Bragging Rights: Study at Oxford This Summer

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Posted by The Savvy Retiree on October 29, 2019 in Lifelong Learning

I never imagined I’d be able to follow in the footsteps of writer J.R.R. Tolkien or study at the university where Stephen Hawking earned his undergraduate degree. But this past summer, for a full week, I attended the Oxford University in England.

I spent two decades in the U.S. Air Force, and two more as a private consultant. But only since retiring have I found the time to slow down, indulge my love of travel, and enjoy other interests I had limited time to pursue earlier.

My wife, Emily, and I heard about Oxford’s summer courses while on a Road Scholar trip through Italy. Finally, last summer, we lucked out with courses for both of us in the same week: a course on modern architects for me and one on two Jane Austen novels for her.

They run two different programs, offering 100 different courses. Through The Oxford Experience, which has 60 courses, you can live in a campus dorm, eat at long Harry Potter-style tables, and attend classes that don’t require writing papers. The Oxford University Summer School for Adults, which is the program Emily and I attended, has 40 courses, and you can live and study on a quiet city street and write two papers. Both programs put the city of Oxford at your doorstep for splendid discoveries after short days in class. Our week cost us $1,700 per person for tuition, meals, and upgraded lodging.

We arrived in Oxford a few days before our courses began so that we could adjust for jet lag and see some of the city’s fabled sites, among them taverns so old that I could move in them only by ducking down. A highlight was Evensong at Christ Church, founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII. Nearby, a TV crew prepared to tape an episode of Endeavour, a sequel to PBS’s long-running Inspector Morse. A walking tour of the city took us to the river where careening novices demonstrated that punting done smoothly is harder than it looks.

Our courses started well before the first day of class. We had some reading to do in preparation for the thousand-word papers we emailed to Oxford a month early. My paper defined and illustrated certain styles of modern architecture. Emily’s assignment discussed a character from one of the assigned Jane Austen novels.

The tutors for both our courses were exceptional. Mine had prepared interesting lectures with slides that covered one architect each half day, from Le Corbusier to Hadid. The level of detail was just right for our audience of interested outsiders. Emily says of her tutor, “She knew her Jane Austen and had a gift for making connections and leading class discussion.”

My course had the added appeal of a trip into central London to see buildings by architects we were studying. Excursions are typical for courses on literature and history related to Oxford.

We also enjoyed how international our course groups were. I was joined by a university lecturer from Denmark, a manager from Canada, and a CEO from India. I was among four retirees, from the U.S. and Australia, in their 70s. Some of us have stayed in touch since our course, and there’s talk of reconnecting at Oxford in 2020.

Among the seven participants in my wife’s course were a teacher from Australia, a homemaker from Arizona, and an Italian working in Holland for an American company. They added a rich mix of ages and cultures to discussions about women and society in Jane Austen novels.

After our week at Oxford, we rode the Thames River down to Windsor to enjoy a second week in England. A travel company booked each night’s lodging, moved our luggage from town to town, and provided tickets for ferries and maps for our daily country walks. The day after visiting Windsor Castle, we took a taxi to nearby Heathrow airport for our flight to Denver and home.

As we happily looked back on the trip, we joked that we could now start sentences with “when we studied at Oxford” or “during our Oxford days” when talking to friends and family. We would be gleefully insufferable.

“We could now start sentences with ‘during our Oxford days…'”

Summer Courses Across Europe

If you’re interested in combining learning with travel this summer, there are some excellent options at some of Europe’s most prestigious universities.

Oxford University hosts two programs, offering a variety of week-long courses: The Oxford University Summer School for Adults and The Oxford Experience. The former provides more challenging courses, while the latter is designed to give attendees an immersive taste of the Oxford student experience.

Cambridge University, Oxford’s centuries-old rival, is where Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton received their education. This summer the university is running more than 200 courses and seminars, with almost 100 being offered for the first time this year. The courses vary in length, from one to six weeks, starting from approximately $550. Check out their full program here.

The Sorbonne in Paris has produced some of France’s greatest minds, including the writer Balzac, philosopher Jean Baudrillard, and filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (even Bill Murray studied there). You can join their ranks this July with 13 one-week courses to choose from. Enrollment costs just over $400 if you book your place early. However, you’ll have to book your accommodation yourself. See their course options here.

The university also offers two-week courses for French language learners, catering to different levels.

Written by Thomas Murawski