City of Dreaming Spires: Matti Veldhuis Shares About Her Time Abroad

Q: Where are you studying and what are you studying?

A: I’m studying philosophy at Oxford and have two courses, one in aesthetics and one in metaphysics. 

Q: Briefly describe your daily routine in your new location.

A: Awaken. Immediately open my curtains to let in as much light as possible because the sun sets at approximately 2pm. Walk from my apartment to the Bod (the Bodleian Library) in the center of Oxford; this takes about half an hour. Read, read, read. Get lunch with a friend who is also spending the day in the Bod (there’s usually at least one) before heading back to the Bod or walking home. At some point, return home to cook dinner and soon remember that I cannot cook and am only narrowly capable of independent survival. Some days, when I don’t need to access books or articles and am just writing, I spend more time at home but I’d say this is quite typical. I also have a number of weekly routines/obligations in the afternoon and evening: attending organ recitals or evensong at my college, going to Bible study, and attending meetings of the C.S. Lewis Society.

Q: Have you tried any new foods that stand out? New music? New (insert items here)? What have been your favorites?

A: Most people who know me will know that I have a lot of food-related vices: sweet tea, McDonald’s, Chick-fil-a ice cream cones, Taco Bell mild sauce, candy. Well, I have two more to add to the list: (1) fish and chips and (2) cornish pasties. Both are served piping hot. Piping hot, guys. Fish and chips are pretty self explanatory but I will try to describe a cornish pasty, though I’m sure my words will be paltry in comparison to the thing itself, rough images seen by a sick eye in comparison to the Form. It’s a pie crust-esque, sort of croissant-y outside that is filled with beef, potatoes, onions, and salt and pepper and then baked. I know that sounds kind of heavy and unappealing but I promise you that it’s so good.

Q: Have you noticed things in your new location that are different from the US? Things that are the same?

A: I definitely feel abnormally friendly and loud here in England. People are much less likely to make small talk, in public and sometimes in more social settings as well. I’ve found PA to be a bit less friendly than my home in the South but in England the difference is far more marked. I also walk way more than I ever have at home. I think that’s probably an English thing but also probably an Oxford thing; the city and the university grew up in the medieval period so I guess that may have something to do with it. It’s so lovely to hear church bells so often and to pass by so many churches, though it’s odd to know that many people here value them more for aesthetic beauty than for any sort of religious significance.   

Q: What has surprised you most about living abroad?

A: The. Sun. Sets. At. Four. Thirty. 

Q: How have your studies changed since going abroad? 

A: Oxford runs a lot differently than the average American university. The academic year is divided into eight-week trimesters instead of our lengthy semesters so there’s way more packed into a short period. Oxford also uses the tutorial system; instead of having a bunch of different classes with other students, you have tutorials, in which a tutor/professor teaches you and maybe another student or two. Generally, you meet with your tutor once a week. For every meeting, they give you a long reading list and you read everything you can before writing an essay on it. Then, when you arrive at your tutorial, you read the essay aloud to your tutor and discuss both your writing and the material you’ve read. Generally students have a primary tutorial, which meets eight times, and a secondary tutorial, which meets four times. In my case, I meet with my aesthetics tutor every Wednesday and my metaphysics tutor every other Wednesday and other than that I’m left on my own to read and write. So there’s a lot of free time but I have to use that free time really well and accomplish a lot of reading and writing in a relatively short period. 

Q: Would you recommend the study abroad experience to other students? Would you recommend your location in particular? Why?

A: I think a lot of people are kind of mystified or at a loss as to why someone would choose to study abroad in England. After all, it seems a lot like the U.S.; it’s a Western, English-speaking country in which things seem pretty much the same (except with the addition of accents and some stricter laws). However, I’d say that any student considering studying at Oxford shouldn’t necessarily let such concerns discourage them. First of all, studying abroad at Oxford is a unique experience in that it is the oldest university in the English-speaking world and the second oldest ever. Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet who wrote “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”, went to Oxford and so did hundreds of other famous people, including a rather shocking number of British prime ministers and world leaders. Even Bill Clinton was here; I hear he had quite a lot of fun amidst the dreaming spires. All that to say, Oxford is distinctive in that it is so historical, both because of its age and its actual history. Second of all, England is more different from the States than you may expect; it’s not America Lite (or, if you prefer, America is not England Lite). As I mentioned previously, England is so much older. More than that, though, there are a lot of cultural differences between England and the United States. Most of the things which come to mind are small - differences in drinking culture, small talk, recycling - but I have a sense that there are much deeper underlying differences. And even beyond British culture, Oxford is by no means homogeneous or non-diverse; it strikes me as a very international city and university. There is, for instance, a strong Indian culture in England. In the case of Oxford, the university draws a lot of internationals as well. Almost immediately after Russia invaded Ukraine, I saw a group of students protesting outside one of the libraries and was very surprised to find that many of them were Ukrainian themselves. 

In short, I would say that I wholeheartedly recommend Oxford to any student who is considering it. I feel so thankful to have been able to study in such a historic place, one that is so selective of its students and likely would not have been available to me without this experience. It’s lovely to walk down a road in a hurry and look up to see that you’re passing by a heavy wooden door framed by two golden fauns playing flutes, a door that is conspicuously close to a lamppost, and to realize that one day, many, many years ago, C.S. Lewis walked by the same door and it set his mind to turning.