Residential Commons in Oxford

Eight SMU undergraduates and four faculty and staff members are exploring the birthplace of residential colleges: Oxford, England. With stops in London, Cambridge, and Bath, this group of residential leaders are searching to answer the question, “What is the culture of a true residential college system?” The students, faculty and staff hope to bring back ideas and traditions to enhance SMU’s new Residential Commons system.

Back to the future

photo 3

An update from Residential Community Director Krystal K. Jones and Residential Life Assistant Director for Training & Development Eleanor Luna:

As our group flies home to Dallas and traverses several time zones, there’s that eerie feeling of time travel. When we land tonight, we will relive the evening we’ve just experienced in England, but then the sense that one has traveled back in time has become all too familiar over these past few days.

photo 4Our group has now spent a total of 10 days in London, Cambridge, Oxford and Bath. Many of us were reminded just how relatively young our nation, city, and university are, and we sometimes asked ourselves if these ancient customs would translate to SMU. In fact, one of our tour guides seemed shocked that we would want to “revert” back to an older way of doing things by creating a residential commons systems.

As the two residence life professionals in the group, we have spent the past 3 or 4 years respectively moving forward with the goal line as August 2014, and so we are left with a paradox. We have been moving forward toward this great goal, while also traveling backward to the classical way of housing students. It’s a lofty aspiration to institute a full residential commons system in one year, but after seeing the strength of the residential college pride in Oxford, we are assured that this system will only make SMU a stronger community.

August 2014 is finally here! This weekend we will welcome all of our Resident Assistants back to a completely reconstructed way of doing things, and we couldn’t be more excited to create the Oxford pride, rigor, and competition at SMU.

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Creating a feeling of ‘home’ in the Commons

RCLCs at Brasenose

RCLCs at Brasenose

An update from Olivia, a sophomore majoring in finance and education, and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps in Morrison McGinnis Commons:

The Brasenose dining hall

The Brasenose dining hall

As our trip to Oxford came to a close, we took one last trip through town to visit Brasenose College. Founded originally as simply lodging for students, Brasenose was smaller than many of the other colleges we saw throughout the trip, yet still boasted all the necessities for students, including a library, main quad, fellows garden, chapel and dining hall. The variation in size was interesting to see since the size of the Residential Commons community at SMU will vary slightly. Even though the grounds were not as large, Brasenose kept an academic and welcoming atmosphere consistent with the other colleges.

Looking back over all the colleges we have seen in both Oxford and Cambridge, I reflected on this atmosphere and the transition that takes place when you enter the college grounds from the street. When you pass through the walls of the college, there is a shift from the hustle of the street into the calm community of your college. Though each Commons at SMU will not include a stone entryway and quad, this change can still take place when walking through the doors of your Commons lobby. Upon arrival the goal would be to have each person feel a sense of home, physically represented by the crest on the walls, student pictures and leaders, the FIRs and RCD.

Thinking along these lines, my small group gathered together for our final meeting and saw exactly how our plans from our previous meetings, combined with our observations from the trip, could be implemented in the Commons. It was so exciting to see everything we had worked on coming together, and we all agreed we could not wait to return to SMU and get to work.

Our last night was spent aboard a dinner cruise on the river. We had a great time celebrating the end of the trip while catching a final glimpse of Oxford.

Aboard the dinner cruise

Aboard the dinner cruise

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From University College to ‘British Bop’

Tour guide Owen and the Residential Commons Leadership Corps outside the library at Univ College

Tour guide Owen and the Residential Commons Leadership Corps outside the library at Univ College

An update from Kaleb, a sophomore majoring in accounting and advertising-creative, and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps in Ware Commons:

Today in Oxford we had an extremely busy day! We had a tour of Univ College, Exeter College, a High Table Lecture and Dinner as well as a “British Bop” in the on-campus Univ Pub, all on our agenda.

We began our day with a 9:45 a.m. tour of Univ College with our tour guide Owen, who is currently studying law at Oxford and assisting with the SMU-in-Oxford program. Because we are staying at Univ College, we all knew the layout of the land, the housing situation and the basic ins and outs pretty well, but we were excited to be able to ask Owen specifics about life on campus and the history of Univ College.

University College, Oxford

University College, Oxford

Owen informed us that Univ College is the oldest college at the University of Oxford based on charter. He explained the “Oxford Union,” which functions essentially as a headquarters for all of the on-campus extracurricular activities for students, including rowing, debate, etc. He also explained that every subject has its own “society” associated with it, which he feels creates a bond between like-minded students. All first years live together in one “dormitory”-type facility and live amongst only freshmen for their first year at Univ College, and upperclassmen are intermixed in various housing around the college. Later we passed the statue of Percy Shelley (a prominent Univ alum), the infamous portrait of Bill Clinton (which he detests), and landed at the library.

