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I arrived in Oxford under deceptively sunny skies

Rhodes Scholarship recipient Braden O’Neill is a third-year MD student at the University of Calgary currently on a leave of absence to study at the University of Oxford in the Department of Primary Care Health Sciences.  

The Rhodes Scholarship, often dubbed the world’s most prestigious scholarship, is a postgraduate award supporting exceptional students and the academic elite. The scholarship includes tuition, college fees, and a stipend covering living expenses for two to three years of study at the University of Oxford. O’Neill is the 11th University of Calgary student to receive the scholarship since 1969. Once he has completed his studies at Oxford, he will return to the University of Calgary to complete his MD degree.

I arrived in Oxford under deceptively sunny skies. Some of the other Canadians met us upon our arrival, and took our bags and helped us with banal logistics like where to buy bed sheets and soap and plates. After being up for over 30 hours it was a welcome relief to have (somewhat) familiar faces to take care of us on the first day.

It was when I arrived at Rhodes House and saw Adele sitting there that I knew I would be well taken care of.

Many of you may be aware that Adele Meyers is not in fact in Oxford with me, although having benefited from her problem-solving abilities many, many times over the past few years it would be understandable how one might want her to come with. Those of you who are unfamiliar with Adele should know that she is essential to our Undergraduate Medical Education program in Calgary. Most of her work goes on behind the scenes, but what is obvious is that when there is a problem, she ameliorates it with grace and efficiency.

Rhodes House, which is the home and office of the Rhodes Scholarships, also has an Adele – her name is Mary Eaton and she has a similarly indefinable, transcendent role in the organization. Some say that she has worked for MI5 and/or the Queen. This may be quite accurate.

In his seminal biography of Sir William Osler, Dr. Harvey Cushing wrote about how all great institutions have this kind of defining figure, someone who maintains the institutional legacy while sitting comfortably outside its competitive hierarchy. I say this to indicate two things: that we are lucky as medical students in Calgary, and that University of Calgary Medicine is a truly great institution even when compared with some of the very best in the world. I couldn’t provide the first-hand account of this until recently, but I can now say with certainty that it is true.

Now that I am at an appropriately belated point in this post, I will undertake an introduction so that this all makes a bit more sense. My name is Braden O’Neill. I am a third-year MD student at the University of Calgary currently on a leave of absence to study for a DPhil at the University of Oxford in the Department of Primary Care Health Sciences. Yes, this is the same thing as a PhD, but at Oxford they have to be different and call it a DPhil. This experience has been made possible by an extraordinarily fortunate thing that happened to me – I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. Now you know me a little better. Let’s continue.

My first few weeks in Oxford have consisted primarily of tasks like obtaining a bank account (which is considerably more challenging over here than you can imagine), purchasing duvets, buying a bicycle, and having the lights stolen off it shortly thereafter. There have been some substantially less mundane moments, like sitting with my DPhil supervisor to talk about what I am going to be doing for the next three years. Briefly, my interest is in health literacy, and how it affects patients’ experiences of illness and their interactions with the health care system. I am also looking at how people use online resources to obtain and to share health information. This has broad implications for physician-patient interaction (think of patients who come to the clinic with internet printouts!) and related implications for medical education, but I am still mainly at the stage at which I am trying to replace the stolen lights from my bicycle. I will report back when I have something of consequence on those other subjects.

As I alluded to earlier, the University of Oxford is not really a university in the traditional sense of the word but rather a confederation of 38 constituent colleges in which you live, socialize, and work. It has also occurred to me that when I say the “traditional” sense of the word, what I really mean is that Oxford is the definition of traditional, and that every other university does things differently. But now I think we are into semantics.

I am at University College, which is the oldest, and famous for being the college Bill Clinton attended but from which he did not graduate. It also rejected Cecil Rhodes, who was promptly admitted to Oriel College just next door down the High Street. I will leave this to you to decide whether or not this was the right decision, but suffice it to say, I am here on his beneficence, and that what Mr. Rhodes ended up doing with his fortune (however it may have been earned) was an inspiring and visionary thing in a time when there was not a lot of that going on in the world. The history of the Rhodes Scholarship will be saved for another entry, but let’s just say it is in fact primarily about “rendering war impossible,” which is about as noble a cause as I can imagine. But I digress.

