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Princeton-Oxford exchange offers top students new perspective

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- Princeton and Oxford universities are known throughout the world for their excellence in undergraduate education. So it seemed most fitting three years ago when the two institutions began an exchange program for undergraduates interested in studying abroad.

Photo of: students who have participated

Princeton students who have participated in the exchange at Oxford include (from left) Dusan Perovic, Russ Renzas, Gustav Eyler and Athan Biss. Duncan Mills (right), an Oxford engineering student, is spending this year at Princeton. The group is pictured at the Mather Sundial in McCosh Court, a replica of the Turnbull Sundial at Corpus Christi College at Oxford, built in 1907 to symbolize the connection between Oxford and Princeton and between Great Britain and the United States.

Because of the institutions’ similar strengths, administrators have been able to implement a program that completely integrates students into the universities they are visiting. The differences between the two schools — including their academic systems and their cultures — have provided students with a new perspective on academics and extracurricular activities, according to those who have participated.

Under the Oxford-Princeton Exchange Program, 22 Princeton students have traveled to Oxford, and 27 Oxford students have traveled to Princeton — some for a semester and others for an entire year.

Many, like Princeton senior Gustav Eyler, have been transformed by the experience. “The time I spent at Oxford was truly one of the highlights of my collegiate career,” said Eyler, who found being at Oxford enhanced his interest in studying history and gave him the opportunity to forge close friendships. “I enjoyed every minute of my time there.”

The goal of the exchange is to immerse the students into the life of the university they are visiting, giving them the same experience as a traditional student, according to associate dean of the college Nancy Kanach, who oversees the program at Princeton. In addition to pursuing academic endeavors, the students live among other undergraduates and can use all of the facilities available to regular students.

“I am not treated differently as a visiting student here,” said junior Eric Remijan, who is at Oxford this semester. “I live where all the other second-year students live, and I am participating in the ceremonies like matriculation that other Oxford students participate in. I even wear a black commoner’s gown that is required at Second Hall, the second seating of dinner.”

The exchange is open to juniors — or the equivalent at Oxford — with strong academic records studying in three areas: engineering, history and biochemistry/molecular biology. While a full year of study is preferred, there also are semester-long opportunities in some areas of the exchange. And the exchange is adding a new subject area: physics and philosophy.

Students in science and engineering often have a difficult time finding ways to participate in study abroad programs and keep up with their requirements and research, according to Kanach. This exchange provides avenues for students to do both.

Students in the biochemistry ex-change, for example, are paired with scientists in their field and spend three months working on a laboratory-based research project in an area they select. For Princeton junior Melania Strycharska, a physics major, the concentrated time she spent in the lab helped clarify her career goals.

“It was a unique possibility to focus on one thing at a time, learn all the relevant procedures thoroughly and understand the experimental results,” she said. “It really made me realize what I want to do in the future.”

“The biochemistry exchange is probably a unique program in the sense that advanced students in molecular biology or other sciences can go to Oxford and be totally integrated in a lab,” said Kanach. “They have a real research experience. Princeton undergraduates are the only students from a U.S. university who participate in the biochemistry exchange.”

Oxford student Mona He studied biochemistry at Princeton this past fall with Lynn Enquist, chair of the molecular biology department. “I was considering applying for graduate studies in the U.S., so the program was a good way to learn about the research environment,” she said. “Plus, I had never been to the U.S. before, and it was a place I have always wanted to visit; obviously being able to attend a world-class institution like Princeton was a real bonus.”

For the history majors from Princeton who have participated in the exchange, the opportunity to study at the oldest university in the English-speaking world has proven invaluable.

Senior Athan Biss sought out the exchange because he wanted to pursue his interest in Irish history. “At Oxford I was able to take a seminar taught by Roy Foster, who is probably the foremost living Irish historian — and quite a character to boot,” Biss said.

Eric Remijan, who is concentrating in British history, considers the Oxford exchange the perfect fit. “At first I was reluctant to study abroad and miss time at Princeton, but I felt that Oxford would have an educational experience that would match Princeton’s,” he said. “I feel like I am doing an undergraduate Rhodes.”

