Oxford: An International Student’s Perspective

For me as for many, Oxford had been a lifelong ambition but seemed destined to be a dream. When I was little, my mum used to joke that she couldn’t wait until I went to Oxford so that she could come and visit me, but it was never something anyone in my family seriously considered – myself included. I have always been very serious (some would say neurotic) about my academic endeavours, but pursuing higher education abroad seemed in itself to lie outside the realm of possibility, not to mention doing so at one of the top universities in the world. No, more likely I would go to a respectable Swedish university, like Uppsala or Lund. Oxford remained an idle fantasy, fed by my penchant for the Eton aesthetic and historical dramas about the English upper class.

It wasn’t until I started IB at upper secondary school that I began to think seriously about applying to UK universities. Even then, aiming for Oxford seemed a little presumptuous. That is, until a boy two years above me was accepted to study law here – as far as I know, the first person in the history of our school to ever apply to Oxbridge, not to mention actually be admitted; it was a Pretty Big Deal. It sent ripples through the junior years and suddenly Oxbridge applications were being submitted left, right, and centre – Brexit be damned. I figured I might as well apply too; I’d seen now that real people, people that I knew, could go to Oxford. So why not me?  

With sights set on the October 15th deadline, I got to work on constructing my application. The application process for Swedish universities is a reflection of the same vision that informs Scandinavian design; simple, minimalist, functional. All you need to do is submit your grades. Given that Swedish schools generally do not expect their students to apply to foreign universities, there was little support to be found among my teachers during the application process, who’d rarely had to trouble themselves with things like personal statements and references before. The sudden spike in demand probably didn’t help –  it was clear that they were quite overwhelmed. My fellow applicants and I muddled through as best we could by ourselves (what exactly should a personal statement include? what on earth is a college?), and in the weeks and months that followed many were pleased to receive offers from top Russell Group universities. 

I was the only one who received an offer from Oxford, though. After the long and stressful process, I was of course elated to know my hard work had paid off (my dream was actually coming true!?), but I was also fearful. Quite a few people had accepted offers from the same universities, but I was going in alone and largely blind. I’d barely even seen the college I was going to spend the next three years of my life at, because popping over to attend open days and offer holders’ brunches just isn’t viable when you live in a different country. 

I had all the usual apprehensions before arriving for Freshers Week – what if I actually didn’t like Oxford? What if I’d chosen the wrong course? What if everyone else were much smarter than me? Probably last on my list of worries, in fact, was the bit about moving to a new country. Britain couldn’t be that different from Sweden, I thought – and anyway, Swedes are drilled in the English language and culture from the age of six, so I felt I had a pretty good grasp on what I was getting myself into, country-wise.

Britain has turned out not to be very different from Sweden. When someone asks if I’ve experienced any culture clashes since coming here, I usually refer to the fact that cream is sold in those odious plastic cups, which is like some kind of crime (please use Tetra Pak!). My loathing for British food packaging aside, though, no tangible cultural differences spring to mind – key word: tangible, because I’ve come to suspect that there’s actually a plethora of subtle differences; I just can’t put my finger on what they are, and the Brits, very smugly, aren’t letting me in on the secret. 

These elusive differences have manifested themselves as difficulties relating to the people I meet. I am aware that the Oxford student body is not hugely representative of the wider British population, but I spent a considerable amount of time pondering this in first year and arrived at the definitive conclusion that it has something to do with the British specifically. In my time here, I’ve met British people of every possible personality type, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and while I really do like many of them, I’ve found the mysterious obstacles to forming a meaningful connection persists. I am aware that I’m quite a reserved person, even by Swedish standards, but this is a problem I’ve never had in Sweden, and which I’ve never had with other international students here (upon reflection, it is perhaps telling that my romantic liaisons thus far in my degree have all been with fellow continentals). 

Don’t get me wrong – I have British friends, whom I truly love, and the connection with whom I consider to be very meaningful. It just seems as though it’s harder for me to form such a relationship with British people than it is for British people to form them with each other, or for me to form them with non-British people. If I’m allowed to be serious for a moment, my first two terms were really difficult – especially Hilary. The novelty of Oxford life had worn off, and I realised with alarm that people were now settling into their respective social circles, whereas I felt that I had formed few connections that could be considered anything more than acquaintances. I felt like an add-on in most social settings; someone who was allowed to be there, and whose contributions may be appreciated, but who did not constitute an integral part of the group. I felt, in short, quite isolated.

I still haven’t been able to crack the British social codex, but my working theory is that my particular problem derives from a British tendency to presume that everyone knows everything about Britain, despite seemingly not knowing about much of the rest of the world themselves; a simultaneous problem of not relating and not being related to. I’ve come to really enjoy Oxford, though, and I intend on making the most of the time I have left here. That said, I will be promptly moving back to the continent after graduation – I just can’t stand those cups of cream.