University of Oxford Visit: On Expectations and Epiphanies

Editors’ note: As we await our final three posts—Sheffield (June 7–8), Warwick (June 15–16), and Manchester (June 17)—please savor the following reminiscence of our visit to Oxford University.

University of Oxford (June 15)
by Kris Larsen (New York University)

Our time at Oxford was short. Or maybe it was fast. I am not sure which. With six hours on the soil we had just enough time to visit the Rhodes House and the Rothermere American Institute (RAI), hear from Jay Sexton at RAI, learn about graduate study at Oxford, hear about business programs, and walk through the grounds of Corpus Christi College. Then the sky opened up and we found ourselves drenched.

Six hours. I should have known better and I should have looked at our itinerary, because I showed up at Oxford with a list of pubs in my pocket that Jenni Quilter, my partner in crime at NYU, insisted that I check out. It quickly became apparent that I was to save that list for another day. So, instead of a list of pubs, we all came with our preconceptions and six hours in our pocket. And I cannot be sure, but my guess is that many of us had the same thought when we arrived: “Where is this giant bus going to park? There is no bus parking anywhere!” And then we had our first appointment at the Rhodes House. Again, I think a good number of us had the same thought, “So, this is it. . . . Huh.”

Oxford 4
Portrait of William Jefferson Clinton at Rhodes House, Oxford

I might have been the exception on the tour, but I had no preconceptions for most of the universities we visited. Really, who knew that Imperial College was so good at feeding graduates into the technology industry or that students at Durham could live in a thousand-year-old castle. But Oxford and Rhodes, yes, I had heard of these. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Bill Clinton, and all those other people staring down at us from the walls of the Rhodes House: I was well aware that they had attended. Oxford held that grip on me. And maybe understanding that grip was supposed to be my “process” during the trip—or maybe Mary Denyer had planned it like this—but for me, discovering what that grip looked like was essential.

Oxford 9
Our discussion with Warden Conn at Rhodes House

Our day began when Charles Conn, the Warden of Rhodes House, sat down with us. We were in a circle and there was no table. It felt purposefully informal. I don’t remember any other time that the 35 of us sat in such a fashion. The painting of Bill Clinton was two rooms over, and I was having those thoughts, “Here, in this place, I am more suited to a conversation with the groundskeeper.” (In another life I had transplanted a century-old rose garden, built complex sprinkler systems, and found purpose in tending to the aesthetics of the land: dirt-under-the-nails kind of work.) So we sat in a circle, and I thought about the garden while the adults had their conversation. Here are the bullet points from the conversation with Mr. Conn:

  • The number of Rhodes awards recently moved from 83 to 95 with a plan to move the total number of awards up to 120 over the next few years. The plan also includes moving the award “toward global.”
  • There are still 32 awards for the US competition and 11 for Canada.
  • There was mention of the creation of a mid-career award like that of the MacArthur Fellows Program.
  • We touched on the role of the adviser with a slight discussion about thematic editing. But the details themselves did not move outside of what we already know and have discussed as NAFAans.
  • The selection discussion included references to the need to make “tweaks to the system” and “becoming more inclusive.”
  • We were reminded that sports had been replaced by non-academic activities with a focus on working with others.
  • We were also reminded that there is an effort to make the review panels more diverse.
  • In regard to what a Rhodes Scholar ends up studying once admitted to Oxford, Mr. Conn stated, in a positive way, “We don’t care.” (In other words, it does not have to match up with the application.) A second bachelor’s is a great option, since Oxford is known for the tutorial system, so “don’t discourage your scholars from this option.”

After this conversation we had a short time to walk around the house and grounds, have tea, and speak with current Rhodes Scholars. I felt that this time, having some very forthright conversations, was great, eye opening.

In the same way, our time at RAI, listening to Jay Sexton speak about his time at Oxford (17 years), the university, and its students also felt forthright and eye opening. It was pretty much the opposite of the mystical, unattainable Oxford that my mind had structured. Mary, in referring to Jay’s honesty and clarity, noted this as an example of the ambassadorial potential needed in a Marshall Scholar (of which Jay was one from the University of Kansas many moons ago).

When looking at applications to the kinds of awards that bring a student to Oxford, Jay noted that he looks for ambition regarding the Big Question that the student is approaching and what he or she wants to do. He looks for a tight intellectual case, specificity, and the student’s path to achievement. His emphasis for the need of this kind of clarity in the application comes down to the structure of the Oxford university system: the programs of study are a lot more self-directed, whereas, in the USA, programs are much more structured. So the student who thrives within the structure may find Oxford daunting. And the students, as Jay put it, “are the VERY top students: they might come here.”

Our conversation ended with a discussion of epiphanies. Jay noted how he is put off by both epiphanies and self-centeredness. I realized, then, nobody likes this word “epiphany.” But, well . . . I still kind of like it. Maybe that is because I use it in an odd way, or maybe it is because I look forward to epiphanies on such a regular basis. (I actuality think this could be a great session in Philadelphia this upcoming summer: unpacking the word epiphany. Might be a lively session.)

Now I said that we learned about graduate study at Oxford and the Saïd Business School. And that is true. But somehow at each university we visited the conversation that included the data around applications and admission always took place directly after lunch. Not to say that numbers are dull, I found it quite interesting that 95% of the students in the MBA program are international students, but I would prefer that you not stop your reading of this blog post here. So I am not going to list all the numbers.

