Celebrating Oxford

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The connections run deep between Oxford University and Sarah Lawrence College.

The college’s seminar-conference system, which since the late 1920s has combined independent student research and individual faculty supervision, draws heavily from Oxford’s renowned tutorial tradition.

For the past quarter-century, that relationship has blossomed through the Sarah Lawrence at Oxford program, which brings up to 30 American students—including several from other US colleges—to the university’s Wadham College for a year of study, and welcomes a half-dozen Wadham students to its Westchester County campus for three weeks each spring.

This year, Sarah Lawrence and Oxford celebrated the program’s 25th anniversary at a gathering at the Heimbold Visual Arts Center. In attendance were several Wadham officials, Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i who had studied in Oxford, and students set to travel there in September. They also toasted the 400th anniversary of Wadham’s founding by the widow of Nicholas Wadham, a Somerset landowner who won permission from King James I to set up the school.

"I'm not sure how we did it," said Sir Neil Chalmers, warden of Wadham College, who told those gathered at the event: "For the first 375 years, we managed without you."

He said that the Sarah Lawrence program has provided an international flavor to one of Oxford's biggest colleges, known for its informal atmosphere and high academic standards. Many Sarah Lawrence students come with an artistic sensibility that enlivens the Oxford dormitory scene.

"You enrich our community with your perspective and creativity," he said.

Karen Lawrence, president of Sarah Lawrence College, who visited the Oxford campus in the fall, said the exchange program provides a stimulating opportunity for top students. “It’s rich, demanding and exciting,” she said.

Chalmers noted that the students who come to Wadham do well under the Oxford tutorial system because they are accustomed to a one-on-one relationship with a faculty member through Sarah Lawrence’s conference and donning system. However, students and faculty acknowledge that the Oxford experience differs markedly in its approach.

At Wadham College, students take no courses. Instead, they choose a broad academic field, such as history or English Literature, and are assigned two tutors for each of three eight-week terms. Students meet weekly for an hour with each tutor. They provide a reading list of several books and articles on a particular topic in that field. By week’s end, the student must produce essays of between 3,000 and 5,000 words on each topic, which they read to the tutor, and then discuss in a spirited exchange.

The tutor may challenge the essay’s assumptions, and the student is expected to defend his or her point of view, based on primary and secondary sources. Students rarely hand in their essays—the exchange between student and tutor is what’s important.

“It’s like a baptism by fire,” said Ashlinn Romagnoli, ’10, who attended the Oxford program in 2008-09. “The relationship with the tutor can be nerve-wracking, but it’s quite fulfilling. Now I really know how to write under pressure.”

Standards are high for those Sarah Lawrence students who apply to study at Oxford for a year. They need to have a Grade Point Average of at least 3.5. In September, 23 Sarah Lawrence students and five students from Reed College, Swarthmore College and Tufts University will begin the fall term at Oxford.

Andrew Wilkenson, a Wadham student who came to Sarah Lawrence in the spring of 2010, says it didn’t take him long to see the different relationship between faculty and student in the U.S.

“At Sarah Lawrence, there’s an interest in the student’s feeling and opinions,” says Wilkenson, who took classes here in American literature of the 1920s, and the business of theatre. “At Oxford, there is more concern over a dispassionate analysis of the material.”

Ray Ockenden, who teaches German language and literature at Wadham, recalls his own exchange experience at Sarah Lawrence several years ago, when he came to teach for a semester. Instead of focusing solely on German romanticism, as his work did in Oxford to prepare students for their exams, his class here explored romanticism on a broader scale—from Ovid and French classical dramas to the novel of American novelist William Faulkner.

The class sometimes veered off in directions he hadn’t planned.

“It’s so much more student-driven at Sarah Lawrence,” says Ockenden. “The students could go where they wanted to go.”

The relationship between the schools remains vibrant. One year after several Sarah Lawrence students joined a Wadham crew team that rowed on the River Thames, they asked if they could form a team at Sarah Lawrence. The Gryphons women’s and men’s team have been rowing since then in such major regattas as the Head of the Charles in Cambridge and the Head of the Connecticut in Middletown, Ct.

By attending Oxford for the entire year, students have the opportunity to experience the intensity of its three eight-week terms, and the extended leisure time between the terms for travel around the United Kingdom or to continental Europe. Each term at Oxford has its own feel. They arrive in late September for the Michaelmas term, when the well-tended Wadham gardens are still in bloom, and Oxford’s gold and grey stone glints in the afternoon sun. The Hilary Term goes from January through early March in the dark of winter. Following the spring break, which can be at least a month, the Trinity Term runs from April through June, when students may find time to go punting on the River Thames in shallow-bottomed boats.

Sarah Lawrence students thrive at Wadham. Diana Bruk, ’10, found her academic voice at Oxford, where she studied English Literature and Russian. For one tutor, she read the 1920s Russian novel, The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platanov, which explored the struggle between individuals and the state in the collectivized Soviet society. Her essay was so incisive it was later published in winter 2009 edition of The Birch, a journal of Eastern European and Eurasian culture.

While at Oxford, she found her niche in the Oxford University Conservative Association, one of the academic community’s social clubs, which held foreign policy debates, as well as balls and dinners in London. She’s considering returning to Oxford to study for her master’s degree in English Literature.

“My whole life began in Oxford,” she says.

Students who become involved in the Oxford community outside of the classroom return with especially fond memories of their time overseas. Amy LaBurda, ’07, who studied at Wadham in 2005-06 enjoyed living and studying on the 400-year-old campus. She studied literature with a tutor from another of Oxford’s colleges, and she joined the Wadham Chapel Choir.

“You have to be proactive and reach out,” she says. “And when you do, it can be quite rewarding.”