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Taking Stock of Study Abroad in Oxford

NC State’s oldest summer study abroad program — in Oxford, United Kingdom — gives participants a rich academic experience infused with history and culture. Students may choose two of three courses offered, including 20th Century British History, the Plays of Shakespeare, or Outbreak: Euro Edition.

Sue Carson taught the course on outbreaks this summer. An associate professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, students explored the biology of infectious disease outbreaks, their clinical implications, and the impact of social, economic, and political factors in their spread.

My background is in the molecular pathogenesis of infectious disease, which is a core feature of the course” said Carson. “I was very excited when I was invited to travel to Oxford to teach the class to University Honors and University Scholars students.”

During the course, the students learn about the biology of various infectious diseases — viral, bacterial and one prion disease (a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects humans and animals). Perhaps more important, however, is the course content’s connection to British history.

“I wanted students to understand how vaccines were first developed and about herd immunity, and understand the pseudoscience out there that affects people choosing to vaccinate or not vaccinate, which is having a huge public health impact,” said Carson. “They could also connect Outbreaks in Europe with the other classes offered in the Oxford program, and observe the impacts of diseases like plague and cholera within the U.K. Shakespeare also talked quite a bit about infectious diseases in his writings.”

Outbreaks in Europe represents just one part of the overall experience for students studying abroad in Oxford. Students gain immense cultural experiences from their first day in the program.

“Upon their arrival, NC State students go on a walking tour of Oxford,” said Chester Brewer, assistant director of the University Scholars program and one of the Oxford study abroad program’s facilitators. “They enjoy field trips that include a weekend in London, a tour of Stonehenge, the Roman baths in Bath, visits to world-class museums such as the Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers, a tour of the Harry Potter film studios, Blenheim Palace and more. There is an emphasis on linking class learning outcomes to these field trips.”

Carson’s students also took a tour focused on a “plague tour” of London, including visiting the location of plague pits, mass graves for thousands of plague victims who were dying so quickly that there was no time for individual burials. They walked through the Churchill War Rooms, which included lots of discussion of different infectious diseases and their impact on WWII.

Seeing these sights drove home the course’s learning outcomes for students.

“Part of why that can happen is because in the United States, recent generations have never seen a terrible disease outbreak and had massive numbers of people dying from a disease like the flu, or being crippled by polio,” said Carson. “Being able to travel abroad and view the cultural impact of outbreaks drives home the risk of infectious diseases that people may not always take seriously.”

Traveling to Oxford not only increases students’ knowledge about various subjects, but exposes them to new ideas and broadens their cultural horizons. For Brewer, faculty like Carson also benefit by learning how global travel can supplement classroom learning and provide opportunities to get hands-on with course material.

“When you are in another country and culture, you sharpen your skills of observation, remain curious, and engage directly with the cognitive dissonance that naturally arises from being outside your comfort zone,” said Brewer. “One special aspect of studying in Oxford, is that the differences in culture seem subtle on the surface because the language is the same. Students and faculty quickly find through conversations with locals, however, that many of them hold values and beliefs that are significantly different from ones we commonly hold as Americans.”

The program will open up again for applications for next summer. Carson’s experience in Oxford echoes the value of connecting to study abroad opportunities through NC State. 

“I would highly encourage students and faculty to get involved in study abroad,” she said. “This wouldn’t have been possible without the University Scholars Program and coordination of the trip by Sara Beth May and Chester Brewer. Everyone involved can learn so much from taking and teaching unique classes, and become more of a global citizen by engaging with other cultures.”