The library is crucial to academic life on campus, as Owen explained; it is a hot commodity during finals because there are limited spaces to study within the library. We stood outside the library at the end of our tour and asked him questions regarding his opinions of the college model, Oxford as a whole and his favorite and least favorite things about Oxford. We learned a lot about what he felt worked well, ways to improve the model and what exactly were the greatest highlights and pitfalls of Oxford.

Exeter College

Exeter College

Later we took a 2 p.m. tour of the beautiful, pristine Exeter College and visited the chapel, the courtyard facilities and interviewed another student named Oliver studying biochemistry and repeated the process we used with Owen.

The RCLC with Professors Krout and Hill before our High Table Lecture

The RCLC with Dr. Krout and Dr. Hill before our High Table Lecture

We then rushed back to get into our formalwear for our 5:45 p.m. highly interesting “High Table Lecture” on the 100th anniversary of Great Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in WWI. After the lecture we attended our second “High Table” dinner where we sat together and discussed all that we had learned from our interviews that day while studying the art and purpose of these “High Table” dinners.

High Table place settings

We were served a four-course meal including a chilled soup, watercress vichy; a main course of grilled chicken over crushed new potatoes; a dessert of praline opera gateau; and a final round of coffee and mints.

These “High Table” dinners are of the utmost importance on campus and are held in reverence. They begin with all students standing as two fellows (professors) began reciting a Latin speech. All remain standing until the “second amen” is uttered from one of the fellows. We were all then allowed to sit and began to converse as the staff began serving us. The service culminated with another Latin speech followed by a final “amen,” signifying we were allowed to leave. This tradition dates back until the early stages of Oxford as fellows feel dining and speaking with students is a pivotal asset in the forging of student-professor relationships.

RCLC at our High Table Lecture

RCLC at High Table

Our dinner ended around 8:45 p.m., and we had a “British Bop” scheduled for 9 p.m. where all SMU students were invited to dress in their best “British” attire and hang out in the on-campus pub and listen to music. Programs like this, we learned from one of our earlier tours, are quite common and are a way the college attempts to create bonds and friendships between students. Usually programs of this sort would be planned by the JCR (the undergraduate governing body). We danced the night away with about 60-70 other students decked out in British Flags, right on campus. It was the perfect end to a long day filled with learning, experiencing, understanding and entertaining.

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Exploring Christ Church Cathedral and Trinity College

An update from Andrew, a sophomore majoring in anthropology and human rights, and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps in Armstrong Commons:

Following a spectacular celebration at Highclere Castle last night, the RCLC began our 6th day of research in Oxford this morning. After breakfast, I was one of several RCLC members to attend a service at Christ Church Cathedral.

The Cathedral is thoughtfully situated amongst the picturesque landscape of Christ Church College, one of the largest colleges at Oxford University. Founded in 1546, Christ Church College boasts a rich history of distinguished alums, including Robert Hooke, John Locke, and John Wesley. The college has also produced 13 British Prime Ministers, which is more than any other college in England. In addition to being a chapel for College students, Christ Church Cathedral also serves the Anglican Diocese of Oxford. The service we participated in today involved traditional Anglican hymns, prayers, and beautiful organ music accompanied by the Cathedral’s famous choir. The picture above was taken on the quad outside of the Cathedral.

While thinking about the Cathedral’s significance to the history of Christ Church College, I reflected on my visit to Merton College four days earlier. Merton College was founded by Walter de Merton, regent king of England for Edward I from 1272–1274. Merton wanted his college to be a place where students could live together, work together, eat together, and pray together.

Based on the research we have done this week, I have concluded that these aspects of life are central to the residential communities in many colleges at Oxford University. I hope the Residential Commons model at SMU will create a culture in which students will interact with faculty, staff, and each other, not only in the classroom, but also in other areas of life.

Dr Hill

Dr. Vicki Hill and Andrew

After the church service, we met up with the rest of our group to explore Trinity College. The visit brought back fond memories for Dr. Vicki Hill, Assistant Dean for the University Curriculum at SMU. Dr. Hill studied at Trinity College during the summer of 1974, after graduating from the University of California, Berkeley. She said learning about the Bloomsbury Group and Virginia Woolf at Oxford was one of the most exciting academic experiences she has ever had. One of her favorite aspects of residential life at Trinity College was having opportunities to interact informally with professors.

Speaking with Dr. Hill confirmed that SMU’s Faculty-in-Residence model will be a great way for students to spend time with their professors outside of class. When I asked Dr. Hill what she would like to bring back to SMU from her experience at Trinity College, she replied that she would like to achieve the sense of responsibility people have to each other in the residential communities at Oxford within the new Residential Commons at SMU. I think this is an excellent goal, and one that SMU is well on its way to achieving.

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Pomp and Circumstance


An update from Olivia, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps in Boaz Commons:

Today was a full day of both learning and entertainment!

