An update from Jamie, a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps and a second-year student majoring in accounting in the Cox School of Business. Jamie observed the residential commons model in Oxford first-hand.
When I got on the 7-hour flight to London, I had no idea what to expect. I’d never been on a trip where the entire purpose was to observe your surroundings and learn from other people. (Actually, I’ve never been abroad before, either.) Vacations are all about relaxation or sightseeing. Study abroad is for actual classes and internships. Some trips are to visit old friends, or to make new ones. This trip was merely for comparison and social research. And the scariest part was that it didn’t stop when we took the flight home— we’d have to apply what we learned throughout the year.
I picked out a few books for the trip — James Bond and Her Majesty, and Sherlock Holmes compilation of short stories. They’re both based in England, so I thought it might be fun to read them while I was abroad. When I was about 5 stories into the Holmes book, I came across this dialogue that became my inspiration for the entire trip.
Holmes: “Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”
Holmes: “How often?”
Watson: “Well, some hundreds of times.”
Holmes: “Then how many are there?”
Watson: “How many? I don’t know.”
Holmes: “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”
And so I set my goal to not just see things, but to experience them.
Once we arrived in London, we ate and stayed in for the night. (Jetlag is tough!) I was prepared for a long day of walking and tourist sightings during the next day. We saw it all: the Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the London Eye.
I got a few chances to explore on my own, which was scary, but exhilarating. I bought a ticket to see SpamALot that night at half price, and hopped on the tube (subway) to get home and change. I made the mistake of putting my camera in the mesh pocket with my map, and mysteriously when I got off the tube they were both gone. Pick-pocketed?? (I couldn’t believe it.) I guess that was my first real experience. After a good cry session and some rallying, I got dressed for the play and went out to dinner by myself.
When I sat down at the Playhouse Theatre, cider in hand, I noticed someone in the row in front of me wearing SMU kroakies. I thought I was hallucinating. In London? (What are the chances.) Do I say something? (I probably should.) (*Build up my courage to talk to him*) Turns out he was an incoming freshman at SMU, from Austin, TX, visiting England with his family. (Talk about another experience!) After such a long and lonely day, I really ended up taking the message of SpamALot to heart — to always try to laugh, play, and look on the bright side of life — because just when you think you’re having a bad day, something happens that totally turns it around and makes you smile!
Enough about London, onto Oxford! (What we really all came for.) Right off the bat we took a tour of the town, which has so much history and meaning. Some of the newest architecture was from the 1500s! People like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Margaret Thatcher, and John Wesley, had all walked these streets before me. And stories like Alice in Wonderland and Chronicles of Narnia were created from these colleges.
These first few days we tried to see as many colleges as possible, and got to sit in on an SMU-in-Oxford class. (And I took so many pictures I think my iPhone exploded.)
On Tuesday, we got to sit down and chat with a recent graduate of Oxford (University College) whose name was Jamie. (Gee, what a great name.)
He gave us a really honest and open look into the differences between American universities and universities in the UK. He stressed the importance of knowing the professors, because they encourage you to succeed and truly care about your education. Some of his tutors and professors came to visit him when he was sick! But as opposed to Commons, the colleges in Oxford all have some type of specialty, such as being better at science or math. He applied to University College because there was a professor he really wanted to get to know there. While he only lived on campus for two years, every day he lived off campus, he came back for something. Whether it was to eat, to hangout, to study, or to meet someone, he still has a very strong physical connection with the campus of Univ. He loves the formal dinners they do for undergrads, which occur three times a week and are nothing short of black-tie dressy.
One of the most interesting things he told us about was the “parent child system.” Two sophomores, before the end of the year, decide to get “married” and take on a “child,” the child being an incoming freshman who has just decided to attend Oxford. Over the summer, the parents send a heartfelt note to their kid, detailing what is cool and not cool to do, where to go, and how excited they are for the kid to be attending Oxford. When the kid steps on campus, he/she automatically has a friendly face and a person who is looking out for them. It was such a sweet and honest display of affection, and I really want to see how the Residence Commons Leadership Corps (RCLCs), Faculty in Residence (FiRs), and RAs could become these people at SMU.
We also got to hear what Leslie Mitchell, a tenured professor at Oxford, has to say about the differences between Oxford and SMU. He stressed the importance of the close faculty to student relationship, and told us that he would often invite his students over for themed dinners, for coffee, or for reading parties. (One time he even had a murder mystery event for his students!) He said something to the effect of “you don’t need 500 years to make that happen, you just have to extend the invitations.” Whether it’s a chaplain, a fellow student, a Porter, or a professor, Dr. Mitchell felt very strongly about kids feeling like they are at home in Oxford.
In addition to touring the town and meeting with faculty, we got the chance to sit down with each other and digest what we had learned. (We were bursting at the seams with ideas.)
• We all really would like for the FIR position to be more important than it already is on campus. They need to have better tools for communicating to students, and the RCLCs and RAs need to help them build those relationships with students. They also need to make themselves more available to kids, and be seen walking around the commons more.
• Crests are everywhere here in Oxford — and they have meaning. Each crest is unique and beautiful, and the students really identify with it, sometimes over the general Oxford U crest. This will be a tough selling point for us at SMU, but maybe if we make meaningful and useful ones, then over time people will become adjusted to the idea of it.
• Getting the RC model out to the public is something we need to do a better job of — no doubt. That means using different mediums to communicate to different groups of people. The importance of eating was huge in Oxford, so maybe we should start taking prominent people around campus to lunch and teaching them about RC.
• Oxford is serious about academics. And we want the RCLC to encourage this intellectual excellence. Plus, we need to take a hint from their intensity for their mission, and be passionate about our mission – this means nametags, a better website, maybe business cards, and a killer elevator speech.
• I hope by now, everyone is “all in”. We used this phrase a lot in Oxford, because after seeing such an amazing display of what the RC residence model can do, we can’t help but want the same for SMU. This job is going to require all of our attention and time outside of school. We need to be dedicated to the purpose. To the future. To the RC model. We have to be “all in.”
• With Oxford’s intimidatingly long history, we need to think of ourselves as founders. What we are doing might have an impact hundreds of years down the line, and if we take that into consideration, we will have the inspiration not to fail.
On the last day, we went on a final dinner cruise, and the SMU-in-Oxford kids got to “graduate” and receive a little diploma for their time there. They all had become quite close, despite their different friend groups back in Dallas. I think it was a very real glimpse into the success of a commons experience.
And then, after what seemed like the blink of an eye, we all packed our bags and headed back to America. Tired, jetlagged, and overwhelmed, I finished my Sherlock Holmes stories on the plane and rested assured that I had experienced everything Oxford had to offer — the people, the museums, the classes, the colleges, and the incredible residential college system that makes Oxford such a prestigious university.
Residential Commons is going to do huge things at SMU. The school spirit and class loyalty are going to skyrocket. Studies show that a higher on-campus living requirement increases GPAs and decreases transfer rates. Students won’t be stereotyped by their dorm, but will instead be able to meet people from other walks of SMU. Freshmen can learn from Sophomores. The list goes on and on! There are so many reachable advantages that RCLC has to offer this campus.