tree-lined sidewalks at Stanford, it’s a real shame we don’t have more city-life around us for entertainment and convenience.

6. Oxford is a haven for the humanities. In the words of an Oxford student, “Oxford encourages you to study subjects that won’t get you a job.” History, English and philosophy feature heavily in the college culture. The computer science department is but a medium-sized building in the science sector of town. Is a humanities culture better than the CS-saturated culture at Stanford? I suppose the answer depends on whom you ask.

7. Last, but not least: rain. Drizzling rain, pouring rain, rain coming in horizontally on the wind. Umbrellas are not optional here. Nor is the fortitude to make it through five days without seeing the sun.

Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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