This summer, the Virginia Program at Oxford (VPO) — launched with help from Mary Baldwin University — celebrated its 30th anniversary, as alumni of the program joined current students for a reunion at St. Anne’s College, Oxford .
VPO is one of the oldest study abroad programs in Oxford: Mary Baldwin first created the program in 1967 in partnership with Davidson College. In 1981, Davidson decided to pursue other study abroad trips, and the program reorganized to form the current group of six Virginia colleges (Mary Baldwin University, Hampden-Sydney College, Roanoke College, Sweet Briar College, Virginia Military Institute, and Washington and Lee University) that send students to live and learn for six weeks in Oxford.
Twenty-eight VPO alumni returned to the historic English city in August for the anniversary. Seven program graduates were from Mary Baldwin — the largest turn out from any of the six participating schools — including Jennifer Sieck ’89, Melissa Ford Holloway ’99, Julie Schmidt Oxner ’02, Deborah Durbin ’06, Stephanie Makowski ’07, Anja Stickley ’07, and Meg Pitts ’10.
“The reunion gave me a great chance to catch up with two fellow students from my year as well as Jennifer Sieck, who was a great influence on me during my freshman year when she was a PEG [Program for the Exceptionally Gifted ] staff member,” Holloway said.
Reunion-goers enjoyed a long weekend of seminars, tours, and convivial dining. They began by revisiting the university’s lecture hall with several seminars from VPO’s esteemed lecturers of Tudor-Stuart history and literature.
Stickley described reuniting with VPO faculty as her favorite part of the reunion. “Having tea and cookies with the professors following our lectures gave us an opportunity to discuss more obscure points from the lecture with the professor, or to dissect the talk with your classmates. With the alumni group it was even more interesting because our experiences since college bring a whole new depth to the subjects discussed in a casual manner.”
Ken Fincham, a tutor and the British director for VPO, led a walking tour of Oxford, capped by dinner at The Perch, a thatched-roofed pub on the River Thames. A croquet and Pimm’s party provided quintessential English entertainment for the group, and a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth in Stratford rekindled their enthusiasm for the Bard.
On the last evening of the trip, alumni and current students attended a farewell banquet and party at St. Anne’s. “I especially enjoyed hearing reflections written by VPO alums that VMI’s Colonel Tom Davis read at the banquet on the last night,” Sieck said. “They revived memories of morning lectures and tutorials punctuated by tea and digestives; promising not to ‘kindle flame’ in the Bodleian Library; exploring Oxford; and great times with great friends.”
Mary Baldwin alums gleaned many skills from their Oxford experience that have helped them during post-college life. “I realized that the biggest gain through the experience was a sense of independence,” Oxner said. “Being back for reunion, I realized how much I grew that summer by living and studying abroad.”
Oxner works for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington DC, on preparedness and response planning for natural disasters and acts of terrorism. In reflecting on VPO, she described how weekly sessions with tutors prepared her for this demanding job.
“The actual tutor sessions have proven beneficial in my everyday life,” Oxner said. “Having the ability to pull various sources of information together quickly, formulate a decision, and voice my opinion is critical. Oxford helped refine and build this skill.”
Stickley used her experience at the VPO reunion as inspiration for a potential career change. “Going back to St. Anne’s … actually inspired me to start applying for a new job, one that allows me to follow my passions,” she said. “I was inspired by our professors who clearly adored their subjects and going back just helped remind me that there is more to life then getting a paycheck.”
Holloway’s participation in VPO encouraged her to live full time across the pond. “VPO gave me a real taste of Oxford and led to my eventual decision to attend Oxford as a graduate student,” she said. “I live in London now. My experience in VPO set the course of my life in a number of ways.”
To learn more about the program and the application process for this summer’s session, please contact Mary Hill Cole , professor of history and the American director of VPO for summer 2012.