I consider today the most fruitful in my small group’s quest to understand the student governance and leadership system of the various Oxford colleges. In this morning’s “Dig Session,” the Univ porter gave us a booklet on the current day-to-day information a prospective student would be interested in. Upon reading it, we found mentions of a ‘JCR’ and ‘Peer Support Panel,’ which spurred further research on the terms.

Many Oxford colleges like Univ, Trinity and Somerville have similar leadership systems. The JCR, Junior Common Room, is similar to our Commons Council and programs and advocates on topics like academics and food on behalf of the students. They also have a Peer Support Panel, which provides support to students struggling with various emotional and academic issues. It was interesting to unearth the current happenings of these Oxford colleges, as many of the tours had a strong emphasis on their histories instead.

This afternoon, we attended a tour of Somerville College, a far newer college than Univ and Merton. It was the first college to allow women to attend and has many notable female alums, including Margaret Thatcher. The architecture was far newer, with interesting spaces and energy-efficient dorms. The college as a whole lent a different vibe. We were allowed to walk on the grass (a right often reserved for college fellows) and it seemed more similar to colleges in the United States (probably due to its relative newness).

The tour was led by a porter, which I believe we all found more useful as we could ask specific questions on the current happenings of the college. We were able to walk through a dorm, the church (quite simple and unadorned, as the college is strictly non-denominational) and a student center. My small group found more information about leadership and discovered the student position of “Jr Dean,” which we found to be similar to our RA position.

But, the best was yet to come. At 4 p.m. we boarded the buses to Highclere Castle, the location where BBC’s Downton Abbey is filmed. The event, ‘Battle Proms Picnic Concert,’ included a wonderful medley of cavalry, cannons, fireworks, a plane show, all to the tune of classical music in the background. It was the most “English” spectacle I had seen on the trip. Thousands of people packed tables and chairs with crackers, cheese, fruit and wine to enjoy an afternoon of entertainment with a castle in the background. The professors had likened these Battle Proms to our Independence Day, a day to celebrate British patriotism.

My favorite part was the plane show featuring Spitfire, one of the few remaining that the Royal Air Force flew in WWII. Also impressive was the fireworks show that went along with the music played by the orchestra. We all enjoyed the various food trucks and lasted through the occasional rainfall. At 10 p.m., we left while the orchestra played “Pomp and Circumstance” and fireworks burst above us.


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Learning beyond the classroom: Stonehenge and Bath

2014-08-02 08.17.09An update from Alexis, a sophomore majoring in electrical engineering and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps:

Today we traveled for many hours to visit two very historical places in England. First, we went to the town of Bath. Our first stop in Bath was to the Royal Crest, where many of the wealthy English royalty used to stay and vacation, and it is now home to the most expensive hotel in all of England.

After spending some time soaking in the Royal Crest we traveled to the ancient Roman ruins of Bath. While in the ruins we had an audio tour and learned about the architecture of the ruins, the people who built the ruins, and about all of the historical pieces that were preserved from the ruins after all of these years. We ended our tour with a sample of the water from a natural hot water spring. From the hot springs, to the artifacts, to the actual bath, the ruins gave us great insight as to what life was like in historic England.

Second, we traveled to Stonehenge. The ancient temple was built over 4,500 years ago and was designed to align with the movements of the sun. We had fun walking around the site, exploring the stones, and learning about how and why they were built. Although our time at Stonehenge was short, it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I liked visiting Bath and Stonehenge because it shows that while in college you can explore and learn in and outside of the classroom. We learned about so much of England’s history today just by visiting these two places. In Dallas we have many of the same opportunities to learn about history and arts with so many museums and exhibitions that happen all around the city. Today has been so insightful, and all of us have learned a great deal about England’s heritage.


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Day 4: Less cobblestone and more academia


An update from Samiat, a sophomore majoring in business management and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps in Ware Commons:

Today we took a ride to Oxford’s competitor, Cambridge. While there we were fortunate enough to learn about Cambridge’s King’s College and Chapel. There was high emphasis on the chapel. We were also able to view the art of punting and hear the sounds of England’s next hit sensation in the voices of local street performers.

image3 Our tour guide, a true scholar and British figure, informed us of Cambridge’s academic system. The history of the college dates back centuries. However, Oxford has pride in that it was established almost a half a century before Cambridge. By 1209 students began to venture from Oxford and France to Cambridge. Cambridge had been a Roman town while Oxford was Saxon.

Our tour guide also informed us that the old colleges are in the center and the new modern colleges are located west. The colleges are where the students live, take their meals, do their own private study, and worship in the college chapel should they choose to do so. There is no teaching in the college. All teaching takes place in the university. On this front, Cambridge and SMU are quite comparable as a college is like a residential hall and the university is the central place of study. Cambridge educates about 19,000 students; 12,000 are on a first degree and the rest are postgraduates. Five of Cambridge’s thirty colleges admit only postgraduates while the rest admit most undergraduates and postgraduates.

