“It’s hard to feel comfortable around you, or, you know, the same, knowing that you’ve studied in not just one, but two of the world’s most elite universities,” a friend of mine divulged during our annual catch-up, an occurrence limited by the once-yearly frequency of our returns to our hometown of Singapore. “Stanford and Oxford. Wow. Just wow.”
I feel my face turn red — far from being flattered, I hide my embarrassment behind my coffee cup, taking a sip of the bitter substance in a futile effort to delay my response. Having just completed my second year of my studies at Stanford, this was hardly the first time I found myself at a loss as to what to say; variants of such uncomfortable encounters have occurred during dinner parties with overbearing aunties, school visits with awestruck parents, and even on planes, bombarded by questions from inquisitive strangers. But familiarity doesn’t entail proficiency, at least in this case. How is anyone to respond to such a statement? Hey, I’m still the same person? (Sounds corny, and at any rate, not entirely true.) University rankings don’t mean anything! (More true, but sounds like a half-hearted denial, and invites more comment.) Awh man, it’s nothing. (Self-deprecating tone becomes self-defeating.)
More often or not I just remain silent. In truth, I have ceased to place any intrinsic value on the name of the university I attend — it is the knowledge and experiences I’ve attained, the worldview I’ve formed, and the people I’ve met that define my university experience. It just doesn’t make sense to derive any sense of self-worth from the mere name of an institution. But it’s easy to discount the value of the “brand-name” of a university once you’re on the inside. It’s not that we don’t recognise the privilege that comes with attending an elite university — recruiters do occasionally take us more seriously, more opportunities tend to come our way — but it just doesn’t seem that immediately apparent in the individual student’s daily life. My Stanford (and Oxford) peers and I still face the same daunting questions of what to do with our lives; we still grapple with the fear of failure, and struggle with thoughts of inadequacy.
Yet to the outsider we remain amassed as one large group of incredibly driven, smart, and privileged young students, on the cusp of everything that’s exciting. And in very many cases that’s not untrue, but it glosses over many of the differences between each individual, and each university. And having had the privilege to study in two incredible universities on both sides of the Atlantic, it feels only right to share my experiences with a larger audience.
I spent one term abroad in Oxford this spring — a beautiful time to be there: billiard-table lawns proudly displaying a lush green (only for visual appreciation, no treading!); baby ducks taking their first waddles across Christ Church Meadow, mamas and papas following fretfully (and sometimes aggressively) in tow; extravagant Commemoration Balls of otherworldly luxury (and otherworldly expense) in full swing — quite a singular spectacle with men decked out in white-tie and women in flowing gowns, milling about the college grounds in the nippy springtime wind.
My first few weeks in Oxford had me in love. I obsessed over its every cobbled street, and effused over every little indication of its rich academic culture and history. I couldn’t help but cast my mind back two years, to the crossroads of my university decision-making, and ask myself the pernicious question: Should I have chosen to come here instead?
Recognising that this was a fruitless train of thought to pursue, I refrained from letting myself think further, but nevertheless found myself keeping note of the differences between the two universities. The immense privilege of my position was undeniable: not many people are afforded the chance to study in two of the world’s most prestigious universities. And in some strange, poignant sense, I was getting the unique chance to see how my life would’ve played out in two alternate realities.
I wasn’t going to let this chance go to waste.
Eager to jump into the thick of things, I hit the ground running, quite literally. I started off most days (okay, some days — I overestimate my self discipline) with a jog around Christ Church Meadow, a luxury I could not seem to realise back at Stanford, no matter how much I tried to carve out the time to do so. Afterwards, I would spend hours poring over my Jurisprudence (philosophy of law) readings: nibbling at the end of my pen whilst cocooned up in the library of the Stanford House; balancing Hart, Fuller and my laptop on the narrow wooden tables of Jericho Coffee Traders; or trying to focus on crafting my essay in the Missing Bean — failing inevitably, of course, as another American DPhil student or vague acquaintance I knew from halfway across the world sauntered in. Hours of conversation would then ensue, usually ending with plans of another coffee chat or a dinner party invite. But that was all part and parcel of the Oxford life — the intellectual discussions that happened over a coffee or dinner were integral to the experience. And it was so, so refreshing.
It wasn’t long before I realised that there was a drastic difference in my pace of life: I felt much more on top of things, despite not having any less work than I did at Stanford. Oxford’s academic and social environment is much more conducive to independent living, simply by virtue of the structure of its classes. Depending on the subject, or the term, a student can have between 2-15 hours of actual contact class time per week (1-3 hours of tutorial, 1-12 hours of lecture). Barring more lab-intensive courses like Engineering, the typical student has a lot more freedom to structure his/her day. And as someone who deeply values independence and the flexibility to manage my own time, I revelled in this relative freedom.