After we had our classroom time, we headed into the streets of Oxford. We passed tourists and visitors at every corner. And then we arrived at Corpus Christi College. Like our tours of the colleges at Cambridge, our visit was focused on the outdoor spaces of Corpus Christi. It began at a brick courtyard, no grass, kind of unusual. There was a sundial in the middle of the space. The college felt quaint, almost small. But as we looped out of the courtyard and around the corner we climbed the steps to a roof terrace, just one floor up. From there we could spy on students in grassy fields below sitting in circles and talking. The space felt celebratory, not reflective or contemplative. And it was celebratory. It was a place that marked our short time in Oxford, open skies and gathering clouds.

Then our six hours were over. The sky began to spit at us. We ran through the streets of Oxford, passing the tourists and visitors again, huddling under umbrellas. And once our clothes moved from being just damp to actually being soaked we found our bus. Our structured six hours had ended and we experienced a non-mystical Oxford, beautiful and interesting, and begging for a return visit: a visit unstructured, with a list of pubs stuffed into a pocket.

Redbrick Shakespeare: The University of Birmingham


University of Birmingham (June 16)
by Tom Hawks (Kenyon College)

A preprandial photo of the NAFA delegation (and friends) at Horton Grange, University of Birmingham

After a damp but exhilarating visit to the University of Warwick—blog entry forthcoming—where we cheered on riders in the Aviva Women’s Cycling Tour, NAFAns boarded the Marshalls bus for a quick jaunt across the Midlands to Birmingham, where we were welcomed to the University of Birmingham by Professor Michael Whitby, Pro Vice Chancellor and Head of the College of Arts and Law. Professor Whitby introduced us to the many resources of the university and the city of Birmingham, where over 100,000 students work on various campuses in what Professor Whitby described as a “diverse and energetic” city. In particular, Professor Whitby emphasized the university’s commitment to humanities and the arts. Twenty-two new arts and humanities faculty positions testify to this commitment, as does the “small but excellent” collection of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

Another institution central to Birmingham’s embrace of the arts and humanities is the Shakespeare Institute, a research unit within the university dedicated to studies of Shakespeare and Renaissance drama more generally. Postgraduate students at the Shakespeare Institute can pursue master’s and doctoral work in Shakespeare studies, Shakespeare and theatre, Shakespeare and education, and Shakespeare and creativity. Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, outlined for us the University of Birmingham’s historical connection to Shakespeare through its proximity to Stratford-upon-Avon. From its founding in 1900, the University of Birmingham identified itself as “the great civic university of Shakespeare’s home region.” This connection is made manifest in numerous ways in Birmingham, particularly through the Shakespeare Institute’s many collaborations with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Working with the RSC, the Shakespeare Institute has recently reopened The Other Place, a studio theater in Stratford that will serve as a hub for research and performance. (This 2016 reopening was set to coincide with the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.) The Shakespeare Institute also helped celebrate the Shakespeare Quadricentennial by joining the Ex Cathedra Choir and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to revive David Garrick’s 1769 Shakespeare Ode, originally performed as part of the Shakespeare Jubilee that was, Dobson explained, a signal moment in the development of the Shakespeare tourism industry in Stratford. The Shakespeare Institute brings together the London theater scene, the material culture of Stratford, and the resources of the University of Birmingham to provide students a unique opportunity to study Shakespeare and the historical and literary contexts in which he produced his plays.

Professor Michael Dobson, Director of the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham

After Professor Dobson’s talk, NAFAns toured the grounds of the University of Birmingham, taking in the Accrington brick architecture that marks Birmingham as the first of England’s “redbrick” or civic universities, open to students of all classes and religions, and providing training in practical fields such as engineering, science, medicine, and business. NAFAns toured University Square and stood beneath the Chamberlain Clock Tower (known as “Old Joe” and, according to Robert S. Blackham, the inspiration for Tolkien’s Eye of Sauron.) Our walk concluded at the Great Hall, designed by Sir Ashton Webb (1849–1930) as the heart of the university. Though the Shakespeare talk was behind us, Shakespeare’s spirit continued to make its presence felt, standing above us as we posed for a picture at the entrance to the Great Hall, in the center of a pantheon of the university’s intellectual forebears: Beethoven, Virgil, Michelangelo, and Plato to his left; Newton, Watt, Faraday, and Darwin to his right.

NAFA delegation on the steps of the Great Hall of the University of Birmingham: “under the feet of giants”?

Next, we walked to Muirhead Tower to visit the Special Collections of the Cadbury Research Library, a collection that includes a Qur’an from 632, possibly the oldest Qur’an in the world. The Special Collections are open to students, staff, and members of the public, and many of us marveled at being able to handle and explore delicate manuscripts of works such as John Urry’s 1821 illustrated Works of Chaucer, a first edition of Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and the stunningly vibrant botanical illustrations from Elizabeth Blackwell’s 1737 A Curious Herbal. We also visited the University Heritage collection, which houses photographs and correspondence documenting the university’s founding and history, including its kinship with U.S. institutions such as Cornell University and MIT.

After our tour, we enjoyed a companionable dinner with Birmingham faculty, staff, and students at the Horton Grange. Finally, as darkness fell on Birmingham, we boarded the Marshalls bus, where Steve Gump from Grinnell College regaled us with Mystic Meg horoscopes for one last time as we drove through the night, onward to Manchester and, for some of us, the tour’s end.

