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.



Author: uknafa2016

We are members of the National Association of Fellowship Advisors touring institutions of higher education in the United Kingdom in order to better advise high-achieving students in the United States who wish to pursue graduate degrees in the UK.

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