My year at the world’s most prestigious university

By adviser Mar 5, 2021
Here I am pictured in my ‘subfusc’ which is Oxford speak for the traditional black and white uniform worn for special occasions, formal hall and exams. Photo Courtesy of Samira Kassem
Here I am pictured in my ‘subfusc’ which is Oxford speak for the traditional black and white uniform worn for special occasions, formal hall and exams.
Photo Courtesy of Samira Kassem

So anyone who knows me will respond to reading this with the exact same joke: “We get it, you went to Oxford!” However, spending a year of my college career at the world’s best university left me with a lot of thoughts. 

Now that it is March, it has been nearly a full year since I returned from the Pembroke program, which means I have had a full year to reflect on the absolute fever dream that was my time at Oxford. 

When I came to IWU as a first-year, I actually had no intention of applying for the Pembroke program. I always hoped to study abroad but wasn’t really sure exactly where I would end up and had my doubts that I would ever be brave enough to actually do it. I never in a million years would have thought that I would end up at the University of Oxford. 

IWU’s Pembroke Program partners with Pembroke College at Oxford to offer students a chance to experience the life of an Oxford student, 

Ultimately, some friends of mine in the political science department and my advisor at the time encouraged me to apply and I prepared my application thinking there was no way I would be accepted. In March of my sophomore year I got the news that I was in. 

The first thought that came to mind was something along the lines of “oh sh*t: this means I actually have to go now,” and a couple months later, I was on a plane to England. 

Upon arrival at Oxford I felt like I was in a dream. The architecture in this town is absolutely unbelievable and I was in awe. 

Pembroke College. Walking on the perfectly manicured lawns was strictly prohibited. They never told us what would happen if we did just that we didn’t want to find out…
Photo: Samira Kassem

The thing about going to Oxford, however, is that, even as a visiting student, you are held to the same standards as any other student studying there and those standards are VERY different than IWU’s.

As you can imagine, the people who are accepted to the best university in the world tend to have backgrounds in private schools and expensive tutors. And as such, they also tend to be extremely intelligent.This is not to say that all of the people I met had the same circumstances, but, being from a rural Illinois town with a public education, it was difficult to find people that I could relate to. 

Other American visiting students came from schools like Georgetown and Cornell and most clearly had wealthy families. Their lives at Ivy Leagues were really not all that different than they were at Oxford. Every time we went to an event in groups and someone asked “Where are your home Unis?” it was always the same response when it got to my answer: “Oh, I have never heard of that.” 

Pembroke’s dining hall.
Photo: Pembroke College Catering

It only took about a week of tutorials–what classes are called at Oxford–for the imposter syndrome to kick in. As I attended my classes and events alongside the best and the brightest in the world, I constantly questioned why I was there. I somehow ended up at the best-ranked university in the entire world among Ivy League students who spend their summers interning for Morgan Stanley. 

I received reading lists that were never-ending every week and was asked to write more essays in a month than I had been in my entire two years at IWU.I spent more time in the library than anywhere else and, no matter how hard I studied, feared that I would not be able to rise to the level of my seemingly superhuman peers.  

As I reflect back on my time I think about how I portrayed myself on social media as having an amazing time, but I cannot deny that I was struggling. After the first of three terms I returned home for winter break and felt truly comfortable again for the first time since I had arrived in England. 

My second term in Oxford was when things finally clicked. I decided to fight back against imposter syndrome. I told myself that they would not have accepted my application if I was not meant to be there. 

I stopped focusing on the ways that I feared I could not connect with my peers there and started being more open-minded and willing to meet new people. I attended talks at the Oxford Union and went to a formal ball. I took a tutorial on Marxism and seized the opportunity to study things that I never got the chance to at IWU. 

Here I am the night of the Oxford Union ball which remains the fanciest event I have ever attended.
Photo Courtesy of Samira Kassem

I learned so much more than academics during my time studying abroad. When I got accepted I never considered the ways that my experience could be imperfect. We tend to see study abroad through rose-colored glasses. Before we do it ourselves, all we see are other people’s portrayals of their experiences and no one is going to post the bad times. 

When I got to England I thought I was going to have a perfect year away from all of my problems back home and when it didn’t turn out that way it was a bit of rude awakening.I mean, for God sakes, the year ended in a third term of online classes due to a literal global pandemic.

I grew as a person and was challenged to branch out and leave my comfort zone. My year as an Oxford student is something that I would not trade for the world. This is not to say that I did not struggle, but that is okay.   

IWU’s Pembroke program is more unique than people even realize. We are the only small school among some of the top in the country that have the opportunity to have students apply. 

Academically, I was pushed harder than ever before but gained skills that will benefit me forever. I am thankful that I did not let fear stop me from applying, going or returning for my second term. Admittedly, all three of these things almost happened. 

Unfortunately, COVID-19 stopped me from being able to return for my final term, but I am so unbelievably grateful for the two that I got to have in person.

Pembroke College and all of Oxford will always have a very special place in my heart and I cannot wait for the day that I can return.

By adviser

Related Post