Three years ago, I entered my freshman year at Hillsdale College. Although Hillsdale is nestled in Midwestern cornfields 700 miles from my Connecticut home, I was content with my school of choice. With excessive paper writing and a tendency to recite whole chapters of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style at unsuspecting passersby, I was shaping up to be quite the Hillsdale English major.
But something was missing.
The Harry Potter series, the complete works of Jane Austen and British television had made me weak. I was a closet Anglophile, and I secretly longed for the kind of collegiate experience that would turn Sebastian Flyte green with envy. Yes, my first two years at Hillsdale were full of thoughts of the oldest university in the English-speaking world: Oxford.
Oxford. That mythical village. That quaint little country lane scattered with quaint little tea rooms and 38 quaint, little ivy-covered colleges. Where lines of edifying poetry drip from your pen the moment you step within the town limits. Where the men look like Colin Firth and write like T.S. Eliot and pray like John Henry Newman and a handful of brainy women pick and choose among them. Where the sun ever shineth and the boats ever punt-eth.
Oxford was where it was at. No mortal could convince me otherwise.
And, lo and behold, Hillsdale just happened to have a study-abroad program that would allow me to attend — however briefly — this hallowed institution. (Coincidence? I think not.) After filling out mountains of paperwork, receiving that prized acceptance letter, and parting tearfully with every last penny to my name, I boarded a plane for jolly old England.
The first in a succession of mild heart attacks occurred the moment I rode into town. Oxford is not a quaint, little country village. In fact, it’s a rather bustling city with rather a lot of homeless people.
“Know your place,” advised our English liaison. “Many of these students can trace their pedigrees to royalty.” Needless to say, I made few friends among the full-timers.
Nor did I win the heart of any Oxford faculty member. Excepting one extraordinarily kind tutor, my efforts to charm and amuse were met with various degrees of throat clearing and dour expressions. Dreams of conversation over tea and crumpets with fussy, loveable old Englishmen perished after the first tutorial.
And the preparation required for these sessions began to make Hillsdale look like Hooked on Phonics. Each week, an 800-900 page novel had to be read, digested and dissected in a 12-page paper for one tutorial, a hearty dose of textbook reading and another 12-pager for the other.
To add insult to pedagogical injury, the Oxford powers that be placed me in a flat two miles from the city center, complete with a front door that wouldn’t shut, a dryer that wouldn’t dry, a bathtub that leaked like a sieve, and outlets that refused to emit electricity.
But the biggest shock of all was my astonishingly bad luck in the roommate lottery.
The Kodak-worthy Oxford experience of my dreams was officially debunked.
In an effort to salvage my stay, I made time for daily Mass at my adopted parish, the Oxford Oratory, founded by none other than Blessed John Henry Newman and run by a community of priests known for their orthodoxy and expository preaching. Sunday Masses had been standing-room only, but weekdays proved far more intimate.
Before long, I had met a Dickensian group of 6:30 “dailies,” which included, among others, a middle-aged Irish couple, two elderly Italian widows named Maria, one mantilla-wearing mom with six children, and a dapper old gent with a silver-plated cane. When “mantilla mom” invited me to a Lenten retreat at the parish center, I had unwittingly gained entrance to Oxford’s underground Catholic community.
On the day of the retreat, I was greeted at the door by a middle-aged Englishwoman wearing five or six multicolored scarves and a large black raincoat, hot to the touch from spring sunshine. She grabbed me a heaping plate of orange-flavored Jaffa cakes with one hand and pushed me toward the tea table with the other, exclaiming, “Darling, they’ve told me all about you! You’re the American!”
All my 6:30 friends were in attendance, along with dozens of parishioners from every conceivable walk of life. Spaniards, Nigerians, Welshmen, Oxford dons, graduate students, college porters, waitresses etc. And to each one, the woman in the black raincoat announced, “Here she is, the little American girl! Let’s all make her feel very welcome!”
After weeks of thwarted dreams, I had finally assimilated into a segment of Oxford society. Perhaps it was not the most typical segment, nor the most glamorous, but I’ll be darned if it wasn’t the most interesting. My new friends were a heterogeneous crowd, but all were firmly devoted to their faith in a decidedly irreligious setting — none more so than the English, who now fight a more toilsome battle against atheist neighbors than they had waged against centuries of Protestant persecution.
Suddenly, summer arrived in Oxford. Flowers fell out of window boxes and filled the city’s many gardens. I trekked through Oxford’s narrow streets, visiting Shelley’s old stomping grounds and C.S. Lewis’ favorite pub, The Eagle and Child. And I spent as much time as possible with the motley crew at the oratory, where, I discovered, a young student named Gerard Manley Hopkins had also attended daily Mass many years ago.
When the time came, I was sorry to leave. For those last weeks, I had loved living in Oxford. But I confess I didn’t love learning there.
The following term, I returned to the Midwest a little more grateful and a little more humble. And I had Oxford to thank.
Erin O’Luanaigh is a senior at Hillsdale College.
Her hometown is Cheshire, Connecticut.