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Oxford graduates share their memories of studying at one of the world's most iconic universities

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The University of Oxford holds the gold standard of universities worldwide. As the oldest English-language university and second-oldest school in the world, Oxford is known not only for its rich history but also its huge academic prestige.

But what happens once the stress of applying to Oxford is done — when the celebration of getting accepted has passed, when one actually becomes a student at one of the world’s best known and most academically rigorous universities? And what is it like to look back, years later, on an education in the city of dreaming spires?

Dr Shiva Amiri and Dr Hammad Khan are sharing their stories of graduate student life at Oxford as international PhD students starting in 2003 in their new book Oxformed.

From the highs and lows of adjusting to an academically intense environment to dealing with social and political shifts in the years following 9/11, the authors give a full perspective of life at Oxford in the book.

Neither Amiri nor Khan set out from childhood to be Oxford graduates. Amiri, who is Canadian, laughed off the idea of applying, initially, saying, “I was working in a lab part-time, and one of the post-docs there said, ‘Hey, Shiva, you should apply to Oxford,’ and I was like, ‘You’re just ridiculous. Come on. Let’s get real.’ And then, I did apply. I was like, ‘You know what? Why not. Let’s apply.’ And then, uh, I got in." 

Khan was applying for post-grad programmes as an undergraduate in Pakistan and was awarded the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to study at Oxford. “It wasn’t a very long-term goal right from childhood,” he said. “Things never work out like that—you never end up doing what you think you’re going to do, most of the time. Circumstances dictate that. I think…I ended up in a place which has really transformed me.”

The academically and socially diverse environment at Oxford made for a rewarding time spent there for both Amiri and Khan. “Oxford lets you — not lets you, I would say, kind of forces you — to interact with people who are very different from you…Oxford is structured in such a way that it forces you to learn beyond what you’re there to do,” Khan says.

Amiri agrees. “A lot of our friends were anthropologists, for example. We’re both scientists.”

Khan adds, “It makes you a complete, well-rounded person. You have to have the knowledge and reading and the ability to actually talk to people. You don’t want to look completely out of place when someone’s talking about world politics and you have nothing to say. So it’s forced upon you to read things, to actually debate things.”

Both Amiri and Khan found the environment of high-achieving students at times overwhelming.

“I think it’s almost second to none [at Oxford], where everybody is a superstar,” Amiri says. “And you feel like, wow, how did I end up here?”

“There are a lot of struggles when you perceive something one way and it turns out to be something else, and then you try to readjust yourself. And that could be a little of a jittery thing,” Khan says.

Another issue Amiri and Khan dealt with while adjusting to London was the environment that had come from 9/11 two years before they started at Oxford. The academic environment of Oxford made students more curious and less fearful following the attacks, and, as international students, Amiri and Khan found themselves at the centre of students’ attention.

“There was increased enrolment in all kinds of things Arabic and middle eastern,” says Amiri. “My background’s Iranian, so first of all, that was of huge interest to everybody. Forget the fact that I’m Canadian, too.”

Outside the Oxford bubble, though, the world’s reactions were — and still are — less benign.

“Especially for me, coming from Pakistan to the UK, post-9/11, the world had changed completely,” says Khan. “People even these days, politicians, they use the wrong terminology post-9/11 about community and so forth… they’re just trying to divide people.”

What kept Amiri and Khan afloat throughout stressful days was the support of their friends going on the same journey. The flip side to stressing about being around such talented fellow students was genuinely enjoying these people’s company.

“As a graduate student, most people don’t have their family or their home friends around, so you become really good friends with these amazing people, “ says Amiri, “and it’s easy to become friends with them because they’re all so interesting and great." 

“You had access to these amazing people, all the time, whenever needed. So there was just a sense of community,” adds Khan. “The present was just so good that you didn’t want that to end." 

The authors’ most important advice to future Oxford students? Be passionate and realistic.

“Forget about showing hundreds of things you’ve done,” said Khan. “Are you able to show that you’re passionate about something?”

Amiri added, “I think the expectation that it’s not going to be smooth is very important... expectations that there will be difficult times. You’re going to hit the lowest of lows, and you have to come out of that.”

Next up for the authors: a Canadian book launch, and hopes that the book will land in the hands of students or graduates who can make good use of it. Amiri works as the Chief Product Officer of Real Time Data Solutions Inc. in Toronto, and Khan works in Quantitative Financial Trading in London. Neither is a writer by trade, but they were inspired to share their stories with those who could learn from them.

“This is something we’ve learned a lot from,” and I think we’re going to continue to learn from this journey and see where we can take it,” Amiri says. 

Oxformed is available on Amazon and at the Blackwells bookstore in Oxford.

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