Jen Ren


Stanford in Oxford, Winter 2016-17
Major: Human Biology
Major: Computer Science
College year while abroad: Junior
About the photo: Near the end of Hilary term (winter quarter), all the daffodils and crocuses started blooming. This was taken on a walk in one of the university parks when the weather warmed up!


Why did you choose to study abroad in Oxford?

I chose to study abroad in Oxford because:

1) I sought its unique academic experience. As someone whose primary coursework for my major happens in large lectures, I valued the tutorial system because it provided me an opportunity to have a close, one-on-one relationship in a way that I haven’t found at Stanford.

2) the local political context was well-suited for my particular academic interest. Being able to study the UK’s NHS and the UK’s recent political turbulence while in the UK, both of which parallel equivalent healthcare reform and current political movements in the US, provided a richness to my understanding in comparing health systems.

3) I sought a study abroad program where I could meet and live with other students — for me, choosing dorm-style living suited me better than a homestay program. Living in the Stanford House and being associated with an Oxford college were factors that attracted me to Oxford. 

4) as a Chicagoan, I love the winter, and being someplace cold was refreshing after too much Californian sun!

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Oxford?

I expected Oxford to be a very academic experience, which it was, but I totally discounted the social aspect of studying abroad in Oxford. I knew that living in the Stanford House would be fun and that I’d get to meet other Stanford students, but I dramatically underestimated how much being based out of that House would shape my study abroad experience. Having a centralized space where all students lived and many of us worked and ate meant that the impromptu interactions — like playing board games, late-night conversations in the Stanford library, or cooking together — became key sources of how we grew close as a cohort. I’m really glad to have made friends through Oxford that have become some of my closest friends at Stanford!

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Oxford?

The tutorial was awesome for me! I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with my tutor and my tutorial, though it can vary depending on who your tutor is and what you choose to study. I valued my tutorial because:

1) I now feel really well-versed in my subject area — when I returned to Stanford, I realized that the breadth and depth of material I covered in my tutorial was roughly equivalent to that of several upper division classes I would have taken otherwise. 

2) I developed a close relationship with my tutor, who knows me well and can vouch for my work. At Stanford, the majority of my coursework so far has been in classes that are huge and don’t provide the same small group or one-on-one attention that I got at Oxford.

3) my argumentative skills improved tremendously — writing 10-20 pages a week certainly helps! My tutor was very invested in my work and learning, so getting his feedback on my writing made the experience worthwhile.

4) it exposed me to a totally different way of thinking about the same problems: at Stanford, I found myself predisposed towards making utilitarian, outcomes-based arguments around healthcare reform, whereas I was challenged to consider deontological, rights-based perspectives much more heavily at Oxford. 

5) the access to literature is super different — Oxford’s library system (the Bodleian) contains a vast amount of work, some of which I haven’t been able to find in the US, such as histories of the NHS and other esoteric academic works. Gaining access to that and a different domain knowledge were huge unexpected benefits of studying abroad at Oxford.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad?

I took a gap year right before studying abroad at Oxford, and I traveled to many different countries and continents on my time away from Stanford. Because of those experiences, I’d already been acclimated to navigating new spaces on my own and traveling solo, but being in Oxford was different — because I wasn’t as transient, I got to build longer-term relationships with people that I met there. Being at Oxford was like starting as a freshman again — I didn’t know the majority of people in the program and was thrown into a new academic environment. For me, I found it refreshing to have that kind of experience three years into my time at Stanford, and it reinvigorated the sense of excitement and novelty that I missed about being a freshman.

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?

Making the most out of 10 weeks — the quarter system is wonderful because you get to try out many things: the only reason I’ve been able to go abroad to Oxford in the first place is because I’ve been able to shuffle around course requirements and make time, thanks to the quarter system. But going abroad on such a cramped timeline can make it hard to get acclimated quickly and achieve the depth of experience you might be seeking. This probably applies to every BOSP program, but I think the challenges are compounded especially at Oxford, where you are welcomed into a whole new academic institution with its own set of quirks and resources and cultures to learn.

The more planning you can do beforehand will let you ramp up more quickly — look into seminars you want to participate in, reach out to College Ambassadors before you arrive to ask for specifics on joining sports teams and other activities, and connect with your college parents in advance. Be proactive and prepared — it’ll help you maximize the little time you have in Oxford to do things!

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make?

Adjusting to certain formalities of Oxford culture, like being served wordlessly at formal hall dinners, felt strange — I’ve grown up used to serving myself and Stanford overall has a very casual culture that juxtaposes that of Oxford. I also found myself learning that Oxford the university is very different than Oxford the city — compared to Stanford, which is its own city and very much separated from the surrounding communities, the integration of the university into the town was an unanticipated cultural adjustment I had to make. 

The University of Oxford is also very much decentralized — while there are university-wide events and lectures, other kinds of programming and sports are through your college affiliation. For example, many colleges maintain their own sports facilities, something radically different than Stanford’s university-wide buildings open for any Stanford student to use. On one hand, the intimate college experience is rewarding because engaging with a much smaller community means you get to know people much more quickly. At the same time, learning how to access resources and navigate the decentralized college system can be tricky at times.

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Oxford?

The Stanford House is a beautiful place to be — it’s been recently renovated so its facilities are very nice, and the common spaces are where some of my best memories of Oxford took place: hanging out in the kitchen, playing board games in the garden room, and commiserating with other night owls in the library. I miss the quirkiness of the building, wandering and getting lost in the all the floors and half-floors of the Stanford House, and the impromptu conversations that happen in the stairwells. Living in such close proximity to other Stanford students hugely contributed to my everyday happiness.

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Oxford?

Getting to feed and walk alpacas! Our Bing trip was to Edinburgh. During our time there, we got to visit an alpaca farm — it turned out to be an unusually beautiful, sunny spring day. Walking the alpacas was a ton of fun — mine tried to run away from me and it was a struggle trying to keep them under control!

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience?

Philosophical, intimate, refreshing, cozy, brief

Fun Questions:

What was your favorite food you had in Oxford?

Undoubtedly, Oli’s Thai. Protip: it’s usually crammed and they have very tiny capacity, so if you haven’t made a reservation (and if you know you’ll be abroad, make it even before you go!) your best bet to getting a seat is showing up an hour before they open for lunch. Camp out, and hopefully you’ll get one of the 6 seats they reserve for walk-ins. Anything on their menu is good, but the chickpea salad is definitely a must-have

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program?

Definitely my phone — I didn’t take a camera abroad with me, so I relied on my phone to take lots of photos. It’ll also be your lifesaver if/when you get lost! if you’re looking for a phone plan, I recommend the T-Mobile SimpleChoice plan before you go. It provides unlimited overseas coverage for most European countries (so you won’t have a problem if you decide to travel elsewhere while you’re at Oxford), so it makes preparing to go abroad ridiculously easy.

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Oxford?

It’s pretty embarrassing to say, but I never knew who Van Morrison was until another person in the program introduced him to me (he was playing in London and some folks were going to see him!)

 But while you’re in Oxford, I highly recommend going to Evensong at least once at any college because:

 1) the music is magical and set in a gorgeous venue. I only went to one, and I wish I had gone to Magdalen College’s Evensong — they’re known to be fantastic (their choir has been nominated for a Grammy)!

 2) it’s a good way to see different colleges that you might not otherwise have the opportunity to visit. For example, Christ Church is fairly restrictive with its visitor policy, and normally you have to pay a fee to tour its grounds. 

 3) it’s a fantastic cultural experience. Even if you’re not religious, attending Evensong can be valuable in providing a glimpse into the long, rich, and hallowed history of England.