Whenever I say I study at Oxford the reaction back home is astonishment. The university’s name has a magic effect on almost anybody’s facial expression. Logically, people are intrigued about what studying at this place is like. What makes Oxford so special? I struggled a lot to make it conceivable for an “outsider”. However, I think I have finally found the recipe: it is neither the courses nor the lecturers, it is the people generally. I am deeply convinced that I have never met so many thrilling people in such a short time and on so few square metres.
In order to illustrate this, I want to use one of the most marking moments in the first term of my MPhil in Russian and Eastern European Studies. My fellow students and I had received an invitation for a mingling event organised by the Department of South East European Studies (SEESOX). The aim was to gather and have a chat with people interested in a similar field. Honestly speaking, my expectations were not very high. I was to be more than surprised.
As usual, the event took place in one of the many centuries-old buildings scattered around Oxford, almost whispering stories from past times in your ear while you cycle past. Upon arrival, I discovered a small room, filled with about forty strangers, all eating “dolmades” – a Balkan delicacy. In short, I was breathing pure serenity. Immediately, I felt that the spirit here was completely different from our classrooms: it was not about competition or marks. People simply enjoyed sharing their passion for this specific region of Europe.
Since we were yet quite a big group, the head of the Department decided we ought to briefly introduce one another. Raising his glass, he said individuals should just name the topic of their research. Upon hearing this utterance, my heart began to race: so it actually was competitive? What was I meant to say? I knew that most people were either doing a PhD or were even at a further stage in their academic career, while I was a plain Masters student, whose thesis statement was still very vague.
There was, however, very little time to make up a great title, for my turn came very fast. I decided to be honest and state my topic, as imprecise as it was: “I’d like to see how the Orthodox Church influences feminist movements”. To my great surprise an impressed “ohh” came as an answer from the public. And I was all the more delighted when several people approached me during the evening to ask further questions about my research, suggest help and give input.
When I sat again on my bicycle to ride home, I had a bright smile on my face and was thrilled because in a mere two hours I had met so many people who believed in me, had suggestions, and were ready to give me their support. The conclusion I drew was that first of all, my topic might indeed be a good one, but most importantly that Oxford offers you the unique opportunity to believe everything is possible. And this is the prerequisite to change things.
Oxford, 25th January 2014.
Leandra was studying for an MPhil in Russian and Eastern European Studies.