King’s Chapel houses the second largest medieval glass collection in all of England. During World War II all the windows were removed from the chapel for 60 pounds each and stored in Cambridge. After the war’s end it would take three years for all of the windows to be placed in their exact spot. The windows had first been placed there in the 1500s. Chronologically they depict the stories of the New and Old Testament. Furthermore the chapel is known for its fan-inspired celling, which possesses much detail and artistry. It is also know for the many different animals and creatures which hug the wall.

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Oxford: It must be experienced for oneself

An update from Jason, a sophomore management science major and math minor and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps:

Yesterday we arrived at Oxford, but today was the first day that we as a group were able to truly explore this historic place of learning. The morning began with a guided tour of the entire city, a tour that took us to the back streets and some of the lesser-known spots in the town. The guide explained to us how lots of the colleges were originally monasteries, which were then turned into institutions of higher learning. We are staying in University College, the oldest college at Oxford, and you can clearly see the monastic roots of Univ just by looking at the architecture of the building and the shapes of the interior gardens.

After lunch, we headed to Merton College for a guided tour. I expected Merton to be pretty similar to University, but as we entered the front gates, the central yard of Merton told me that this college, like most of the 30 colleges in Oxford, had something unique to offer not found anywhere else in this historic city. It had personality, with gardens behind the college probably as big as the college itself. The medieval library was another nice surprise, housing books dating well before the printing press. Merton showed me that in order to get the full grasp of a college and its identity, you really need to do some digging and explore the rooms that are not necessarily visible from the outside. The character of a college is something that can’t be explained or described, it must be experienced for oneself.

Before coming to the UK, I had been told about how unique the residential system of Oxford is. “Oh, it is unlike anything in this world” and “I wish that I could have another semester at Oxford” were common statements that people would give me about Oxford. At the time, I did not and could not fully appreciate the truthfulness of those words. Today has shown me that while Oxford is just another town in the United Kingdom, the history and tradition of this great institution are unmatched in the world.

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Views of London and Oxford

An update from Alexander, a junior majoring in finance, with a minor in computer science, and a member of the Residential Commons Leadership Corps:

Today is not an ordinary Tuesday … because it is our first full day in the UK. I am lucky enough to be the first RCLC blogger on this incredible trip to the United Kingdom. Our journey began Monday night as we toured London. We walked by Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral and so much more.

We left for Oxford in the afternoon, and we were all excited to experience a Residential College system like none other. The three-hour bus ride and long walks were all worth it as we stumbled through the large wooden doors of University College. The campus is gorgeous! The incredible grass lawn, beautiful flowers, and yellow stone buildings are all breathtaking! We ate dinner in an old dining hall with long wooden tables and benches. That night, we walked by the river as we took in this incredible city. We had a great first day in the UK, and I am very excited to start our Residential Commons research!

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Our arrival in London

An update from Dr. Robert Krout, Faculty-in-Residence Mary Hay/Peyton/Shuttles Residential Commons and Professor of Music Therapy, and Dr. Vicki L. Hill, Assistant Dean for the University Curriculum:

The twelve of us — eight students, a FIR (faculty-in-residence), two RLSH staff and an assistant dean — are still a bit jet-lagged, having just arrived in London.

We’re on our way to the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the world’s second oldest surviving university (after the University of Bologna).

Oxford’s nearly nine-hundred-year history of undergraduate living and learning in residential colleges helped to inspire SMU’s new Residential Commons, which was introduced this past academic year and will be fully implemented when students return to the Hilltop in August.

From our base at Oxford’s University College (founded in 1249!), we’ll visit six of Oxford’s thirty-eight residential colleges, as well as London’s Imperial College and Cambridge’s King’s College.

Everywhere we go, we’ll be learning as much as we can about how each one of these different residential colleges creates community and culture. We’ll explore topics such as student leadership and governance, programming, the roles of non-students, and even physical space. Mostly we’ll be keeping our eyes and ears open, asking lots of questions, taking lots of pictures, reflecting on what we’re learning, thinking about how we can apply what we’ve experienced at Oxford to what we’re creating at SMU, and sharing our experiences in daily blogs that we’ll be sending home to our SMU community.

It is often enlightening to experience higher education in other cultures, as it is easy to consider the college experience through our own country’s lens only. Being immersed in the university settings of other cultures allows us to reflect on how aspects of these might enhance what we do at SMU to make the RC experience. What a treat it will be to immerse ourselves in the Oxford and Cambridge settings and bring back elements of the student residential experiences that have made these universities so special over the (many) years of their history and development. Keep tuned into our blogs to follow our adventures as our group of Mustangs explores, learns, and reflects!


We’ve arrived!

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