Oxford summer program a big hit with Sweet Briar students

Radcliffe Camera in Oxford
The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford.

Three members of the Class of 2017 took advantage this summer of one of Sweet Briar’s most popular study abroad opportunities — the Virginia Program at Oxford. Along with students from Virginia Military Institute, Hampden-Sydney, Mary Baldwin and Roanoke College, Kimberlin Uglum, Jessie Schuster and Kiley Jolicoeur spent six eventful weeks studying and breathing Elizabethan and Jacobean history and English literature at St. Anne’s College in Oxford.

The students were accompanied by associate professor of English Tony Lilly, who has been directing the program at Sweet Briar for seven years. Established in 1967, the Virginia Program at Oxford is America’s oldest study-abroad program in the English city. Sweet Briar will celebrate 35 years as a member next year, having joined the program in 1981.

This summer, daily lectures ranged from the Black Death to Oxford architecture to British theaters in the 16th and 17th centuries. Students had to write a weekly paper and attend tutorials in both English and history. The latter included one professor and three students from different colleges — one of her favorite things about the program, says history and music double major Schuster, who minors in gender studies and medieval and Renaissance studies.

“It was a great way to learn how to form and support an argument in a new environment with students and professors you have not worked with before,” she said.

Jessie Schuster at Madame Tussauds in London
Jessie Schuster at Madame Tussauds in London

Fellow history major and medieval and Renaissance studies minor Uglum, who also majors in anthropology, enjoyed getting to know students from other institutions, but connecting with the professors ranked even higher on her list of favorites.

“We got to have tea with them afterwards and speak to them about the lecture or anything else, from minor cultural differences between countries to the band they perform in,” she said.

Lilly agrees that there is a definite wow-factor to the program’s faculty.

“The lecturers are the rock stars of Early Modern England,” he said. “Three of them have been knighted for their scholarship and all of them have international reputations. So getting to know them as thinkers and as people is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that students take seriously.”

But there may have been one aspect of the program Uglum enjoyed even more.

“We were given an I.D. to get into the famous Bodleian Libraries, and the particular building I’ve always dreamed of seeing, and cried when I saw it, the Radcliffe Camera,” she said. “Since we had to write a paper each week, many of us spent a lot of time hidden away in these libraries doing research. I was in heaven.”

While Oxford is the perfect place to geek out, it also offers lots of entertainment, as well as easy access to many tourist destinations.

“Oxford is an incredibly cosmopolitan city, with people from all over the world who have come to study and to meet other scholars, and it’s full of art and music and drama and architecture and books and history — there is something both fun and enriching to do every single night,” Lilly said.

The summer program included day trips to Hampton Court Palace and productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe Theatre in London. A long weekend allowed students to travel on their own to places such as Stonehenge, Bath or the White Cliffs of Dover, as well as Salzburg, Barcelona, Paris, Cologne, Ghent, Dublin, Edinburgh and Amsterdam.

Kim Uglum in Paris
Kim Uglum embraced the opportunity to travel Europe as part of the VPO.

Uglum made sure to visit as many museums and landmarks as possible, including the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the National Gallery and the British Museum in London, and the Louvre and Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

“I adore older things, so I cried tears of happiness seeing things I’ve only ever seen in textbooks,” she said. “There was even some Harry Potter set visiting!”

Schuster used the four-day weekend to visit the shore with her boyfriend, a Hampden-Sydney student. Like many others in the program, she had arrived early to spend time in London before settling in at St. Anne’s College for the summer.

“We seemed to walk the whole city!” she said. “My favorite part of the summer was getting to meet new students in a fun and exciting environment. We all became great friends, and it is nice being able to visit since we all live in Virginia.”

Uglum, too, still speaks to many of her fellow Oxford students. But there’s a lot more she is taking away from the experience than just friendships.

“I learned that I’m good enough to survive at a prestigious school in Europe, on my own,” she said. “I learned to slow down. I didn’t need to see everything all at once. I could go back to these places again and see new things. That’s just how that works. There is always another bus, another train. … It was life-changing and I can’t wait to go back.”

Lilly says he is always amazed at the transformation he witnesses in his students over the course of just six weeks.

“The most remarkable thing to me is how much [they] mature, both intellectually and socially, after they spend a summer in Oxford,” he said.

“We use the English tutorial system, so they have to do more independent work than in comparable U.S. courses, and they are held responsible for their work in weekly tutorials. They tend to grow up fast in that environment, and [they] carry what they’ve learned about themselves back to Sweet Briar.”

The 2015 group was particularly impressive, he says.

“Students asked really smart and challenging questions after lectures and really took advantage of the cultural events in Oxford,” he said. “It’s also remarkable how cohesive the group was. The students made a conscientious effort to help each other out, socially and academically. It was a supportive and exciting community to be a part of.”

Students from any year and major are invited to apply for a spot in the Virginia Program at Oxford. The deadline for next summer is Feb. 15, 2016, and financial aid is available.

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