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The Mass Media

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An inside look at Bobby B. Beacon’s insides. Illustrated by Bianca Oppedisano/ Mass Media Staff.
Bobby's Inside Story
February 26, 2024

My Summer At Oxford

The+Radcliffe+Camera+in+Oxford%2C+close+to+the+Trinity+Campus.

The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, close to the Trinity Campus.

There are some experiences you never think you’re ever going to manage—some that never even cross your mind as a possibility. Spending a fully-funded summer studying at Oxford University in England, and traveling to France and Italy, all in six weeks? Not on my radar.
Let’s get some things straight. I’m an English major who often struggles with what being an English major entails. I’ve grown up feeling alienated and backed into a corner by what the literary world often deems the “greats”—classics that have no space for Muslim Pakistani-American girls. I’ve come around to Shakespeare, and don’t get me wrong—I see the universal value of many of the works we study as English students. The University of Massachusetts Boston at the very least is good about expanding beyond the classics into modern writers of color, queer writers, and so on. 
I feel the same sense of confusion when thinking about England, too. My family’s country is a new one, created in 1948 by England forcefully dividing India and Pakistan into two different countries. The amount of violence that went on during Partition is inexcusable, and haunts my culture silently, always present but never talked about. All my writing, all my interest in writing, is devoted to making sense of why some literature is picked over others, why some voices are exalted as the greats and others are on the fringe. I have an appetite for investigating and asking. And what better place to explore than the home of the language I study, and the home of the colonial empire that played such a direct role in my family history?
I did not know what to expect going to Oxford. Despite my initial grudges, I fell in love immediately. Oxford is a historic university town, one of the first in the world and definitely the first in England. The city began as a religious center for training monks, and eventually blossomed into a center for intellectual thought, architectural development, and artistic revolutions. It was in Oxford that science and religion were taught as one, integrated into the embodiment of unity in Oxford’s Natural History Museum which upholds its biblical references while remaining scientifically sound. The city, as I learned in my art and architecture class while studying there, is a work of art—a purposeful orchestra of Gothic, Baroque and even Modern architecture, all maintaining a core identity. The city works endlessly to celebrate the writers, artists, and politicians that learned their craft there. Oxford consists of 38 separate colleges—mine being Trinity College—and has no main campus. As an entity, Oxford is ranked the fifth best university in the world.
Needless to say, I was intimidated taking two courses at Trinity. I worried constantly that I wasn’t smart enough, that there was a mistake that I was chosen to be the one UMass Boston student going on an otherwise predominantly UMass Amherst program. But Oxford was everything I needed for some particular reasons. Don’t get me wrong—it was cool to have tea time twice a day, to sight-see and finally see Westminster Palace in London, to be living in a city that looked just like a painting, to be in a place where I could see original sketches by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo and Raphael for a class field trip, to be where I could see a Shakespeare performance at the Globe. It was more than cool—it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I shed many tears of wonder and gratitude. But nothing struck me like the relationship between professor and student there.
My two classes were representative of what a typical Oxford student experience is—a small class with about nine students, and a relatively open relationship with professors. It was absolutely normal to go to your professor’s house for dinner, to go grab a couple drinks or a coffee and just talk about life and academics. One of my professors, who completely changed my view on Jane Austen (I am now a dedicated fan), ended up being one of the most amazing women I’ve met in my life. And best of all, she heard me. She credited my opinions, took my experience seriously, and never once fell into the dynamic that is so familiar in the United States. There was no sense of me being an empty vessel for her to dump her knowledge into. She encouraged us to challenge her, to challenge each other. I learned about things I never expected to learn about when talking to her at one of our formal dinners we all attended at the university, which were meant to bring us closer to our professors. She told me some of the darker truths of Oxford, the fact that its teachings in English often stop with the greats of previous times. Many students get minimal exposure to modern writers—in other words, writers of color, queer writers, etc.
I don’t think she meant much by the comment, but it really hit home for me. How would I have been different if I had spent all four years at Oxford instead of UMass Boston? How much freedom do we, as students, have to learn the truth? How much is modified for us behind closed doors? It astonishes me—or, actually, maybe it doesn’t—that one of the most prestigious universities in the world sticks to its own roots as the epitome of greatness. Oxford reminded me of how important exposure is. We need material that is not traditionally considered a “classic,” and Oxford may have some work to do. But Oxford also offers what the U.S. often lacks: we need the space to challenge our professors, to ask questions. Whether you graduate from Oxford or from UMass, so much of your thinking is going to be shaped by the classes you take, whether you realize it or not. 
None of what I’m saying is to claim Oxford is corrupt. I would give so much to return to it, to continue learning under such brilliant minds in such a beautiful country. I would love to keep exploring the way Partition and other colonial horrors are approached in English culture. Six weeks is definitely not enough time. But in those six weeks, I felt my mind open up to worlds and ideas I’ve never experienced. England was my springboard to talk to people from parts of the world I never get exposure to, and even allowed me to afford trips to Italy and France, which were cultural gems and learning experiences in their own right. 
I hope other students at UMass Boston investigate the scholarship opportunities our campus has to offer. It takes some digging, and it takes some risks—I definitely never thought that I would manage this scholarship and almost didn’t bother to apply. But trust me—on the off-chance that the universe is in your favor, on the off-chance that you will get to see the world before you even graduate—all you have to gain is a kind of education you didn’t know you could get.
Special thanks to the team at UMass Amherst that ran the program—Program Director Jenny Adams, Assistant Director Ashley Nadeau, and Junior Deans Jack Fitzgerald and Ellen Howes—for making the entire experience incredible.