“Disturbing” is the word Olivia Wall uses to describe walking the full length of the Gardens of Versailles. She recounts the opulence at the beginning: gilded walls, beautiful fountains, intricate landscaping. But the further she went, Olivia remembers, statues “start to get covered up and fountains get turned off.” By the end of the mile-and-a-half walk, the grounds were unkempt—covered in leaves, resembling the yards back home in the States more than elaborate palace grounds. The decay and deterioration of the gardens was eerily reminiscent of the decay at the heart of the gilded age, Olivia reflects, extravagance that the government couldn’t afford to maintain.
Experiences like this helped Olivia see the human element in the history she was studying. The dry fountains and covered statues brought home to her the real people who had been affected by the Palace of Versailles’ extravagance: real people had starved as their monarchs built lavish tributes to themselves that the country couldn’t afford, and real people had started a revolution in response. And though the French Revolution happened 200 years ago, “even today the effects . . . are being felt,” Olivia reflects. “Even today they can’t afford to keep up Versailles.”
While Versailles was one of the more memorable moments of Olivia’s time abroad, she spent the majority of her semester studying in Oxford. Double majoring in history and political science at Corban University, Olivia embraced the opportunity to not only leave the United States for the first time but to live on her own in a foreign culture. “I figured England is probably as close as you can get to America,” she laughs, “but it was still very different.”
The most obvious difference was the education system. While American higher education utilizes the classroom model, students at Oxford don’t attend classes like American students do. Instead, they meet with professors on an individual basis. Outside of a weekly or biweekly meeting with a faculty member, students are expected to read and research on their own, occasionally attending larger lectures.
For the first eight weeks of her semester, Olivia met once a week with her professor for British History (1500-1700), and once every other week with her professor for Witch Trials in Early Modern Europe. She explains that the professors would give her a topic, and then she would be on her own. “The only contact you’d have . . . with the professor is that one hour a week, and the rest is independent research.”
The ninth week provided a spring break travel week, during which Olivia went to Paris, and the remaining four weeks of the semester were devoted to two different courses: British History (survey) and an undergraduate research seminar.
All of her professors were faculty at Oxford, and often they were the leading researchers in their fields. She remembers learning that Dr. Diane Purkiss, her professor for Witch Trials in Early Modern Europe, had authored sections of the textbook and many of the articles Olivia came across in her research. In fact, Dr. Purkiss had connections with several of the other scholars Olivia read, and would refer to them as friends or colleagues. Suddenly, research wasn’t a dry, methodical process that one went through like a chemical formula; it was alive. Real people with real personalities were authoring articles, and it was Olivia’s job to figure out what they were talking about, enter the conversation, and hope to say something—however small—in response.
While she missed the opportunity to interact with classmates and see her professors more than once a week, Olivia appreciated the way the British education model developed her researching and writing skills. She describes spending hours researching at the Radcliffe Camera Library, at first hardly able to concentrate due to the intricate domed ceilings, balustraded parapets along the upper gallery, soaring windows, and stacks and stacks of books, many of them 200 years old.
As if the architecture wasn’t enough to distract Olivia from her studies, a fascinating depth of history seemed to crop up around every corner. She describes studying the English Reformation and being able to walk along Broad Street, in the heart of Oxford, where one of the key leaders of the Reformation had been burned at the stake. “There’s a memorial for him,” she recalls. “I’d be writing a paper on him, and he was burned at the stake right there.” She laughs wryly, admitting that much of British history ends with, “and they were burned at the stake” or, “and they were executed.”
But despite the abundance of beautiful architecture and deep history that surrounded them, the British didn’t seem to be nearly as excitable as Americans. “I’m used to rowdy Americans,” she laughs. “People get excited.” By contrast, she remembers reaching the end of a lecture she’d attended and thinking, “We should clap or something,” because a distinguished speaker had just presented in front of one hundred people. But the British students “would just sit silently and pack up and leave.”
When she wasn’t attending lectures, meeting with professors, or studying in ornate libraries, Olivia would take time to attend services at different churches, often making it to evensong, a service unique to the Anglican Church. At first, the high Anglican style of the services felt foreign to her, and when the priest would begin to pray for the Queen of England, she’d be sharply reminded that she wasn’t in America anymore. But the liturgies and hymns, rather than estranging her, began to make Olivia feel more deeply connected to church history and tradition. The idea that people had been hearing the same words and singing the same songs for hundreds of years left her in awe.
Similarly, she noticed that priests would take time to pray not only for their own church bodies, but also for churches across Great Britain and the world. While she felt churches in America tended to pray more locally, for the needs of their own congregations, she appreciated the connection she felt to the universal Church through the prayers of the Anglican priests.
Perhaps, for Olivia, stepping into Oxford was like stepping into a web. Everything was interconnected. The transcripts of witch trials she pored through at Radcliffe Camera had sentenced real people to death, the hymns she sang in church had been sung by thousands before her, and the musical she attended in the ritzy West End of London depicted the very same French Revolution that would be made real to her during her trip to Paris.
While Oxford was more academically challenging than anything she’d ever experienced, the interconnectedness of the books she read, places she visited, and people she met made the hard work worth it. She reflects back on her study abroad experience and says, “It prepared me for the future in a lot of ways.” Olivia explains that she feels empowered, “knowing that I can do something that’s really difficult.” Whether she decides to pursue law school, or say yes to a unique career opportunity, she feels better equipped than she was a year ago, as a girl who’d lived in Salem her whole life.
When asked whether she’d recommend the Oxford program, Olivia doesn’t hesitate to say yes. But she emphasizes that students would have to be academically committed. Count the cost; be willing to put in the work. Otherwise, you’ll start out with intentions of beautiful fountains and end up with unkempt yards and dry leaves.
Author Amelia Kaspari is a Staff Writer for Corban University