A Delightful Durham Day

Durham University (June 9)
by Karen James (University of North Carolina at Charlotte)

Durham Delegation
A postprandial photo of the NAFA delegation at Durham University

On Thursday, June 9, our group headed to northeast England and was able to spend a full day as guests of Durham University. We were warmly welcomed with coffee and biscuits (the British variety, not Bojangles), and then we were treated to a welcome speech from Professor Tim Clark, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health. Professor Clark shared key highlights and facts. He noted that Durham was the third-oldest university in the U.K., and that it was very competitive. In fact, the Vice Chancellor is fond of saying at graduation, “I hope you have had a difficult time.” Archaeology is a top-ranked program, and Professor Strong mentioned that Theology and New Testament Studies were also quite strong. Interdisciplinary research and teaching is emphasized at Durham.

We could not help but be amazed by the historical nature of the university since it is centered around a tenth-century Norman castle and cathedral! The cathedral has two copies of Magna Carta. Tradition befitting such history is evident here as Professor Clark shared that students walk across the palace green to the cathedral and sign in at matriculation.

Professor Clark noted that there are currently 17,505 students, 22 percent of whom are international. Of those students, 319 are from the United States, and 100 more are from our neighbors to the north, Canada. An amazing 92 percent of Durham students participate in sports, and more than 200 clubs attract high participation. These students leave Durham both well rounded and with an excellent education. The university is proud that they rank 31st in a survey of satisfaction by those hiring graduates from universities around the world.

Next we were treated to a lecture by Professor David Held, Professor in the School of Government and International Affairs, and Master of University College. His topic was “Gridlock and Beyond: The Challenges to Global Cooperation in World Politics.” His interesting and far-ranging lecture covered everything from the U.K. creating the largest empire the world had known, WWI, and the Depression followed by WWII and Harry Truman’s prophecy that modern warfare would destroy all people if we do not seek peace. He also talked about the cold war and the threat of mutually assured destruction, the shift to China consuming 80 percent of luxury goods and being flush with cash, and the global financial crisis of 2008–09 and the resulting economic shift from the USA to Europe. He noted that the USA is not able to push policy as much as we used to—others are taking the lead on climate change. (Yet, the WHO and governments did not act on out-of-control Ebola until American aid workers came down with it.) He finished by saying to move away from gridlock, we need social movements, institutional reform, and strong leaders. He did not find the future to be rosy; however, both the Brexit vote and the Trump candidacy have played on the worst fears of the people. (Sorry for running on so long—you would never guess I enjoyed the lecture!)

After the lecture, we had a choice among three different workshops: (1) “teaching beyond textbooks” from the School of Government and International Affairs; (2) a talk on artefacts in the master’s courses in archaeology by Dr. Chris Caple; and (3) a visit to the Oriental Museum, “one of Durham University’s treasures” and a talk by Dr. Craig Barclay, Head of Museums, with exhibits and a talk about how the museum, students, and academies interact. I can attest the archaeology workshop was excellent, and from comments I heard, the other workshops were equally good.

We were then treated to a delicious buffet lunch with many faculty and administrators present to answer our questions and provide more information. I was especially delighted to learn that my colleagues from Duke were seated at a table with an English Professor who was a Morehead-Cain Scholar at Chapel Hill. The Morehead-Cain Foundation (where I worked for six years) has a long tradition of including British students in the program, and it was a delight to meet Patrick Gray as I was also an English major at Chapel Hill. We had the same Shakespeare professor who inspired him to become a Shakespeare scholar!

Durham 01
Shakespeare scholar Patrick Gray (Durham University) with Jane Morris (Duke University)

After lunch we had a choice of a guided tour of the castle or of the cathedral. I chose the castle because I was fascinated to learn that students in Castle College actually live, dine, and socialize in the castle. All of us were busy taking pictures outside, but we were asked not to take photos inside since it was the students’ “home.” Some of us were so amazed by the Harry Potteresque scene of the huge banquet hall set for a formal dinner that they forgot the prohibition and snapped a few pictures. (I am just jealous that I didn’t get one.) We were given a great tour of the castle, its galleries, and its chapels—including an amazing early one that appeared to have remained the same over many centuries! I understand the cathedral tour was equally informative and enjoyable.

We then met up after the tours for coffee, tea, and the largest pastries many of us had ever seen. After a fond farewell, we headed back to the bus with a very favorable impression of Durham University, its faculty, and its administrators.

Queen’s University Belfast: Special Excursion to the North Coast

Editors’ Note: As we await the final installments of our formal university visits, please enjoy this post from Andrus Ashoo of the University of Virginia, one of about a dozen NAFA tour participants who spent a brilliant Saturday venturing to the Northern coast of Ireland after our visit to Queen’s University Belfast. (The lesson, of course, is to take advantage of these special opportunities when they arise.)

Special Excursion (June 4)
by Andrus Ashoo (University of Virginia)

In what we learned was typical of their hospitality, Susan McCleary and Queen’s University Belfast arranged for an extra excursion for those of us who wanted to experience some of Northern Ireland’s natural (and distilled) beauty. Even though Northern Ireland is a small country, our day excursion could only whet the appetite.

We set out along the Coastal Causeway, which follows the entire coastline from Belfast to Londonderry, offering brief detours to small villages, breath-taking views, and simple wonder.

Andrus A01 Carrickfergus
Carrickfergus Castle, Northern Ireland

The first stop was a castle! Carrickfergus Castle, built in 1177, is the most complete Norman castle in Northern Ireland. We only briefly paused for a comfort stop and a chance to stretch our legs. However, it was enough time for me to take advantage of the opportunity to do something I would never do in the presence of my two-year-old daughter: Lay siege! Unfortunately, the castle is still standing for a reason, and I was able to climb up only so far.


