Web Exclusives:On the Campus...

February 11, 2004:

Oxonians into the Princeton Mix

By Jennifer Albinson '05

When I developed the pictures from the winter formal dance at my eating club, one in particular surprised me.

The image showed from right to left good friends Sam, Jefferson, Alexis, Lisa, and some kid I didn't know. After looking at it twice, I remembered the kid as Lisa's date, one of those exchange students from Oxford.

As I examined the snapshot, I remembered how he had scooted closer to Lisa in order to be included, even though he'd never met me, the girl on the other end of the camera counting to three.

This picture had frozen a moment for me, and for him. It froze him eagerly participating in culture that was foreign for him.

Indeed, for him and his fellow exchange students, most every facet of Princeton life is unfamiliar.

Even when it comes to alcohol, the social lubricant that enables classic college craziness 'round the world, the Oxford students noticed distinctions between their place and ours. Rather than the Princeton method of overconsuming alcohol (but just on the weekends!), the Oxford students are accustomed to a more relaxed approach to drinking, having campus bars in each subcollege of their university. Back home, they would kick back a drink or two at the end of the day much like Princetonians veg out in front of the big television in Frist with a piece of pizza.

Lisa's date, whose name I learned was Matt Cartwright, is a senior and is one of 12 Oxford University students who came to Princeton this year as part of a new Princeton-Oxford exchange program, now in its second year.

This exchange, which directly connects the academic departments of Princeton and Oxford, not only brings students to Princeton, but also sends Princeton students to Oxford, with five students spending their fall semester at Oxford, and three in the spring. The 12 Oxford students currently at Princeton, who range from sophomores to seniors, from historians to biologists to mechanical engineers, found out about the program through e-mails Oxford sent out, and were immediately interested in spending a semester or a year in this central Jersey town.

In addition to the academic experience, they were enticed by the opportunity to go to the U.S. (many of the students had never been to the former colony), and experience a new culture.

To this end, the students have fully integrated themselves into the Princeton community, living in dorms, joining eating clubs, and playing on sports teams. They have also visited New York and other East Coast cities.

Another difference involves specialization. In the British education system, senior exchange student Alex Quayle says, "you specialize starting at age 16." In his case, this means that while his American counterparts were looking toward getting their driver's licenses, he was narrowing his academic studies to mechanical engineering. This early focus allowed him, and his fellow exchange students, to feel a step ahead of their peers at Princeton, although they quickly concede that they missed out on the broad liberal arts experience. While Princeton's mechanical engineers round out their schedules with English literature and art history courses, Alex feels obligated to remain within the discipline he has studied for years and years.

In addition to early specialization, the Oxford students have found other differences. Senior exchange student Rachel Armitage says professors' methods of constantly testing the students are "stifling." Armitage feels that frequent graded assignments at Princeton, all of which "matter" in that they factor into the G.P.A., provides less opportunity for a student to learn from mistakes.

In contrast, Oxford's tutorial system allows students to work closely and routinely with professors to deconstruct and discuss the material before having to display their understanding of it in assessments.

Like Armitage, exchange student Matt Cartwright agrees that tests are too frequent at Princeton. He feels Princeton students are so focused on finishing their problem sets, tests, laboratory reports, and essays, that they lack the "time to learn things properly." Associate Dean of the Collge Nancy Kanach, who coordinates the exchange program, notes that the Oxford students "realize that lectures play a more crucial role in their education at Princeton."

But despite frustrating differences, they enjoy involving themselves socially at Princeton. Cartwright joined the club rugby team, and traveled with them to Trinidad and Tobago over the intersession break. Armitage joined the women's varsity field hockey team, but could not play in games because of N.C.A.A. regulations.

The sophomore students lived in residential colleges, where they ate in dining halls and participated in the colleges' programming.

Five of the upperclass students joined Colonial Club, after the club's president met the students and realized that by living in single dorm rooms and eating at the Frist Campus Center, they "lacked a social focus." The club president, Mike McFadden '04, worked with the students and the club's office to determine a meal plan that would enhance their experience without overburdening them financially. He also met with Dean Kanach, who agreed to inform future students about the benefits and costs of joining an eating club. Colonial Club, in turn, promised that in coming years it would "do [its] best to accept as many of the exchange students" as possible.

The students are pleased with their decision to come to Princeton. While there have been unpleasant surprises — Quayle broke his arm and was astounded at the cost of American healthcare — they have enjoyed their experience. In fact, they claim the only thing that could make Princeton better would be a campus bar.


Jennifer Albinson '05 can be reached at albinson@princeton.edu.