From the Sorbonne to Cambodia to CERN, Oxford students are transplanting themselves into rich new soil abroad as part of their University experience.

Students abroad

By John Garth

Experiences don’t come much more life-changing than singing at the Sorbonne, social enterprise in Cambodia or particle research at CERN. These are three of the opportunities abroad seized by Oxford students in the past year, facilitated by the University and often by alumni. In some cases, study and internships abroad hold out the prospect of changing lives for others, too.

For materials scientist Cameron Brookhouse (St Edmund Hall, 2010), a glance at the University Careers Office internships listings changed everything. ‘I’d always wanted to be something entrepreneurial in product design and I hadn’t considered social enterprise. And this just popped up.’

He spent ten weeks with WaterSHED, an NGO developing products that can be manufactured and sold by local entrepreneurs in the developing world independently and sustainably. ‘I found that fascinating and admirable and novel,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, if the aid disappears, the product disappears and you’re back where you started.’

Oxford secured funding from the Alex Scott and Stone Family Foundation. In Phnom Penh, working largely with Cambodians, Cameron was as far from ivory towers as possible — researching and designing toilet shelters, a major aid to public health. From materials testing to surveying the views of potential users to actual construction of a prototype in ferro-concrete, Cameron was involved at every stage. ‘We wanted to ensure its success in that market, which means throwing away all your preconceptions about what someone in the West would want.’ He remains in touch with the Cambodian team as an informal consultant.

Students abroad

Back at Oxford for his research-based fourth year, Cameron remains inspired. ‘It’s really cemented this desire to enter the world of social enterprise, to design products that solve social problems,’ he said. He is now working on developing a cheap plastic semiconductor device to check water potability. Current technology is expensive, cumbersome, and narrowly focused – but not the semiconductor concept.

‘What’s cool about them is they can be very cheap and disposable and large-scale and they don’t pollute the environment.’ said Cameron. ‘It’s something that costs about 50c, and you can dip it in water and tell straight away if it’s got arsenic, fluoride, ecoli, things that commmonly lead to death through diarrhoea, et cetera. It’s ambitious, yes, but it will be awesome if I can at least prove the concept by the end of the year.’

Such experiences demonstrate not only the value of time abroad, but also the fact that it is no longer the almost exclusive province of language students. Around £900,000 worth of awards are being handed out in 2014–15 between some 1,650 Oxford University students for work or study abroad, for anything from a short field trip to an entire year. Jurisprudence with Law Studies in Europe involves a year overseas. The Princeton University Exchange caters to biochemists, historians and engineers. Postgraduates can choose from opportunities as far-flung as Australia, China and the United States.

Alumni were behind 515 of the internships offered last year, spanning 36 countries and a broad range of sectors. In fact, of all the employers who offered full-time professional experience or research opportunities during the summer vacation, 55 per cent had studied at Oxford themselves.

Erasmus funding via Oxford from the British Council provides a route for 300 traineeships and study exchanges. Rebecca Sharp made elegant use of her mandatory year abroad as a Modern Languages student. Having practised violin, piano and singing from the age of five, she went to the Sorbonne, Paris, to study music and musicology. Oxford assisted not only with setting up the exchange and securing the Erasmus funding, but also with a change of course mid-year, when Rebecca decided to switch from medieval to 19th-century music.

Students abroad

‘My main highlight was singing in the University chamber choir, which provided some really great experiences – singing the Fauré Requiem in Saint-Eustache in the centre of Paris, as well as going on a choir tour to the Netherlands. That was really amazing.’ Ancillary benefits included learning independence and returning to Oxford with a rich understanding of French music to complement her 19th-century literary studies. ‘That’s given me a different perspective on my degree,’ she says. ‘And I’m definitely more independent.’

At the ultimate cutting edge, physicist Alexandra Rollings (Christ Church) spent nine weeks at CERN, Swiss home of the world’s largest particle accelerator, on an internship and summer school. ‘I was actually accepted on an internship to go to Wuhan in China on photovoltaic cells development. But when I looked again and saw there was an opportunity to go to CERN, there was no doubt that I was going to apply to it! Ever since I visited with school I’ve wanted to go back. If you want to do particle physics, it’s the best you can get.’

The internship and many of the logistics were sorted out by Philip Burrows, Professor of Accelerator Physics, who aims to give Oxford students the best chance of taking up the very limited spaces CERN offers. Geneva is expensive, but £2,500 came from the Oxford Undergraduate Research Programme supported by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. A £300 college travel grant helped Alexandra see a little more of Europe, too.

The internship was with a group working on an experimental accelerator, CLIC – a potential successor to the famous Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The summer school taught theoretical physics, data analysis, and engineering on particle accelerators and detectors. Working with physicists from countries as far afield as Poland and Ecuador altered Alexandra’s perspectives for good. ‘It opened my eyes to how small the world is and how similar people are. I’m applying for PhDs abroad because I absolutely loved being in Europe,’ she says.

Alexandra is now weighing up whether to pursue doctoral research on a CERN experiment or on hadrontherapy, a form of cancer irradiation which promises minimal collateral damage to healthy tissues. ‘My eyes were opened up to that because of lectures put on there by Enlight [European Network for Light ion Hadron Therapy],’ she says. ‘Having worked at CERN is going to do wonders for my applications.’

Article adapted from a feature first published in the Oxford University Annual Review. Photograph of Rebecca Sharp singing with the Sorbonne’s Petit Chœur by Léo Andrés, with kind permission. Photographs from Cambodia and CERN courtesy of Cameron Brookhouse and Alexandra Rollings respectively.