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I chose Oxford over free education in Germany. Here’s why.

Antonia Sundrup discusses the highlights and heartaches of studying at Oxford as an international student.

If you asked my parents why I applied to Oxford, they would tell you that I was a little too obsessed with Harry Potter as a child and that I have always had a drive to get as far away from home as possible. While they are not wrong, I would add that I also desperately craved the validation that came with getting in.

These kinds of reasons are most likely a factor for almost anyone who applies to Oxford – or prestigious universities in general – but they seem especially weak reasons for those of us who leave behind a whole life in a different country, and with it seemingly everything that is comfortable and familiar. Specifically, for me, I not only left a wonderful support system back in Germany, but also an education system that I was used to and that I still think is in many ways better and less pressuring than what I’ve gotten used to in the UK. And all this to move to a country, which does not seem to want me or my fellow Europeans here. Why am I here then? And why do I not regret staying here, even after I got Covid, had to rusticate and had a whole year to contemplate all my life choices and the reasons behind them?

Harry Potter and the need for academic validation

As a ten to 14-year-old I spent an absurd amount of time reading the Harry Potter books, watching the films and taking quizzes on ‘Pottermore’, which I am aware is a very unoriginal way to spend your childhood, especially among Oxford students. My local library had these massive books about the making of the films, which I checked out and spent whole afternoons reading and that was probably the first time the word Oxford caught my eye. As my parents keep saying, I would most likely not be here if it weren’t for whoever decided to film in the Christ Church Hall and the New College Cloisters. I would not have admitted that until recently and it was certainly not a conscious decision. But even though I today have a more complex relationship with the Harry Potter books (we all know why), the magic of the Oxford World is still very much connected to that world for me. Unlike many of my British friends, I did not grow up romanticizing Oxbridge and its archaic, yet charming, traditions. Celebrating the past to this extent is simply not a part of German culture – and thank god it is not. Without British films and TV shows, I would not find eating in hall, gowns and giant portraits on walls exciting or magical; I would just find them weird.

Harry Potter may have romanticised the idea of Oxford for me, but what actually made me apply was simply the fact that I could. I was very quiet in school and had average grades until about year ten, when they started going up. Until the end of my school career, my year saw me as some kind of underdog genius because of this. When it came to starting to think if and where I would want to go to University, I was one of the strongest students in my year and in a programme which allowed me to do both the German and the French equivalent of A-Levels. A little earlier, a teacher had tried to pitch us this programme and said that, many years ago, a student who did that programme got into Oxford because of it. Before that moment, I do not think I realised that Oxford was a normal university that you could just apply for, let alone that I could apply for. When my teacher essentially told me I could, I almost instantly knew I wanted to.

All it really was is that I needed a goal. I had never really felt like I was good at anything before and suddenly everyone seemed to think that I was smart and promising. Everyone has that need to prove themselves and I had finally found something to prove myself in, but I felt like I could not do it in Germany. Within my German state school, there was little opportunity to go beyond the curriculum academically. There are good, even great, universities in Germany, but none are as hard to get into as Oxford is. Places in German Universities are mostly distributed based on grades alone and instead of having competitive universities, there are usually particular courses which are hard to get into. I knew I wanted to do law, which was not such a course and therefore, considering the grades I was likely to get, every public University in Germany would have been open to me. Deciding that I was going to apply to Oxford gave me things to read, extracurriculars to do and a reason to keep my grades up. I don’t think I even wanted to get in that badly, I was just thriving on the challenge.

I am still deciding how I feel about my attitude at that time. Retrospectively, I found the application process quite fun, which I feel like not many people can say and I do think challenging yourself is a good thing to an extent – otherwise I would not still be here. But sometimes I do wish that I would have stopped to think about what I actually wanted to do after school, instead of thinking of University as something which was achieved during school. When I think of my sister, who is currently in year 12 and deciding what she wants to do after school, I hope she thinks about what her day to day life would look like during a degree or a job. I hope she does not get caught up in the idea of something and how it would look on paper, which is so obvious, but I still miserably failed at that. It worked out and I am by no means unhappy with my choice, but there was a lot of luck involved in that.

Reactions to my application – the good and the rational

I tried to keep the fact I was applying to Oxford quiet to not put unnecessary pressure on myself, but by the time I got back from the interviews everyone knew about it. Throughout the application process everyone was incredibly supportive, which I am still so grateful for, although it did increase the pressure. My friends got me a good luck charm before I went off to interviews; my best friend made me a cake when I got in; people in my year that I had never spoken to congratulated me and it seemed that a few hours after I had gotten an offer every teacher in the school seemed to know my name. The excitement that not just my loved ones, but everyone who was vaguely acquainted with me felt at the prospect of me even potentially going to Oxford is something which, at least to this extent, probably only comes about through a combination of being in a state school, where Oxbridge seems unattainable, and being international, which means for most people Oxford is almost synonymous to Hogwarts.

