Last September, I moved to the UK to do a master’s program in World Literature at Oxford University. Having studied at Tsinghua University in China for four years, I realized that my university lives back home and in the UK are different in amazing ways.
Studying for a university degree is equally challenging back home and in the UK. Under both educational systems, you have a combination of lectures of over 30 people and seminars with less than 10 people. A major difference between my friends’ undergraduate education in the UK and mine in China (in the discipline of English literature specifically) is that I had more essays with designated topics, whereas they were granted more liberty in choosing texts and topics on their own. Both evaluation methods have their advantages: while I have a more solid knowledge structure, UK students get to look deep into what interests them. After-class instruction is also slightly different under the two systems. During my undergraduate program, I used to have one-on-one office hours when I could ask questions to the lecturer. Office hours are not compulsory and the atmosphere is generally more relaxed. They provide a chance for you to better understand the discipline you’re looking into. At Oxford, I attend supervisions with lecturers as a compulsory part of my program. Instead of questions, I usually present essay ideas or go through essay drafts with the supervisor. For me, supervisions are much more demanding, but also highly rewarding.
The biggest challenge for me, however, has been navigating the different teaching styles. As a student in the Humanities, I feel that Chinese lecturers adopt—if I may generalize here—a more Confucian style of teaching. They are good at guiding students according to their individual abilities. They also introduce to you a wide range of texts, theories, and academic discourses, and let you form your opinion based on extensive reading. In the first seminar I took at Oxford, I was quite overwhelmed by the amount and depth of detailed questions raised by the lecturer. Over the year, however, this Socratic teaching method, where students are intellectually challenged by questions, has helped me develop a critical eye. Close reading and in-depth analyses of texts have encouraged me to reexamine writers and philosophers I am familiar with and to pitch myself into different academic fields.
Another important aspect of university life is the campus. Most university campuses in China are separate from the town. My undergraduate university, for example, is located in an imperial garden that is separated by school gates from the Old Summer Palace, a neighbouring historical site, and Wudaokou, one of the busiest parts of Beijing. As a student, I could enjoy a serene campus but also conveniently get a taste of the vibrant city life on weekends. Oxford is a lot different in this respect. Even though I study and live inside a college, my everyday life—walking to the supermarket, studying in the libraries, hanging out with friends at pubs and restaurants—isn’t clearly separated from the town. To this day, I am still amazed by how much the town’s local history is blended with the University’s history. You can walk into a tavern and realize great writers like Tolkein probably sat and drank at the same spot decades ago. I feel so lucky to have experienced both campus lifestyles: the serene campus life amid the busy metropolitan city vibes as well as the vibrant social life in a quaint, historical town.
My best memories from my undergraduate years were probably sitting on the playground with my friends on summer nights, chatting and drinking beer, while the warm breeze sends the sound of a guitar from afar. I found such joy again going on punting picnics—what I imagined to be the quintessential Oxford sport. Going down the River Thames, you can chat and laugh with friends while birds chirp in the bushes and stunning sceneries unfold in front of your eyes. If you stop near the river bank for a relaxing picnic, beautiful waterfowl will come close for a snack. My heart melts at those beautiful moments.
Looking back at my student life upon graduation, I feel so blessed to be able to study at the best universities in my home country and the UK. Both experiences empowered me in different ways and made me ready to embrace the next chapter of life.
MSt student in World Literatures at University of Oxford
See Muyun’s Vlog A day in the life of a Chinese student in Oxford on i2i’s Instagram IGTV channel @i2iapp