The program became even more attractive when Remijan learned he had the option to go for one semester, because he did not want to miss an entire year at Princeton.

Academic distinctions

Teaching at Oxford is based on the tutorial system, in which students meet regularly with their college tutor, either on a one-to-one basis or with one or two other students. Undergraduates also attend occasional lectures.

“I have a tutor once a week, who assigns me a question and a laundry list of primary and secondary sources to choose from,” explained junior Eric Herschthal, a history major who also is at Oxford this semester. “I have all week to go to the library and read until I feel knowledgeable enough to tackle the question. Then I write a 2,000- to 2,500-word essay and present it to him in our once-a-week session. In the hour or so of the meeting, we discuss my arguments and he both verbally critiques my argument as well as expands on the general topic I’m studying.”

Exams at the end of Oxford students’ final year determine how well they do at the University, so there is less emphasis on grades in tutorials. But students put a great deal of effort into their papers anyway because, as Herschthal put it, “you are presenting your work to a professor one on one. You don’t want to waste his time, or yours. In other words, I write my papers because I want to learn — without any extrinsic concerns. That feels good.”

Princeton senior Dusan Perovic, who is majoring in electrical engineering, also thrived in the tutorial system.

“At Oxford, students are encouraged to work a lot more independently and do a lot more research to find necessary information themselves,” Perovic said. “It almost felt like being in a grad school.”

Exposure to Oxford’s academic system made some students appreciate what they have at Princeton. Varun Phadke, a senior who is majoring in molecular biology, pointed out that Oxford students must declare their major as soon as they arrive and usually focus intently on that topic.

“Some of my favorite classes at Princeton have been in history, philosophy or literature — subjects that many Oxford science students do not get to study (outside of ‘auditing’ them),” Phadke said. “I think other Princeton students in the sciences also value the breadth of knowledge they are exposed to.”

Oxford students who participate in the exchange say they have benefited from the exposure to Princeton’s system. Duncan Mills, an Oxford engineering student who is spending this year at Princeton, finds himself approaching his academic work in a different way.

“I was giving up Oxford’s unique way of doing things, but at the same time I was getting the chance to experience the Princeton way of life,” he said. The opportunity to come to Princeton “seemed too good to turn down. How many people can say they did their undergrad degree at both Oxford and Princeton?”

When the students on the exchange are not studying, many plunge into extracurricular activities.

“One great thing about Oxford is that you can join sports and other groups really easily, which is a great way to make friends and get into the spirit of the university,” said Biss. “I played lacrosse there, and found that to be a really fun and rewarding experience.”

Russ Renzas, a senior majoring in electrical engineering, rowed in a boat with eight people from five different nations, who ranged in age from 18 to 28. “Our boat was impressively awful, but we got in shape, went out together, got to know each other and really bonded as a team,” he said.

Renzas also performed with a band called the Donut Kings. “We played in a British army barracks, at various college balls (huge events unlike anything we have at Princeton), in an aircraft hanger, at several hotels and for a packed house at the Bullingdon Arms, a local watering hole,” he recalled. “It was incredible fun.”

Travel, of course, also played a major part in the experience. Renzas, for example, visited 14 cities in 10 countries during two six-week school vacations, traveling alone and with others.

“Now, when I hear about a famous work of art or a cathedral, I remember seeing it myself,” he said. “When discussion turns to the differences in history as presented within Soviet Russia and the West, I can think back to the exhibit I saw on that subject in Berlin.”

The students also have enjoyed cultural events and attractions right in Oxford and in London, just a bus ride away. Herschthal, a theater lover, has attended a number of productions by students and professionals and writes drama reviews for a student newspaper. He has made three trips to Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.

Mona He said one of the highlights of spending a semester at Princeton was the people she met.

“I really enjoyed meeting all the people at Princeton; they were so friendly and the culture was so different from the U.K., which was quite refreshing,” she said. “I found Princeton undergraduates more expressive of their enthusiasm for their work.”

In fact, many of the students said that the bonds forged with classmates during their stays were one of the highlights of the experience.

“I truly can say that the friendships I made while at Oxford were some of the best I’ve ever had,” Gustav Eyler said.