As the mist settles on the River Thames, a faint pink glow radiates from behind Oxford’s Radcliffe Camera. The spires of the city’s academic buildings begin to step out from the morning’s darkness. This sets the scene for the monotonous movement that our crew team coxswain gently coaxes out of us in the early morning.
Other crews glide past us like storks clipping the water with their long limbs. Swans dip and dive between the boats as we maneuver our way past houseboats and vocal groups of geese, which remind me of Westhampton Lake.
The posh elitism of Oxford’s stereotype may be heightened by the rowing club culture so ubiquitous to the “Oxbridge” system.
Maybe it’s the famous scene in "The Social Network" with the Winklevoss twins competing in the regatta set to a dramatic classical music compilation. Maybe it’s the long list of famous authors and poets who claimed their spots in their colleges’ boats throughout history. Oxford's image permanently intertwines itself with the sport.
I like to joke to my friends at home and say that I’m a “college athlete,” since I’m so far from the Division I athletes on UR's sports teams, but rowing crew at Oxford is the best decision I made while being abroad. I’ve found that crossing cultural barriers with people is easier when you have shared experiences and interests.
The majority of my classmates seem to come from British private schools, enjoy different--or entirely alien to me--music and pop culture references and have experienced very different first years of their university lives.
I knew that coming to Oxford would be a shock in ways that maybe lurked unnoticed below the typical barriers people grapple with when abroad. Americans speak the same language as the British and feel connected with them through many shared traditions. But I never knew how important being on a team would be to my assimilation. I joined immediately upon my arrival at Oxford and haven’t looked back since. The differences between my teammates' and my life experiences disappear when we’re in the boat together.
We all share in the misery of 5 a.m. wake-up calls. We all return to the boathouse with purple toes after mornings out on the Thames in the snow, rain, sleet and everything in between. We all go to “crewdates” to meet other colleges’ rowers and eat the same questionable curries together over cheap bottles of wine.
We all feel the excitement of moving up a spot in the rankings and rowing our hardest on race days.
The happiest I’ve been while studying abroad is with oars splashing freezing cold river water onto my legs, war paint dripping down my face from sweat, and feeling my legs tense from wanting to surpass the St. Catherine’s College boat of eight women in front of us.
It’s all too easy to feel lesser-than or like a “fake” student when studying in Oxford for only the year. Taking classes alongside full-time students and participating in coursework without the exams required of the other students can become isolating, but the imposter syndrome that comes with the academics wears away when I’m involved just as much as anyone else in the boat club.
I may not be Stephen Hawking, who coxed his Oxford crew, or a member of the Olympic rowing team, as many of the men and women in the Oxford varsity team are. But for a rower new to the sport, I like to think I’ve embraced it wholeheartedly.
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