Andrus A02 North Coast
North Coast of Northern Ireland

As our journey continued, we looked out the windows at a non-stop photo opp: eternal natural beauty peppered with peaceful villages and the occasional seafarer. The first substantial stop of the excursion was at the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge. Some of us braved the heights to cross over to a small island. Oh, was it worth it! While clearly a tourist attraction, the island never seemed inundated with people. I climbed (and slid!) down a portion of the island to find my own little haven of serenity. The lush, deep grass peppered with patches of low-growing and vibrant wildflowers demanded a spot of reflection—and a nap in the company of bees, wildflowers, and ocean birds.

Andrus A03 Carrick-A-Rede
Approaching Carrick-A-Rede, Northern Ireland

On to Bushmills Distillery for lunch. Upon arrival, we were greeted with the opportunity to taste three of the whiskeys. Some of us may or may not have taken advantage of the man’s insistence that one sip was not enough and then proceeded to try all three again. We’ll call that the “unofficial” tasting. At our table at lunch, we talked about how we met our spouses, our children (or plans for children), and what we enjoyed in our free time. The food was good, but the whiskey was calling. By this point in the trip, I had already developed a reputation for trying everything. The official tasting included the Bushmills 12 Year, available only at the distillery.

While I enjoyed the three new whiskeys, I had to confess (quietly) to the driver of our van that my heart (and taste buds) remained in Islay . . . Scotland. At that point our driver informed me that we could actually see Islay from the rope bridge at Carrick-A-Rede. This is fantastic news if you have ever explored how to get to Islay while in Scotland, which requires a day’s travel. Alas, this conversation spurred an elaborate addition to my already forming family trip to Northern Ireland. For the To Do List: Investigate the willingness of anyone with a boat on the North Coast to take me and my family to Islay . . . and pick us up the next day. (And I caught Islay in the photo above!)

The Giant’s Causeway, a UNESCO World Heritage site, represented the next and main attraction of our excursion. Our driver-cum-guide was very helpful in dispelling any nonsense about geology and instead told us the true story about the creation of the causeway. We had beautiful weather, which means that it was unfortunately overrun with tourists, but that didn’t stop Kris Larsen (NYU) and me from hopscotching our way among the many boulders in the sea rather than using the path along the coast to the causeway. It was a wonderful area where the group spent a few hours and easily could have spent the whole day among the walking trails, an additional guided tour, and the causeway itself. Important note as you plan: The Giant’s Causeway is free to visit, but the visitor centre charges a hefty fee.

Andrus A04 Dark Hedges
Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland

While I don’t care about Game of Thrones in the least, it was interesting to learn about the power of film – both to rejuvenate (saving a small hotel that was for sale before the cast started staying there regularly) and to irritate (the Dark Hedges, 200-year-old beech trees, line a road that is daily in use).

It was a bittersweet day for me. I had just spent the last few days falling in love with Belfast, the Northern Irish, and Queen’s University Belfast. I tried to soak as much of it in as possible before leaving for London. I cannot wait to return. #LoveQUB

University of York: Where We Encounter the Humanities . . . and Chocolate!

University of York Visit (June 8)
by Susan Albrecht (Wabash College)

Departing from the University of Sheffield, bagged lunches in hand, the group clambered aboard the Marshalls [no apostrophe!] bus again and, a short hour and a half later, arrived at the University of York.  The campus had a very 1960s feel… in a woodsy, summer-camp kind of way.

We had only a brief time on the York campus that afternoon, but it was delightful to spend a little time with the humanities and social sciences, on a 2-week tour where STEM fields were hands-down the popular curricular and research area to feature.

We heard first from Sarah Leach, Head of Study Abroad, and Nick Skeavington, Student Recruitment Officer for North America.  Dr. Mark Ormrod, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Professor of History, then provided an overview of the Arts and Humanities at York. Next up was Dr. Christopher Ridgway, Curator of Castle Howard.  Dr. Ridgway treated us to some glorious slides of the country houses scattered throughout Yorkshire.  He discussed the Yorkshire Country House Partnership between the 12 houses and a number of departments at the University (History, English, Archaeology, Art History, and Music).  See Yorkshire Country House Partnership.  The group also heard briefly from Hilary Layton, Director of Internationalisation.

From these various presenters, we learned a bit of the university’s history, as well as the city’s.  The university was founded in 1963 and was originally comprised of one building, a manor estate.  Still somewhat rare outside of Oxford and Cambridge, York also utilizes the college system, offering a choice of nine.  The university now has over 16,000 students. Graduate students account for 25% of that population and international students also comprise 25%.

It was noted that:

  • Archaeology, English, History and Art History are notable areas of study at York, with each of those departments attaining Top Four national rankings.
  • A new Bachelor’s degree program is being offered in curating and the history of art, and counts the Tate, the National Gallery and the Victoria & Albert among its partner institutions.
  • At the doctoral level, York partners with the Universities of Sheffield and Leeds in the “White Rose Consortium” to offer a joint program in the Arts and Humanities. The White Rose offers the largest doctoral program in the UK for Arts & Humanities, with 300 fully-funded doctoral students.  [White Rose]
  • York has just launched its Digital Creativity Labs – a major £18 million initiative for “innovative research in the convergent area of digital and creative technologies.” [Digital Creativity Labs].

