Touring Oxford and Cambridge

I just got back last night from a half-week in England.  The one and only extra trip I wanted to make in Europe this summer, one that I’ve been curious about for years, was to see Oxford and Cambridge University.

After my freshman year of college I became enamored with elite universities.  During my summer internship in New York I stayed in the dorms at Columbia University, and befriended another rising sophomore who just finished his first year at Harvard.  I didn’t grow up around rich or well educated people, so that whole universe seemed fictional to me.  When I met kids just like me going to these places I thought: why not me?

It was too late for me though, I had already transferred to “The Harvard of the Midwest” aka U of Michigan for my sophomore year (they actually sell t-shirts with that slogan, but I found out that real Harvard people were unaware of a secondary branch in Michigan).  In hindsight even if I could have transferred to a tippy-top school I would have been forced to saddle myself with a lot of debt, whereas at Michigan as an instate student my mother paid it in full (or more accurately was gracious enough to take out loans herself so I didn’t have to).  My life would have also had a butterfly affect, and I probably wouldn’t be chilling here in Stockholm blogging about my relaxed nomadic life.

I loved my time at Michigan, and strongly considered PhD programs in Philosophy, and after switching majors, Economics.  If resources like Khan Academy existed back then so I could shore up my math that had cannonball sized holes in it, I probably would have.  The idea of lifelong learning deeply appealed to me.  The scary thing was being at the mercy of open university teaching positions.  I realized that even if I got into the University of Chicago for a PhD, and did some brilliant work, I would still be lucky to get a tenure-track position in Iowa…or worse.

Money status always intrigued me as well, but my first job put me in a room with several people making millions a year with the same wants & problems as me.  I still had to experience making money myself before realizing that it’s not some life-fulfilling achievement.  At some point after having stability, freedom, and the resources to experiment, more money doesn’t matter.  Learning and education for me is insatiable though.  I guess universities have always symbolized in my mind a mythical sanctuary of learning, and the “elite” schools containing the highest percentage of people who love learning too vs. the majority who are there for the bridge to getting a job.

I enjoy the energy and pride that permeates famous college towns.  Students really feel like I’ve arrived, and am set for life.  Of course having met people from all of the top universities I know that plenty of these students will be in for a harsh surprise in a few years.  Academic success is just a stepping stone into real life, but there’s no reason to burst the bubble.  I try to personally operate in an abundance mindset as much as possible.  Not to the point of delusion, but for me when I start preparing for doomsday scenarios I don’t feel like I’m living — just playing defense as time floats by.

With that intro to the affectionate place universities hold in my heart it shouldn’t be a surprise that I loved Cambridge and Oxford.  They are pretty interchangeable, and neither one is supposed to be much differentiated than the other.  It’s like Princeton vs Harvard, rather than Harvard vs MIT.  With that said I personally preferred Cambridge, both the city and school.  It’s more of a gut feeling, although I think the average college grounds at Oxford are more impressive.

The Uni (they pronounce it that way and I’m lazy to type university) system in England is quite different than America.  You can only apply to one Uni between Oxford and Cambridge.  Not only that, but you actually can only apply to one “college” at one of the two Universities.  Each Uni has colleges that are completely independent, but still a part of the University.  I’m used to that in America where I attended UofM’s college of Literature, Science, and Arts vs Engineering/Business, but at Cambridge/Oxford pretty much every college has almost all of the majors.  Some are famous for having alumni and probably tutors in specific subjects, but it’s more like joining a social club than a traditional college.  Students in each degree program (econ, chemistry, etc.) have classes together in the general University, but they have separate study sessions and tutoring within their specific colleges.  The college is responsible for pushing you to do well on the University exams, and forming you into a respectable member of society.

I’m sure the education is first-rate too, but if you’re looking for a unique college experience, I can’t imagine doing better than Oxford/Cambridge.  I actually stayed in the dorms at both via a cool website that lets you book university rooms during the breaks (www.universityrooms.com).  Although breakfast had less choices than I had in the US, the mess hall was incredible.  You eat in an oak room with old paintings of people looking down on you, reminiscent of living in a proper English manor.

The colleges themselves were amazing.  I went to about 5-10 at both campuses, and each one was very unique.  Gardens, each with their own student bar, one had a pool, the libraries, etc.  My girlfriend described it perfectly: “is this real?”  Several of the colleges have been used for Harry Potter movies which is the feeling evoked throughout the schools.  Joining a college feels akin to a fraternity on steroids in the US; with requisite boozing, secret societies, and plenty more that I can only guess at.  The formalities (dining gown for dinner, formal outfits, etc.) to me only add to the mystique and fun.  If I was an 11th grader now with my shit together I would strongly put these on my college list.

During the frequent travel of bus/trains/planes I finished another book, “Mystic River” by Dennis Lehane.  Incredible book, one of those that you read and feel both intimidated but also inspired to write.  I don’t remember if I’ve seen the movie or not, and if I have I didn’t remember any of it.  I personally have a hard time reading something when I remember the film, especially a crime/mystery, unless it’s really short.  Both “Drive” and “American Psycho” were exceptions with such amazing books that I could care less about the movie details.

I didn’t do Cambridge or Oxford enough justice, but I will do my best with several pictures in closing today.

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