Senior Gets an Intellectual Workout at Oxford

February 2, 2015 | by the Office of Marketing and Communications

It came as no surprise to Lee Borocz-Johnson that he worked hard during his fall term in the Middlebury College-CMRS Oxford Humanities Program in Oxford, England.

The Elmhurst senior had been warned that this study-abroad experience would come with a decided emphasis on the studying. What surprised him was how little he minded all the work.

“I was told I would study as hard as I ever had in my life, and that turned out to be true,” Borocz-Johnson said in a recent Skype conversation from his room in St. Michaels Hall, near the center of the ancient university town. He was taking a break from laboring on an end-of-term paper on Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War, one of the last of the assignments that had kept him so busy over the past few months. “But it hasn’t been hard in a scary sort of way. I’m studying hard, but it’s because I want to. The atmosphere here is one where you are always encouraged and challenged to improve, so you don’t feel like you’re working that hard.”

In fact, one of the things about studying at Oxford that appealed to Borocz-Johnson was that it would test him intellectually. A double major in English and philosophy, Borocz-Johnson has been considering pursuing a career in academia. Twelve weeks in one of the world centers of scholarship, he figured, would help him discern whether he was suited to the academic life.

“I thought that being in such a high-octane academic atmosphere would be a good proving ground for whether I wanted to become an academic,” he said.

Borocz-Johnson liked what he found there. He was one of three Elmhurst students who spent the fall term in the Middlebury-CMRS program, which is associated with Oxford University’s Keble College. Every year Elmhurst students participate in the program, joining about two dozen other American students. Instruction is based on Oxford’s centuries-old tutorial system, which emphasizes one-on-one and small-seminar encounters with instructors, called tutors. Borocz-Johnson said he was impressed with the pedagogical style, because “it fosters individual interests in a way that couldn’t happen in a regular class setting.”

He also admitted that he liked not having to go very far to get to his classes and seminars. Most were held in rooms just down the hall from the students’ lodgings. “The professors come to you in Oxford,” he laughed.

Other Oxfordian traditions required a greater adjustment. Students in the program may take meals in the dining hall at Keble College, where robe-like academic vestments are required of students and faculty, and where longstanding rules of etiquette are followed. (No one leaves until those at the head table leave, for example.) Borocz-Johnson said he chose to eat in the dining hall only a few times. But he was happy to take advantage of other perks of studying in Oxford, like access to the world-renowned Bodleian Libraries.

His course load for the semester included classes in political philosophy, ancient Greek and medieval philosophy, and an independent research project on philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s views on religion.

Because his Elmhurst aid package applied to his studies in Oxford, he was able not only to study overseas but to do so without working the kind of part-time job he has always had while studying in the States. Borocz-Johnson said it was the first time he’d been able to devote himself wholly to his studies in years.

“It was great to have a chance to throw myself at my work without reservation,” he said.

His time abroad was not solely spent studying. Borocz-Johnson made weekend trips to check out the Roman ruins at Bath, the cathedral at Glastonbury and the royal palace at Hampton Court, and he made a longer trip to Stockholm, Sweden. For that matter, even Oxford itself, with its castle-like Gothic colleges, Thames-side footpaths and classic pubs, offers memorable excursions. Some of the quadrangles date to the 13th century, though the dormitory for Middlebury-CMRS students is a relative newcomer. It was built in 1870.

But while his semester in Oxford has strengthened Borocz-Johnson’s interest in the academic life, he says he also owes thanks to his professors at Elmhurst. His interest in teaching has as much to do with what he has learned from watching them work as with what he found overseas.

“I’ve been so inspired by my professors at Elmhurst and the way they find ways to expand the minds of their students,” he said. “I’m interested in having the same kind of positive influence on students.”

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