The presenters spoke about the City of York, as well, which lies on the River Ouse.  They described a city which, in marked contrast to the campus, has a decidedly ancient feel.  A huge cathedral, which took 250 years to construct, towers; a medieval stone wall still provides a pathway around the city; and York has been voted “Most Beautiful British City.”  Later in the afternoon, our group would witness all of this firsthand.

Our group was divided into two, each heading off to the Music Department.  One group  was assigned to a participatory musical experience with a gamelan ensemble.  The group I was with was given a sneak peek at one of the York choirs – an a cappella group called The 24 Choir – which was rehearsing for a performance that evening.  The students were phenomenally talented and the director was a joy to watch.  I’ll let these two brief videos speak for the two groups’ experiences:  York afternoon experiences

Next up was dinner at King’s Manor, the location of the city-center portion of the university campus.  This area houses the Archaeology, Medieval Studies and Eighteenth Century Studies departments, as well as a conference center. Getting there “required” a walk along the ancient wall of the city, and the views were spectacular.

At King’s Manor, NAFAns were treated to a lovely dinner in a lovely setting.  As you might have ascertained from the lead photo in this blog entry, York is famous for CHOCOLATE. Each of us was greeted with a stunning box of truffles that were both beautiful to look at and nearly impossible to stop eating.  Dinner was also a time for further learning, as we enjoyed an uproariously funny, interactive lecture by Chemistry Professor Paul Walton.   During the “Chemistry of Chocolate” talk, Paul discussed the best mechanism for creating chocolate – and also learned that, for some Americans, the word “rapture” doesn’t always have fully positive connotations. 😉   Paul was ably assisted by Andrus Ashoo and Mary Denyer, as you can see.


After solid sustenance, decadent truffles and edification regarding chocolate, we thanked our hosts for their gracious hospitality and for a genuinely wonderful time and headed back towards the hotel. Several NAFAns decided to stop for a pint or a dram along the way.  York is, as I keep noting, an incredibly beautiful place.  It was a pub sign-lover’s dream (that would be me) –


– as well as a spectacular place to view medieval English architectural features, such as in the famous Shambles, a narrow, meandering street filled with timber-framed buildings dating back as far as the 1300s.  I will leave you with this photo of the Shambles, taken by Grant Eustice, along with an exhortation to reach out to your students (especially those who are interested in the arts and humanities) and suggest they give the University of York a look.

Shambles_by Grant

Reflections on the June 23 UK European Union Membership Referendum


Brexit and Its Implications for Our Students
by Pat Taylor (Marist College)

When I went on my first NAFA study tour to the United Kingdom, in 2012, the world economy was in a so-called recovery from the hard hit it had taken in 2008, Barack Obama was cruising toward his second term, and the Scottish Independence Referendum was all the buzz, particularly when we touched down in Edinburgh. We all thought it was a singularly interesting time to visit the United Kingdom.

Singularity is as singularity does.

I do believe our 2016 NAFA crew in the United Kingdom was privy to an extraordinary confluence of political events at home and in our host country. Packing my bags, I worried about how I could, in good conscience, make a reasonable account for Donald J. Trump, even as I tried on different versions of appropriately diplomatic questions about Brexit. While I anticipated our timing would be fascinating, I could never have imagined how timely, in fact, our visit would become.

The Trump/Brexit conversation initially took second place to the particularly fine weather that graced our first week on the ground: we heard either gratitude for having brought the sun or requests that we report to our students the typicality of these bright days. Still, soon we were engaged in more and more searching conversations with our hosts about the kind of world we are confronting, with an emphasis on the populists in both of our countries.

On a sunny green in Belfast, just before going in for dinner and stirring presentations from Queen’s University faculty, the NAFA sub-group enjoyed wine with our hosts. Just then, one of them leaned toward me, beginning, “About the U.S. elections. . . .” I thought she was going to inquire about my vote, but she went to the core: “No, no! Of course I don’t know who you are voting for, but about Trump . . . ?” She was clearly apprehensive until I made clear that he was not at all my choice.

From there, it became a more sustained—and more elaborate—exchange as we made our way across Great Britain. What became clear is that every single one of our UK colleagues was just as appalled by the very concept of a Trump presidency as by any prospect of success for the Brexit vote, a view universally shared by the NAFA delegation. This makes complete sense. Nearly every single fellowships advisor is in the business of helping our students to expand their world (in every sense). And “internationalization” was the refrain on virtually every campus we visited—even more so than had been the case in 2012.

By the time we left the United Kingdom, our UK friends were increasingly apprehensive about the Brexit polls; they literally asked us to pray for them. Six days after I returned to Poughkeepsie, NY, on June 25, the success of the Brexit campaign was announced.

In response to some thank you notes I sent to our UK hosts, I received some memorable replies:

“Thanks Pat. I think it’s your heartfelt sympathy we need right now. The world has gone completely mad—but note Bristol at least voted to remain in the EU. We are thinking of declaring a nation state. Hope you fare better in the next political minefield!”

“We are dismayed by the Brexit vote. It may have the effect of us redoubling our efforts to work with U.S. institutions—a silver lining!”

So what are the implications of the Brexit vote for us and for our students?

An article published in the Financial Times on the eve of the Brexit vote provides a particularly useful look at financial strategies adopted by some of the major UK research universities. The astute reader can extrapolate from this article the impact Brexit might have on those strategies.

The short and simplistic answer: it’s not yet clear, and we will need to await the election of a new UK Prime Minister and the execution of Brexit next steps (whatever form these take—and if they in fact happen) in “exiting” the European Union before we can begin to predict their impacts. It will probably be at least another two years before the full meaning of Brexit for our students’ prospects for advanced study in the United Kingdom is at all clear.

