At my US college, people struck up conversations in hallways, in classrooms, in the dining hall, even in line for coffee. I realized this five minutes into my college career: freshman year I was moving into my dorm room when a boy in my hall, fresh from the shower, and a complete stranger, stopped to chat. I was jetlagged, painfully shy, and had never been so close to a half-naked boy before. As an international student from Nepal, this was my introduction to America: a boy in just a towel unconcernedly chatting about classes while I spluttered and stared at my feet.
I was warned that England is different. “Brits are…reserved” an IFSA staffer said during the onsite orientation. “It’s not that we don’t like you, but we probably won’t show it. In America, you talk to strangers like you’re best friends. We don’t do that.”
He was right.
At Oxford, most of the socializing happens at clubs or societies. These are formally established groups that are registered with the University, and they number in the hundreds.
Clubs are for sports, and students can find similar sports clubs as they did in the US – basketball, football, swimming, frisbee – as well as a few additional ones – cricket, lacrosse, squash and croquet, to name a few. Societies are for nearly everything else, from popular ones like the Wine Tasting Society, which brings wine from around the globe and offers discounted tasting classes to its members, to the Photography Society, which offers lessons and a place to critique members’ work, to the niche ones like the Juggling Society, where people – you guessed it – juggle, and the James Joyce Society, which has only four members.
In the fall semester (called the Michaelmas term), Oxford hosts a massive fair showcasing all the clubs and societies, but students like me, who come to Oxford in the middle of the academic year in the spring or summer semesters (Hillary and Trinity terms), have to rely on online descriptions of the clubs and societies. Most Oxford students are part of only one or two at a time, but I was ambitious, and I decided on five. I quickly realized that I couldn’t juggle all these societies: The Assassin’s Guild (where people adopt aliases and ‘assassinate’ each other, with nerf guns, foam swords, salt, and the occasional light-saber) is exciting but it meets every day and the time commitment is greater than I can spare, the English Society is the exact opposite and it only meets twice a term, the Doctor Who Society’s schedule didn’t fit with mine, I was too lazy to go on walks in the cold English weather with the Walking Society, but finally, at the Harry Potter Society, I found a place that felt right.
Some compare the institutionalized structure of clubs and societies to US fraternities: the latter usually have membership fees, leadership positions, meetings, and charters. Yet Oxford’s system offers much greater flexibility than Greek Life: students can choose societies that line up with their schedules and time commitments instead of the other way around, lifelong membership costs range from £250 for the Oxford Union to £2 for the Assassin Guild, and event attendance is usually optional.
This system doesn’t work for everyone. David Kraljic, a student from Slovenia at St. Cross College, refuses to join any clubs and societies, saying “I prefer to make friends the normal way: by talking to people, and then by meeting their friends. Joining a society feels too forced.” Several of my IFSA-Butler study abroad peers agree with this sentiment and have chosen to make friends in other ways: by going to college bops (individual colleges host parties, called bops, on a regular basis, and my college, St Catherine’s College, does so every fortnight), by drinking at the college bar (each college has its own bar with subsidized drinks, where students often congregate after dinner every night of the week), by going to Hall Dinners (formal dinners where conversations are encouraged), or just by talking to people with varying degrees of success.
I personally enjoy this system and recommend it to other visiting students: each Oxford term is only eight weeks long, and most visiting students are only here for two terms: joining a club or society is a sure way to jump start friendships. For me, this didn’t happen overnight, the way it might have in the US. The Harry Potter Society hosts events on Thursdays, and has unofficial brunch together on Sundays, and during my first term, I mainly just attended these biweekly events. Eight weeks later, I’m finally beginning to spend time with society members outside these scheduled events, for dinners and coffee, for movie screenings and library study dates, at house parties and for late night card games. It is institutionalized socializing at its finest: in the US, I have friends with similar interests, but here, I attend a themed event every week, and out of those weekly events, have grown to know and like the people in the society.