Increased freedom hardly amounted to less work, however. For every hour of tutorial I had, I easily spent a good 20-30 hours reading up on all the material and synthesizing a good essay. Having a good grasp of the material becomes much more crucial when your tutorials are one-on-one — there is just no shortcut, because there is no other way to have a rewarding intellectual discussion. I found in my tutorials an intellectual rigour and dialogue I had yet to encounter in my two years at Stanford: my tutor made sure to read my essay before each meeting, and we often spent our hour-long tutorials parsing through progressions of logical reasoning, picking apart shoddily constructed arguments and rephrasing new ones.
This environment, steeped in a centuries-old intellectual tradition, is in a sense antithetical to that of Stanford’s. Perhaps more so in Stanford than in any other U.S. university, or anywhere else in the world, there seems to be an inordinate focus on practicality. That is not to say that intellectual discourse in the Oxfordian sense isn’t practical, but in the face of everything new, exciting, and world-changing you would associate with Silicon Valley, it is unsurprising such profound, time-taking intellectual reflection takes a backseat back in the Bay.
Almost everyone at Stanford has something incredible going for them: whether a start-up or a stint with Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, CERN, SpaceX, you name it. There’s a perpetual buzz in the air. You feel like you’re standing on the precipice of change. It’s exhilarating, of course, and one of the many things I love about Stanford. But it can also be incredibly debilitating to those who may not have such aspirations, or those who may not have clinched such opportunities to pad their resumé with.
It becomes very easy to doubt your own self-worth. And it becomes very hard to sit down with a book and just think for hours and days on end about some intellectual topic of interest. Oxford not only gave me the luxury of time to do so, but also gave me the peace of mind I needed to concentrate on something so wholly disparate from the world of the practical. Oxford gave me the space I needed to learn for learning’s sake.
Yet this focus on intelligence and academic rigour is also somewhat of a double-edged sword. The very things that I found invigorating and refreshing about the Oxford education — intellectual discourse, academic engagement, critical thinking — put an immense pressure on the students who were actually in it for the whole three-year run. Although Oxford students seemed to come under less pressure to focus on career-building and activities extraneous to their studies, they were subject to another form of pressure — their academic grades. Academic grades not only seemed to be a more prominent determining factor for potential UK employers than their equivalents back in California, but also appeared to be more central to a student’s measure of self-worth. And especially since the grade (or more accurately, the degree classification, whether first class honours, second-upper, etc.) that appears on an Oxford degree is in most cases based entirely upon a set of exams a student takes at the end of their third year, the academic pressure is tremendous.
I suppose no matter which way you slice it, there’s no escaping the pressure that comes with living and studying amongst some of the brightest students in the world. To try to imagine a university where there isn’t some measure of pressure or relative comparisons of self-worth is a quixotic, if not impossible, project. At some point we just have to learn to focus on our own aspirations, and to keep faith in ourselves.
8 weeks and 15 essays later, I felt stretched, excited, fatigued. And I wasn’t sure that I had enough: I found myself looking for ways to justify another term at Oxford. It was certainly feasible; I could probably stay at Oxford for up to a year under the Stanford in Oxford program. In the last two weeks, I threw myself into a frenzy, reaching out to potential Economics tutors to try to craft a series of Economics tutorials that would be just as rewarding as the seminars and lectures I intended to take at Stanford. And then I realised, as I ran into more and more roadblocks, that the hierarchical nature of the U.K. education system meant that I wouldn’t be able to get the same sort of access to incredible professors as I would back home.
It was all very laughable — through my rose-tinted spectacles, I had forgotten the true value of the American liberal arts system, the reason I had chosen to study at Stanford in the first place — it’s flexibility. I neglected to realise that I’d already been having snippets of the intellectual environment I craved, through interactions with my professors during office hours, conversations with friends, and conferences with various industry professionals. It wasn’t quite the same as Oxford, of course, but I know I can find the sort of environment and intellectual engagement I’m looking for at Stanford, if I look in the right places.
“So, if you were to choose all over again — Oxford or Stanford?”
I laugh, a little bemused. I knew my answer, but there would be little point in saying. University is a highly personal choice — there simply is no blanket answer as to which is better, despite the plethora of university ranking systems that would claim the contrary. At any rate, I don’t think anyone could go very wrong either way.
As for me — I look forward to returning to Stanford next year, but this isn’t an end to my Oxford story. As I sit here, flipping through pages upon pages of journal entries documenting a beautiful spring suspended in time, I know one thing is for sure — it won’t be long before I find myself before the bright red door of the Stanford in Oxford House again, ready to make the best of both worlds.