In a very crude and summary way, this is accurate—but not particularly helpful right now and for the short term. In truth, we cannot “know” the immediate implications for our students’ aspirations, but we can keep some variables in mind.

Brexit had immediate and resounding impacts on the British pound, on international stock exchanges, and on the political choices of both Labour and Conservative candidates. These impacts will continue.

While a stronger U.S. dollar may make UK graduate study even more appealing to our relatively well-off students, greater financial demands on the UK government and on universities in the United Kingdom in a context of reduced resources may result in fewer or decreased funding schemes for international students coming to that country—including U.S. students. While the Rhodes, Gates, and Marshall Foundations may be resilient, to differing degrees, these entities are probably keeping sharp eyes on post-Brexit developments.

That is most likely going to be our best, if not wholly satisfactory, strategy—that, and becoming even more agile in guiding our students to other and/or supplementary funding strategies for their proposed studies in the United Kingdom. It may well be that the many discussions that the NAFA delegation had with our UK colleagues about collaboration and partnerships underscore an essential approach to navigating this new, post-Brexit terrain.

Checking In at Cardiff University

01 Cardiff University Main Building
Cardiff University Main Building

Cardiff University Visit (June 21)
by Steve Gump (Grinnell College)

After the Bristol University add-on tour, I hopped on the Great Western Railway for the 45-minute journey to the west, crossing the Severn Estuary en route. During the 1999–2000 academic year I was a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar at Cardiff University, which was then part of the University of Wales system. (At the time, I was unknowingly at Cardiff but a year after it had joined the Russell Group.) I’d not been back in sixteen years, so I arranged a meeting with Ms. Cerys Bartlett of the International Office. (Ms. Sarah Watts-Peters, the regional manager for North America, was away during my visit.) We chatted about what makes Cardiff University distinctive, and I learned that the following postgraduate programs are most popular among US citizens:

  • history
  • music
  • law
  • journalism
  • engineering

Over 100 US students study annually at Cardiff, but many are undergraduates on study-abroad schemes. An obvious draw for US students is the Cardiff Centre for Welsh American Studies. And Cardiff University’s Brain Research Imaging Centre (CUBRIC) has recently acquired Europe’s most powerful MRI scanner—helping to make Cardiff University a “top three” institute in the UK for psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience.


Cardiff also participates in the Fulbright US–UK Summer Institute; the Fulbright Wales Institute is a collaboration among Cardiff University, Bangor University, and Aberystwyth University. Students spend two weeks at each of the three partner universities, and eight students participate annually. (Learning this number was a revelation. One of the Summer Institute sites—and I really wish I could remember which one—accepts only three students annually!) Cerys was forthright about the purpose of participating in the scheme: to increase the number of US students studying at Cardiff University. And although Cardiff has co-hosted a Summer Institute for the past six years, only three students to date had matriculated as full-time students: one at each of the partner institutions.

I included a visit to Cardiff Business School, and I could hardly recognize the place. The business quad had been transformed in the past sixteen years with several new buildings, including a recently opened £13.5-million Postgraduate Teaching Centre. (The Financial Times story shared with the study-tour participants by Pat Taylor of Marist College—where Cardiff University features in the lead—seemed spot on. See “University Challenge: The Race for Money, Students and Status,” a June 23 article by Thomas Hale and Gonzalo Viña.)

The city, too, had changed remarkably, with the development at Cardiff Bay—including the remarkable Wales Millennium Centre and the Senedd (home of the National Assembly for Wales) and a plethora of dining options. I had recalled Cardiff as something of a quaint city; but now the downtown area—an easy walk from Cardiff University—seemed transformed into a shopping mecca. I most certainly hadn’t foreseen this remarkable transformation (while maintaining, truly, one of the most reasonable costs of living for a city of its size and cultural offerings in the whole of Europe) and will thus encourage that students interested in studying in the UK consider Cardiff University, provided their interests align with Cardiff’s academic strengths.

Bristol: The College on a Hill in a City Enriched by the Slave Trade


01 University of Bristol Marker (Horiz)

University of Bristol Visit (June 18)
by Steve Gump (Grinnell College)

Summers in the United Kingdom mean undergraduate open days at universities: days when admitted students, typically with a parent or two in tow, tour campuses to decide where they’ll be matriculating in the fall. (Open days in the fall and spring help students decide where to apply. Most undergrads may apply only to five universities in a given application year—only one of which may be Oxford or Cambridge. Visit to learn all about the UK application system.) Our visit to the University of Manchester on Friday, June 17, was the first NAFA tour campus visit that coincided with an open day; our visit to the University of Bristol on Saturday, June 18, was the second. At Bristol the campus was bustling; our hosts were splendid; and the city was lively and inviting—and, as we were told and experienced, was eminently walkable. The eleven of us who opted for this add-on component were richly rewarded.

