SLU Partners up with Oxford University

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The latest addition to Saint Louis University’s study abroad program puts the “study” back in “study abroad.” Unlike the usual connotation of a semester-long experience that may focus on cultural adventures more than academia, students now have the opportunity to spend an entire year of study and research at the world-renowned Oxford University.

The formal agreement allows one exemplary student to study in Blackfriars Hall, an Oxford private hall which focuses on academic work in subjects such as theology, philosophy, politics and the social sciences. The aim is to send the first SLU student to Oxford in the Fall of 2012.

Fr. Richard Finn, O.P., the head of house at Blackfirars Hall,  visited the Dominican house of studies in St. Louis and met with several SLU administrators. At that meeting, Finn proposed that an agreement with Oxford be made to send students from SLU to study at the prestigious English university.

Since May of 2010, Thomas Finan, assistant professor of history and director for the Center for International Studies and International Outreach Coordinator Bert Barry have spearheaded the effort to finalize an agreement with Oxford. They said that realizing the breadth of the opportunity prompted them to make the launching of this program a central goal.

Finan said that Oxford has always encouraged the idea of exchanging students and professors in order to share knowledge and believes that it creates a better, more globalized campus. In recent years, Oxford has particularly welcomed visiting students from Catholic universities in the United States.

According to Finan, SLU and Oxford discussed the possibility for two years.

“The approval process and agreements were a laborious process, but both parties wanted to make sure that everything in the contract was laid out perfectly and there would be no surprises,” Finan said.

Finan’s simultaneous teaching duties at SLU and planning with Blackfriars led him to visit the hall this past January. Finan said that residents at Blackfriars “rolled out the red carpet” for Finan and made his visit an impressive one.

“It’s a great academic environment and people are drawn to places like that,” Finan said.

The program of study offered to SLU students will target top students in any area of study to spend their junior year at Blackfriars. Ideally, 6 to 10 students will be selected each year, although that number remains subjective depending on the pool of candidates. The selection process has not been finalized, but students will be nominated by department chairs in the spring of their sophomore year.

Logistically, the program will function like current study abroad programs. Courses and credit will be brought to SLU and will appear on the student’s transcript. Students will remain registered at SLU and retain their financial aid package.

Students will live in Blackfriars Hall during their stay. It is a community with more than 20 Dominican friars, undergraduates from a wealth of majors and graduate students.

The selected students will partake in the Oxford-style of university study. A significant amount of time is dedicated to tutorials, one-on-one tutoring and small, focused seminars.

“Academic experience at Oxford is very different from SLU. Instead of taking courses in a classroom, students at Blackfriars study by means of tutorials. It is an intensive kind of academic experience,” Finan said.

Blackfriars Hall sets up tutorials for students based on individual needs. Each student’s course of study will be planned before they arrive. One of the greatest advantages of this opportunity is the expanse of resources available for research. In addition to the Blackfriars’ specialty library, students also will have access to the world-renowned Bodleian Library and other faculty libraries.

Oxford has the largest university library system in the U.K., with more than 100 libraries. The Bodleian Library, Oxford’s main research library, was built in 1602. It since has been recognized as one of the greatest libraries in the world.

“It’s like sending some of our best students to partake of a tradition that is one of the oldest academic traditions in the world and the idea is we would hope that they come back to SLU their senior year having experienced that, and then that they can enrich our campus here,” Finan said.

Finan said that a hope for the future is to send graduate students and faculty to Oxford.

“The idea in the future is that we will be sending graduate students to do research there, and that we will be able to send faculty there on sabbaticals to do visiting faculty experiences there,” Finan said. “It is a pretty complete program in a lot of ways.”

During sabbatical, faculty could spend a semester at Oxford as a visiting research faculty member. The full libraries and research materials will be available to faculty to further their own individual research.

“If you think of it as an academic community that brings some of the best minds in the world together, that kind of experience is a very unique thing,” Finan said.