But that excitement did die down within a few weeks and I started having more conversations with people who were curious as to why I applied. These conversations continue to this day and at first I was completely thrown off by them. I applied merely because I thought I may get in, because I felt it was really cool to get in. But those people actually had very valid points. They pointed out that the country I was going to move to just left the European Union, therefore basically saying that they wanted nothing to do with us in Europe and that they were better off alone – not exactly a welcoming attitude. And not only was I moving there for my degree for three years, I was also studying law, which meant that if I wanted to become a lawyer, I would be stuck in the UK for the foreseeable future. I was making a huge decision at 17 years old, deciding to commit to a place where I had no ties whatsoever. Many of my friends say that they could never see themselves leave Germany, or even just our home city, because they would never give up being close to the people they knew and loved just for an education, a career or the prospect of meeting new people. Before I actually started Oxford, I vehemently defended my decision – the young people and academics I would deal with were not the ones who voted for Brexit (mostly true), there was no reason I should prefer to work in Germany rather than in the UK (less true) and I wanted to get out into the world and never got homesick (not true at all). I was not expecting that I would ever regret the decision.

Rusticating and questioning all of my life choices

But as it turned out, just a year later, I did regret it. I got Covid in my first term at Oxford and seemingly recovered quickly but discovered at the start of Hilary 2021 (which I was at home for) that I was suffering from heart and lung problems due to long Covid. This was six weeks away from my first year exams and it was clear pretty quickly that I would need to rusticate. My doctors recommendation for recovery was basically just to rest, which gave me a lot of time to think. Being in Germany, surrounded by the friends and family I was used to and having infinite amounts of free time suddenly brought to the forefront everything I had sacrificed to go to Oxford.

I realised how incredibly grateful I was that I was diagnosed in Germany, in a healthcare system which was not only familiar to me but also had capacity to actually take care of me (this was in January 2021, meaning I saw pictures of ambulances with Covid patients waiting outside London hospitals daily). I spent time with my friends who were going to university in our hometown, who comparatively seemed to have endless amounts of free time and did not feel the need to be involved in 20 student societies in order to get a fancy job at the end of their degree. Even exam season was not nearly as stressful as I was anticipating Mods to be like, as German students have exams each semester and lots of alternative examination methods, such as presentations and extended essays, to determine their grades, which is unheard of in the Oxford law degree. If I had been studying in Germany, I would not even have had to take a year out because of my Long Covid symptoms, but could have simply used the flexibility of a German degree and taken less classes for a semester. And it would not have been an issue financially, because – in case you haven’t heard – German university is free. Life and studies in Germany just seemed so much more manageable and relaxed and it made me realise that there is no value in torturing yourself through a degree.

At the same time, I was questioning whether law was the right choice for me. I had always been curious about most academic disciplines and while I was not disliking the degree, I was wondering whether other options might have suited me better. It was not exactly helpful that I realised that a degree in English law is difficult to apply to any job I could get in Germany, if I wanted to go back after my degree. My degree almost felt like a trap to me at that point.

I had always been so eager to get out of my parents house, out of my hometown, out of the country, but suddenly I realised what it would mean if I worked in the UK. Studying in Oxford, I see my family and friends from home quite frequently in the vac, but that will all change if I get a full time job which has 20 vacation days. My mum’s family lives in France and we see them once a year, which also means we’ve never been on a summer holiday anywhere else. I now have close family members or friends in Germany, France and the UK and am slowly realising that I will never see everyone nearly as much as I would like again. Trying to get away from home was one of the main reasons I applied, along with seeking academic validation, which I progressively cared less about. My relationship with Harry Potter also got considerably more complicated considering what JK Rowling has been up to lately, so all of the reasons that had drawn me to Oxford had lost their relevance.

Basically, by the time I was set to go back to Oxford, I regretted ever starting in the first place. But I still went back, partly because it was too late to start a course in Germany that year and partly because my mum told me I should at least try it again, because I might find that in my misery, I forgot about all the good parts. I guess mums are always right – or at least mine is.

Why did I stay?

Now comes the romantic turnaround of the story: I went back and realised I actually really love it here. I was still contemplating the option of simply dropping out, which it turns out really took the pressure off of the degree and made me enjoy it way more. Whenever I feel stressed today, I tell myself that if everything gets too much, I can always just not do it, which is incredibly comforting. I also rediscovered all of the great things about UK university life and life at Oxford specifically: Living in college with all of my friends (a lot of my German friends found it hard to make friends, especially during covid and online classes), being offered three meals in hall a day (cafeterias back home just do lunch), having regular contact in small groups with those teaching me and receiving frequent feedback on my work, which makes it less of a culture shock from school, while my German friends have had to get used to feeling like they are just a number at their uni. Recently, every time I go back and spend time in Germany, I still see the things I miss about it and am missing out on, but I also am able to see all the respects in which I am lucky. I guess what I am trying to say is that despite all of the advantages of living in the European Union, university here truly is a great experience and I am thankful I get to appreciate the differences that are easy to take for granted.

Image credit: Liv Cashman

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