Bristol was once England’s “second city” (after London, of course); its wealth and status were largely byproducts of the transatlantic slave trade. This legacy makes Bristol a location of note for students interested in some of the same issues that have arisen on some of our college campuses of late. In fact, next year (2017), we should be on the lookout for a new postgraduate program at Bristol: a master of arts in Global Black Cultures. This interdisciplinary program will offer students an opportunity to study history, literature, arts, and social theory related to Black and Diasporic communities around the world. Dr. Joanna Burch-Brown (originally from Virginia: she completed her undergraduate degree at Oberlin) is spearheading the program and would be happy to send the prospectus to anyone who is interested (

Because of the open day, Mr. Gary Coulter (international recruitment officer for North America who clearly loves both Bristol and his work) let our group split up and spend a few hours at the start of the day visiting departments, touring campus, and just getting a sense of the place on our own. What fun! I didn’t check with everyone to share agendas, but I know that Pat Taylor (Marist) spent some time in the social sciences complex; Jay Shivamoggi (Rollins) visited the physics department; Tiffany Kershner (North Carolina State) checked out the classics department; and Ellen Meader (Michigan) and LuAnn Saunders-Kanaby (Connecticut) popped in to the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery. Many of us checked out the open day exhibition in the Great Hall of the beautiful Wills Memorial Building—imagine an ivory tower atop a hill; wandered the Royal Fort Gardens on campus; and enjoyed the “City in Our Garden” showcase within the Royal Fort quad prior to the formally scheduled meals and presentations. At the last spot, we viewed—but weren’t able to ride (much to Kurt Davies’s [Villanova] disappointment)—the University of Bristol hot air balloon. (Gary told us about the annual balloon festival—and we learned that the University of Bristol has a hot air balloon club. Fun!)

A delightful summer luncheon at the Royal Fort House (completed ca. 1761) was attended by Dr. Erik Lithander, the new pro vice-chancellor (international); Ms. Claire Axel-Berg, head of the international office; Gary (introduced earlier); and our three afternoon speakers. Dr. Lithander formally opened the visit with a genuine desire to welcome more North American students to the University of Bristol. He would love to hear your ideas for collaborations, exchanges, or other similar arrangements at

Now, I’ll step out of travelogue mode and share some points about Bristol and the University of Bristol that we learned in the afternoon sessions, also held at the Royal Fort House:

– The University of Bristol houses 9 of 115 Centres for Doctoral Training that have been set up across the UK (thanks to a £500 million grant spanning 2014 and 2022). Dr. Annela Seddon heads the Bristol Centre for Functional Nanomaterials, which offers a one-year MSc degree and a four-year PhD degree. (Note that most PhD degrees in the UK are three years; this one has an added year because students may enroll before they know specifically what area of interdisciplinary materials science they wish to pursue.) We asked about selectivity, and Dr. Seddon shared that they routinely receive between 170 and 200 applications for 7 to 10 PhD spots. All are funded—even students from outside the European Union (but the funding is very, very competitive). It’s a young program, but all alumni (approximately 30 to date) are doing what they want to be doing, whether that’s holding a post-doc, working in (research) industry, or working in patent law or the IT sector. I’d be happy to share more detailed notes about this course with anyone who’s interested.

– This bit will sound like PR, but even a quick visit supports the view: The University of Bristol is a world-class, highly respected university in one of the most livable, dynamic, thriving, culturally exciting, independent, sustainable, and beautiful core cities of the United Kingdom. That summary and some of the next points are courtesy Dr. Laura Lafave, a 1993 University of Bristol Marshall Scholar (undergrad at Pittsburgh) who came to England and has never left. (That theme—coming to Bristol and staying put because it’s such a great place—was common among many of the folks with whom we interacted on Saturday.)

– Bristol is the ninth-largest city in the UK, but the cost of living is cheaper than in London or at Oxbridge. Consider these population comparisons:
+ Bristol (city) = 443,000; metro = 1,007,000
+ Cambridge (city) = 129,000; metro = 280,000
+ Oxford (city) = 150,000; metro = 171,000
+ London (city) = 8,539,000; metro = 13,880,000

– Distinctivenesses about the University of Bristol:
+ inclusive and supportive (US students won’t be ignored; they’ll get a lot more facetime with faculty members than their compatriots at the “name” institutions);
+ sustainable (a current Marshall Scholar is studying sustainable technologies);
+ friendly (US students aren’t a dime a dozen here; they’ll actually make friends with the locals); and
+ traditional yet modern (consider Stanford University as a US equivalent).

– In advising students who might want to study at Bristol, emphasize:
+ the strength of the particular programs (in which students might be interested);
+ the accessibility to advisers and faculty members;
+ the ease in experiencing and engaging with modern British life (will easily be able to integrate; won’t be ignored);
+ the importance of “cultural fit” with Bristol: it’s not Oxbridge; it’s not London; sometimes people just want the name, not the experience (but Bristol wants folks who want the experience); and
+ that Bristol’s brand is strong and well-respected.

The University of Bristol offers automatic £5K scholarships to Marshall Finalists (who aren’t named Marshall Scholars) and Fulbright Semi-Finalists (who aren’t offered Fulbright awards) as an enticement for them to come to Bristol anyway.

– Other cool things about Bristol:
+ Outdoorsy types might appreciate that you can easily slip over to a forest while in Bristol— something you can’t do in London.
+ You’ll find lots of cool Victorian engineering in Bristol (and several of us walked to the Clifton Suspension Bridge after a fabulous dinner on Saturday).
+ The Bristol International Airport is just 20 minutes from town, offering easy accessibility to Ireland and the Continent (and, from either, to the USA).
+ Live music is to be found all the time; Bristol has a pretty lively grunge music scene.
+ Bristol prides itself on being “unconventional.” Look for students who’d go for that.
+ Bristol Cathedral is lovely—and just down the hill from the main campus. (Yes, Bristol is quite hilly. Add the hills to all the walking, and who needs the gym?)