While Stephen Hawking did his undergraduate work at my college, he was denied re-acceptance for his graduate work and ended up at Cambridge; probably not the best decision the college has ever made.

Interesting fact: when Stephen Hawking was signing the college register, he made a significant error and had to cross out a line and start over (I got to see his signature a few hundred pages before mine in the book). Now when we sign the register, the head of the college watches over us to make sure we do it correctly!

Recently I had my “matriculation” ceremony, which is the formal ceremony where you are accepted as a student into the university. It involves getting up early on a Saturday and being very, very cold as you are arranged with military precision to take a group picture. Subsequent to this, you are brought by the head of your college (variously called the don, the dean, the head, the warden, the master, or various other names depending on the whim of your individual college) to the Sheldonian Theatre (designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who also designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London) where you are presented to the vice-chancellor of the university who accepts you as a student. The best part of all of this is that you dress up in something called “sub fusc,” which involves a gown, white bow tie, white shirt, dark suit, and black socks. They are very particular about the black socks. Tourists actually plan to be in Oxford for matriculation day, which is the Saturday of first week of Michaelmas Term (this being the first of the Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity three-term system here), so that they can take pictures. It was as amazing and overwhelming as it sounds.

After matriculation there is a tradition that you go to a pub and have a pint in your sub fusc, which I did with a friend who is a chemistry student from Germany. We drank warm, non-fizzy beer (I can report with certainty that Canadian beer is just better than British beer, and would challenge anyone who thinks otherwise) and talked about the future of point-of-care testing for malignancy. As you can appreciate, unusual and enlightening conversations abound around here, even (mostly?) in pubs.

The photo attached to this entry is of me in front of the Radcliffe Camera, which is one of the most beautiful buildings I have ever seen. It is a reading room for the Bodleian Library, which is essentially the main library at Oxford. The “Bod,” as it is called, has a copy of every book ever published in the U.K., and there is an electric train system that goes underneath it all so that if you need a book, someone puts it on a train and will deliver it to the desk of the reading room. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

For those unfamiliar with the University of Calgary Medicine hockey jerseys and are therefore wondering why I am holding a hockey jersey with a very strange animal on it in the picture with this article, let me inform you. One of our best-loved traditions is that every medicine class has an animal name. Mine is the Blobfish; at some point in the early 1990s the animals started getting progressively more unattractive. We then all get hockey jerseys with the animal on the front. I brought mine over to Oxford with me and could not have been prouder than to have a friend take a picture of me holding it in Oxford’s most iconic location immediately following the matriculation.

A final description of my next week, to give you a sense of the kind of outrageous, unbelievable opportunity this experience has already provided: on Monday, a seminar with Professor Paul Anand (who worked with Amaryta Sen on welfare economics), then dinner with the governor of Lagos, Nigeria; Wednesday, a talk and dinner with the former Australian foreign minister; then a black tie dinner on Friday for Rhodes Scholars “coming up” to Oxford (arriving at Oxford is called “coming up,” leaving is called “going down,” not sure why this is, but it is true); and then another black tie dinner on Saturday for the Sir Richard Doll Society, which is a medical society at one of the other colleges here.

I hesitate to make this statement because it will make me sound hopelessly bourgeois, but I really did just describe to you what can most appropriately be called an average week in Oxford. Again, I couldn’t make it up if I tried.

Hope you have enjoyed this inaugural entry, and keep looking if this interested you, because I will from time to time post updates here.

Thanks so much for reading. My email follows, and I would be happy to hear from anyone who has questions or comments!

With best wishes,

Braden O’Neill
Proud University of Calgary Medicine Student
Email: boneill@ucalgary.ca
Follow me on Twitter @BradenONeill

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