Many students get to know their professors on Grounds—in the classroom or lab, during office hours, or by taking their professor to lunch, a tradition at U.Va. But Annie O’Brien (College ’14) got to know Professor Mark Thomas while playing croquet, punting on the Cherwell, and taking an insider’s tour of Oxford University.
Thomas, a professor in the Corcoran Department of History, is the program director of the U.Va. in Oxford education abroad program. “He taught us how to play croquet with a mandatory demonstration during the first week of the program,” O’Brien says. “Believe it or not, it got incredibly competitive and some of us took it very seriously.”
Professor Thomas, who was an undergraduate at Oxford and also completed his D.Phil. there, makes sure students have every chance to experience daily life at University College as well as learn about the distinctive culture and extensive history of the local area. “We provide what I sometimes call a holistic approach to study abroad—our students live in Oxford student rooms, eat Oxford student food in a ‘Harry Potter’ dining hall, and are taught by Oxford academics,” Thomas says. “Too many American programs transport their own faculty and turn Oxford into Summer School, robbing students of the opportunity to appreciate the very different intellectual and cultural perspectives that shape British academics.”
The program’s theme and courses are deliberately comparative, he explains. “We offer opportunities for cultural immersion, with cricket and croquet, Shakespeare and stately homes (and pub quizzes in the college beer cellar) as program activities, and time, encouragement, and logistical support for students to explore on their own—in Oxford, London, and beyond. A mark of our success is that the Oxford program has become a gateway to studying abroad in more challenging locations.”
O’Brien says her Oxford experience was enlightening. “It helped me realize how great it is to travel as a student. I had the opportunity to experience a new place, meet new people, and live and study at one of the oldest universities in the world.” She was one of five students in a course on British and American relations in the twentieth century taught by Oxford tutor Richard Beresford.
Outside the classroom, Thomas guided students to not-to-be-missed sites and events, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe Theatre, Stonehenge and Avebury, and Hampton Court Palace. Punting on the Cherwell was a popular activity. Using a long pole, one passenger steers the boat down the river, which affords lovely views of the varied architecture of Oxford’s colleges. O’Brien wryly describes it as a “true test of good balance.”
For O’Brien, living and studying in England made her reconsider where she might go after graduation. “I’ve always known the world is a big place, but now I understand and appreciate what that entails. If I ever have the chance to live and work abroad, I would not hesitate to go.”