To offer a final sense of academic strengths at the University of Bristol, current Marshall Scholars are studying environmental economics (Jake Wellman from the University of New Mexico), educational policy and international development (Felipe Hernández of the University of California at Irvine), and mathematics (Jacob Calvert of the University of Illinois). Do add the University of Bristol to the Russell Group institutions you’ll consider mentioning to your students. Gary Coulter ( or Claire Axel-Berg ( would be happy to field any questions you have about the University of Bristol or its offerings.


What’s Happening at Sussex

University of Sussex Visit (June 13)

by Megan Friddle (Emory University)

The University of Sussex, established in 1961, is known for its progressive campus atmosphere and its enviable location about an hour outside of London, tucked between the South Downs National Park and the seaside city of Brighton.


Many UK universities highlight the interdisciplinarity of their taught and research postgraduate courses. Sussex is definitely among this group, with particularly strong evidence to support their claim. This includes top-ranked programs in International Development Studies and American Studies, a thriving neuroscience research agenda, and the university’s role as a founding member of CHASE–the Consortium for the Humanities and Arts South-East England–a doctoral training partnership providing support and funding for PhD students.  In addition, Sussex also offers a unique opportunity for students and faculty interested in working at the intersection of STEM, policy, and business through the work of the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU). Founded in 1966, SPRU offers taught master’s courses and PhD study in areas related to sustainability, technology and energy policy, and innovation management.

Our day-long visit to Sussex included a campus tour, which highlighted the unique–and “listed” (protected)–mid-century brick and concrete architecture. This style is certainly not to everyone’s taste, but I found it cohesive and welcoming. (Hogwarts-esque it is not.)
Of particular note is the Meeting House (Basil Spence, 1966), a circular multi- and inter-faith space with a sanctuary enclosed by a deconstructed stained glass grid of glowing jewel-toned panels of rectangular glass. Sussex also has a recently renovated performing arts building, named for former Chancellor Richard Attenborough and re-opened in 2015, with a flexible auditorium area and several additional spaces for film screenings, art installations, classes, and socializing. The interior design offers a nod to the history of the building and the period of the university’s genesis.
The afternoon portion of the program offered presentations from some of Sussex’s strongest academic courses and institutes, all of which emphasized the university’s commitment to collaboration and exchange. This is reflected in the student body as well, with about one-third of Sussex’s 15,000 students coming from outside the UK. Unlike many UK institutions, Sussex is on a semester system, making it easier for US students and faculty to participate in semester-long exchange programs, and vice versa.
The NAFA program at Sussex concluded with an evening tour of nearby Brighton. Our guide, Sussex lecturer Dr. Geoffrey Mead, emphasized the contrasts at the heart of the city: summer and winter, wealth and poverty, a city of students and a city of tourists, and the geographic and architectural clues left by an old city constantly in the process of reinventing itself.
More photos (by Elizabeth Colucci) of the evening Brighton tour:

Port of Call: Southampton

University of Southampton Visit (June 14)
by Charlotte Evans (Yale-NUS College)


In each of our sessions, the question of “Why here for a PhD or Master’s program?” seems to arise naturally within the conversation.  Southampton provided a whirlwind tour for the NAFAns to showcase exactly why this coastal university campus was such a hub for unique research opportunities and industry-supported work.

What’s the general overview of Southampton?

Our day started with a presentation by Sian Steggles who represents the US international office and Alison Tebutt who works on scholarships.

Through their presentation, we saw the strong utilization of the surrounds through their seven-campus structure.  Their facilities range for Winchester School of Art, which is based in a town known for its connection to Jane Austen, to the Humanities department on the Avenue campus that has a stellar Maritime Archaeology research structure.

What makes this city and university great?

The port-city influence is notable when in Southampton.  It is the cruise ship capital of Europe, making it have a very cosmopolitan feel.  Students who are looking for an outdoorsy type setting but with easy access to London would feel comfortable here.  Also worthy of note is that cost of living is reasonable for city living but that all international graduate students participating in one of the 200 + Master’s programs can also opt in to the guaranteed housing during their time at Southampton.

The campus itself had a unique feel of old and new.  It was previously the Hartley University College campus with buildings dating back to 1862, that has since expanded its facilities, especially since the official opening of the University of Southampton in 1952.  The green, open expanses provided for nice bike and pedestrian paths between the seven campuses, and the buildings themselves felt warm while still modern.

Life outside of the classroom and research centers was also highlighted during our visit.  Southampton is a hub for arts and culture, with access to cinemas, galleries, and theatres.

So which students would I talk with about Southampton?

  • The university is ranked top in the UK for Engineering and Music in the most recent REF, so those looking for further study in these areas should consider Southampton.
  • For Asia-minded students, their interest may be peaked by the University of Southampton Malaysia campus or their research in areas from places like Timor.
  • Students looking for niche research programs should most definitely flag Southampton.
    • Our visit to the research hubs looked at everything from sound wave direction and aerodynamics testing in wind tunnels, to cochlear implant use to allow for music appreciation. Students are actively involved in this research and are connected to industry partners who provide financial support for this work.

How can students fund their studies at Southampton?

During our conversations with students it seemed that many either choose the Fulbright or Marshall route to fund their time here or end up self-funding and doing part-time work to help support their living expenses while here.

In conversation with the Maritime Archaeology they highlighted the number of structures in place to help fund specific research.  These grants (provided to many different research units beyond just the Maritime Archaeology department) is available for student use for certain projects which provides unique opportunities, whether its an archaeology dive to a site off the Italian coast or the study of population change and demographic influences.