“Have a nice trip… and enjoy your stay!”
by Zachary Lee
As I was preparing for my yearlong study abroad program at Oxford, I jokingly asked my Cornell friend Olivia who previously lived in Grenoble, France, about the key differences between Americans and Europeans. Being a fellow English major, her answer came packaged in the form of simile and metaphor. Americans, she reasoned, are like peaches: friendly as strangers but they generally tend to be more reserved when you try to dig deeper (i.e. soft on the outside but having a hard center/pit on the inside). After prefacing that her description of Europeans perhaps applied a little more to French people, she compared Europeans to coconuts. “They may be naturally outgoing and friendly to strangers but as one digs deeper past the facade of pleasantries, you find that they are open and kind (i.e. hard on the outside, soft on the inside),” she reasoned.
Having had the privilege of being a visiting student for a full year now, I can mostly attest the veracity of Olivia’s descriptions, while also highlighting other differences, from minor culinary and linguistic nuances (love for baked beans, incorrectly calling soccer “football” etc) to larger cultural attitudes (people’s greater appreciation for tradition and history). While her fruity analysis was said in regards to personality, I have found that my Oxford experience as a visiting student does differ greatly from the lives of the matriculated. I am able to freely choose my tutorials and don’t have revisions or finals (to name a few key distinctions).
On the surface that seems like a good trade-off and I was definitely reminded of these blessings after talking with my finalist friends in Trinity term. I often joke that I am experiencing Oxford-lite (i.e. not the full experience) but that does not mean that the visiting student life is all peachy. While on the academic front, this may mean less exams, the first term of adjusting to Oxford is a mix of reward, rigor, confusion, and hardship. From adapting to the academics to trying to find a friend group, Oxford can still feel isolating and confusing even if you know how to speak the language. Though Oxford has many programs in place to help visiting students get adjusted, even the best of intentions have their blind spots.
As a disclaimer, though, I want to mention that as far as my experience, I am immensely grateful for the church family I have had in the form of St. Ebbes and with OICCU. These organizations have made my transition into the UK not only smooth but have provided me with the community and fellow brothers and sisters who have been iron that sharpens iron. I also want to stress and recognize my own privilege coming from the US to the UK. While there is some culture shock, it is not as hard of an adjustment coming across the pond as those who come from non-Westernized countries, for those that did not grow up speaking English as their first language, or those who have to leave their countries for far longer than a year. The stories and criticisms I offer here are rooted primarily in the appreciation I have for my own Oxford experience but also look towards the future in hoping that the good efforts being done to help visiting students are further advanced.
Statistically, there are a lot of visiting students that attend Oxford. According to a 2017 study, 2.3% of the undergraduate and graduate student body at Oxford are visiting students, amounting to about 541 students. Likewise, around 10,000 students international students at Oxford make up 43% of the total student body , with the top the USA and China (including Hong Kong and Macau) sending the most students.
That is a large number of students who either would not primarily identify the UK as their home or will only be in the UK for a short amount of time. For them, it is easy to feel a sense of otherness and loneliness. Many students have mentioned how while they feel grateful for the kindness of their peers and their support network, the truth is that it is difficult to break into and enter into a new culture. Unsurprisingly, this is why one tends to see a lot of visiting students solely hanging out with each other. Admittedly, the issue is multifaceted as visiting students should be willing to branch out and step out of their comfort zone while matriculated students could be more mindful and intentional about reaching out to visiting students.
On one hand, it is understandable that there is this tension. Especially if a visiting student will only be around for a term or year, it can be initially difficult to justify choosing to spend time with them over a friend group one has already found. Free time during term time is not exactly in abundant supply and especially since one usually gets to see his/her friends for 8 weeks at a time, it is much easier to default to simply spending time with the same group of friends and people. Branching out, as noble and as ultimately as it is, is taxing and draining; wouldn’t one rather simply use their time to put their energy and time into friendships that will be “last”? Many friends and other visiting students I have spoken to have spoken to this and felt as though there is more of a hesitation to want to befriend visiting students. Organizations like the Oxford International Student Society are certainly trying to help ease the transition for visiting students by providing events and connecting them with other visiting and/or international students. Likewise, many organizations put on local events that visiting students can attend in order to feel welcomed.
But to truly integrate and form community and to follow the Biblical command to love foreigners as said in Leviticus  goes beyond merely inviting someone into another’s culture or letting the “foreigner” remain solely with other foreigners. Integration is an exchange; it is a mutual transaction of being willing to step into the idiosyncrasies, struggle, and experiences of others, even if it is easier to do otherwise. The same way that Jesus was willing to take on the form of a human and not remain distant from humanity but eventually take on all of humanity’s sins, sets the standard for how we ought to treat and care for those whom God has entrusted into our care. The answer is not to simply treat visiting students as though they are matriculated (that is: covering over their backgrounds or their stories); instead it looks like being willing to listen, to not only invite them into British culture, but to be willing to take the time to ask them what their life and experiences are.
What does the solution look like? It looks like being willing to listen rather than simply being heard in conversations. It looks like being willing to engage with a different facet of one’s culture or try a new dish even if the spice level is higher than what one may be used to. It looks like not just being content when all the seats at the table are filled but asking who is missing and if it is possible to add more chairs. So to my British friends, the next time you see a weary visiting student walking on the roads of Oxford, battered by academic stress and struggling with adjustment, rather than simply passing on the other side, be the Samaritan who takes mercy and care. Crack open the shell and you may find that us peaches and coconuts have more alike than you think.
 https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/facts-and-figures?wssl=1 [external link]  https://www.ox.ac.uk/about/facts-and-figures/student-numbers?wssl=1 [external link]  Leviticus 19:34: “The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the LORD your God.” NIV
Zachary Lee is studying English and Spanish at St. Catherine’s College
Opinions expressed are those of the author, not of Just Love Oxford. Just Love Oxford is not responsible for the content of external links.[image description (cover): an aerial view of the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford.] [image description (inline): a close-up of Zachary, sitting down and smiling.]