Mertens Visit George Mason Honors Program at Oxford University

Posted: December 13, 2002 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

On Thursday, Dec. 5, President Alan and Mrs. Sally Merten spent an afternoon and evening visiting with George Mason students studying abroad with the George Mason Honors Program at Oxford University in England. The Mertens made the stop en route to Stockholm, Sweden, to attend the ceremony and related events for the Nobel Prize awarded to Vernon Smith.

After an informative meeting in London with Barry Sheerman, a member of Parliament and chair of both the Education and Skills Select Committee and Euro Preparations Group, during which they discussed the state of education in both Britain and the United States, the Mertens arrived in Oxford for a series of planned events. They were escorted by Paula Ruth Gilbert, on-site academic director of this year’s Honors Program and professor in the Modern and Classical Languages Department, and Michael Randy Gabel, affiliated with the Oxford Mathematical Institute and professor in Mathematical Sciences and New Century College at George Mason.

During a brief walking tour of Oxford, the Mertens learned some of the history of the university and its present-day 39 colleges, the architecture of the historic buildings, and the significance of certain places.

They also became more familiar with the Honors Program at Oxford. Fall 2002 is the seventh year of this highly successful, competitive study abroad program, organized and run by the Center for Global Education, under the direction of Yehuda Lukacs, and administered by associate director Tanith Fowler-Corsi. The program is administered on site by Deepak Mukhi, director of the Oxford University Program for Undergraduate Studies (OPUS), who is also responsible for similar programs for students from other colleges and universities across the United States. George Mason students are selected through an application process that considers their GPA (a minimum of 3.500 for undergraduates and 3.800 for graduate students), a personal statement, a writing sample, letters of recommendation, and an interview.

This fall, 22 George Mason students were selected for the program, 16 undergraduate and 6 graduate students, ranging in age from 20 to 53. Their areas of study included not only English literature, but a wide range of other disciplines.

Unlike the other foreign-study programs administered by OPUS, George Mason students arrived one month early in order to take a three-credit intensive course on British history, culture, and society, a course consisting of 28 lectures by Oxford faculty, and a heavy assignment of written and oral work. This introductory course also included a four-day trip to London.

The tutorial system at what is called “Oxbridge” (Oxford and Cambridge Universities) is perhaps the most distinctive feature of these two prestigious institutions of higher education. Oxford students take two tutorials during each of the three eight-week terms that constitute an academic year–culminating in university-wide examinations held at the end of a student’s third year of study for undergraduate degrees and after the completion of graduate studies. Although most Oxford students have what is known as “paired tutorials” with two students per tutor, George Mason students have the privilege of being one-on-one with a given tutor, thus maintaining the purity of what has been the educational norm at this historic university.

In addition to their intellectual work for the tutorials, the students joined outside activities sponsored by Oxford so that they could more easily become a part of the university and meet other students. This year’s students participated in the Oxford Union, rowing, soccer, chorus, fencing, water polo, the poetry society, and much more.

The Mertens joined some of the students on Dec. 5 for a formal dinner, hosted by Deepak Mukhi, at New College. This small dinner gave the president the opportunity to learn directly from the students what their experiences had been at Oxford, what they had learned, and how they would use this experience to further their education and their chosen careers.

After the dinner, the Mertens walked to Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theater where they attended a performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, sung by the university-wide student chorus. George Mason student Christina Tiller sang in the chorus.

The Mertens met the rest of the students at the famous and historic Turf Tavern. They spoke to each student individually and came away with a clear sense of the positive benefits of this program and the ways in which the students have grown intellectually, creatively, and emotionally.

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