Lily Derr ’24, an SMU Highland Capital Management Tower Scholar, is triple majoring in Mathematics, Political Science, and Public Policy along with minors in Environmental Engineering and Public Policy and International Affairs. She has recently been awarded the SMU Tower Center Marian Tower Scholarship, which she applied to study abroad at Oxford. She shares her experiences immersing herself in England’s illustrious history.
For the most part, life in England was very similar to life in the United States: people spoke English, ate familiar foods, and generally had a similar culture. That said, my life in England felt very different from my life at home because in Oxford, England I felt constantly immersed in history.
I resided and studied at University College, the oldest of the Oxford Colleges. My dorm building was built in the seventeenth century. As I sat in my room every day, I would imagine the centuries of scholars that lived there, worked there, pondered there, and discovered there, in that very room. And, that sentiment could be expanded to include the whole city of Oxford which is replete with historic buildings and sites. When I walked the streets of Oxford, the city’s preferred mode of transportation, I could not help but feel like I was a part of that history. I could feel the magic in old churches, such as Christ Church, and I felt immersed in scholarship when I explored each of the Oxford Colleges. It amazed me that in Oxford, history was just a part of everyday life.
Beyond the magical feeling that Oxford brought, my life in the SMU abroad program was very busy. Luckily, I got to both live and learn at University College, which meant I got the true Oxford student experience. I ate all of my meals in the Hall, just a flight of stairs from my dorm room, and I took classes just a few steps from there. Many days were filled with field trips after class and reading/essay writing in the evenings. Days were full of scholarship and exploration and life was truly remarkable.
I selected the SMU-in-Oxford program because I wanted to take advantage of this amazing opportunity to study at one of the best universities in the world. Moreover, I had never been to Europe before and thought England would be a wonderful place to start. Of course, the program also offered me classes to fulfill my major, CC credit, and honors credit, an irresistible combination.
There was no “typical day” at Oxford, but I will describe a few. Most days began with breakfast in the Hall. Then, I took my first class, which was taught by an SMU professor. After an hour and a half, all of the classes would take a break for tea and biscuits before continuing for another hour. After that, only once a week, I would have my second class taught by my Oxford Don. She would lecture for about an hour or so and then I would be assigned an essay for the week. At some point during that week, I would then go to her with a small group and we would discuss our essays, which we had written after extensive research from a list of books/readings that our Don had provided. Classes were followed by lunch in the Hall and then there was usually free time to write essays, do research, or work on other various homework. Dinner was in the Hall as well and on most days people would convene at the pub on campus after dinner.
Many days also involved various field trips around England. Our trips included everywhere from Bath, UK, and Stonehenge, to Windsor Castle, to Blenheim Place, to many stops in London, to two river cruises, etc. Field trip days were often long and involved, but always the most exciting.
Every Tuesday there was an extra Honors Lecture in the afternoon where all Honors students would convene for an additional lecture from an Oxford Don who we came to love.
And, my favorite tradition of the program, at least once a week, we would have a High Table dinner. High Table dinners were formal dinners that began with a lecture from a special guest. Then, the guest would join us for the formal dinner and s/he would sit at the High Table with other professors and a few select students. Each of us got to join the High Table once. Everyone else would sit at the other table in the Hall. Everyone would be served a multi-course dinner that was always delicious. This was a great way to get to know everyone in the program as well as to expand our academic experience by having this special way to interact with various experts and academics from across numerous fields.
The world is much bigger than I ever imagined. As someone who has not yet done a lot of international traveling, this experience introduced me to our global world. Although England seems very similar to the United States, it has a completely different style of government, different traditions, and, as one Englishman said to me “a similar language to what is spoken in the United States.” I learned about England from being there, but I also took a European Diplomacy class where I learned about many places in Europe. This experience took me out of my American way of thinking and taught me to consider my life and my way of doing things and see things as one very small perspective in a much larger world of views, ideas, and approaches. It made me want to see more of the world and understand different people more than I ever had before.
While studying abroad, I had to learn to be away from home and manage my time as I never had before. I grew up in Dallas and live within walking distance of SMU. Therefore, the thought of being an ocean away from everything I have ever known was quite daunting at times. However, after a few days, I got into a routine and embraced the ‘newness’ of everything around me.
The trip was also the busiest I have ever been. I had the responsibility of keeping up with hundreds of pages of reading a night for one class, self-teaching the other, and writing weekly essays all on top of seemingly constant field trips and adventures, additional lectures and dinners, and then just general making friends and exploring a new place. I was warned that I would get little sleep on this trip, but I had no idea how little. That said, I quickly learned how to manage my time and prioritize my schoolwork, while still getting the most out of every experience at Oxford.
This experience has taught me that I would like to live abroad one day, at least for a period of time. It has also made me want to be a more traveled and understanding person and to have that reflected in whatever career I choose.
Now that I have a much better understanding of the reach of the global community, I think I will have a much better grasp on the impact of studying and practicing PPIA. More specifically, the Oxford class I took was a comparative politics class where I studied the British government vs the American government. I learned that despite both governments being ‘democracies,’ they operate very differently and have quite different expectations for and from their citizens. Therefore, I think this experience has shown me that each of the world’s governments has intricacies that must be understood and that big, sweeping assumptions about government and politics around the world cannot often be made. I think this will therefore make me a more thorough and understanding student of PPIA.
So far, transitioning back into life in Dallas has been pretty seamless. Although I am definitely a changed person, I am glad to be back home. It will be strange to go back to SMU and have my learning go back to very a traditional classroom setting, without so much self-taught exploration, but I am excited to be back and to start off the new semester with new experiences and understanding in tow.
If you are interested in learning more about study abroad scholarships and fellowship opportunities for SMU students, click here.