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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at U Mass Amherst chapter.

With every shade in my unairconditioned, fifth-floor dorm room pulled to the floor and windows cracked the only 10 degrees open allowed, my two fans blasted so loud I couldn’t hear my “getting ready” playlist. I slipped into my favorite blue dress, searched for fancy ponytail hairstyles on Pinterest to keep my hair off my neck, and blotted away the sweat from my forehead, sweeping off the layer of makeup I had just applied. The hottest day in England in history, and it was my turn to sit at the high table with my professors and peers, engage in stimulating conversations, enjoy a three-course meal, with unlimited wine service, and bask in Oxford traditions. 

It’s biased to say, but I think I chose the best study abroad program there is. In the Summer of 2022, I was accepted into the UMass Oxford Summer Seminar. Six weeks of living and studying in Oxford, England, at Keble College, meant attending traditional weekly high table dinners, traveling throughout England on Friday field trips, and making lifelong friendships, all while recovering from the mental and physical damage of the pandemic the year prior. 

Our weekly high table dinners consisted of a strict schedule agreed upon by my new lifelong friends and I. 5:30 p.m. meet on the Keble College lawn and take pictures, 5:45 p.m. cocktails (usually Pims) in the Keble Bar, 6:00 p.m. sit through the one-hour lecture of some esteemed Oxford genius, 7:00 p.m. high table dinner with three courses of sometimes delicious, sometimes unspeakable food and drink, 9:00 p.m. drinks at the King’s Arms, 10:00 p.m. drinks at Four Candles, 11:00 p.m. dance at our favorite club Atik, and always end the night with hours of talking till almost sunrise on the Keble lawn. Perfection. 

I took one last look at the small bathroom mirror in my nearly pitch-black room and crossed my fingers that at least some makeup hadn’t melted off.

Sitting at the high table, fanning myself with my napkin, I made small talk with my international law professor as I saw my friends giggling at their seats, knowing I was in agony from the heat and tipsy from the bottle service… quite the dehydrating combo. More drinks, conversation, and a Latin blessing later, and we were off to our route. We never got sick of these nights, and we never got sick of each other, despite the unbearable heat that summer. 

I was unlucky in the pandemic, having been diagnosed with a rare heart condition from an even rarer cause. Four days in the hospital, tons of doctors in and out of my room seemingly every hour, and even being published in medical journals because I was so “rare.” What followed was a six-month recovery of no exercise, alcohol, caffeine, and no lifting more than five pounds. As hard as that was, the physical recovery was nothing compared to the mental one. 

I received my acceptance to the program one year and one week after my hospitalization. I was ready to embark on this new journey abroad and leave everything from the year prior behind. I was perfectly physically healthy again and mostly mentally recovered. I could feel the one year of college I had left looming, and I wanted this summer to be once in a lifetime. 

Summer 2021 and summer 2022 were nothing but perpendicular for me. Rather than rotting in my house in my anxious, panicked state, trying to come to terms with my current circumstances, I was running through downtown Oxford on an “Amazing Race” style scavenger hunt. I was climbing up the 528 steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, dancing in European clubs till way too late in the night, going to sleep in Paris at 3 a.m. drunk just to wake up two hours later to see the sunrise at the Eiffel Tower before catching an 8 a.m. chunnel back to London, and probably (definitely) drinking way too much alcohol, but you’re only 21 in Europe once. 

Every so often, I’d think back to the prior summer and feel the anxiety creep into my throat and breath. The thing about traumatic events (for me, at least) is that reminding yourself that you are okay, even if your body is telling you you’re not, is exhausting. The worst part about an anxiety association with my heart was every time my heart beat fast I could feel the anxiety come right back in.

During our reading week, my friends and I ventured to Paris. Based at the foot of Sacre Coeur, I had the most incredible dinner of my entire life at Le Refuge des Fondus. The establishment was no bigger than a large walk-in closet. Not only did we have to step on top of the table to get to our seats at the two wall-to-wall tables, but we were also served wine in baby bottles. Don’t ask me why, because I don’t know, and don’t ask me why it tasted even better that way, I don’t know. 

After our delicious fondue, baby bottle wine, and a shot of something to finish the meal, we embarked on the 300 stairs to the top of Sacre Coeur. That kind of cardio, drunk and with loads of melted cheese and bread weighing you down, is bound to get the heart pumping. I felt my anxious thoughts creeping back in with each step I took. “Should I stop for a second, catch my breath…no, no, I’m fine, I’m healthy, I can keep going,” I thought to myself. The view was worth the anxiety. 

Sunset at the Sacre Coeur is illuminating. Pretty much exactly as incredible and cliche as every Paris movie makes it out to be. It makes you feel alive. This climb, like every other activity that summer I previously was unable to do during my recovery, showed me again and again that I can do and overcome incredible things. 

I look back on my four years of college with that summer being the best decision I made. From the moment I touched down at Heathrow Airport on July 1, to my final tearful goodbye to my new friends at 4 a.m. on the Keble College lawn on August 12, the entire summer was magical

My heart still beats fast sometimes, and I still get anxious. But remembering Oxford, everything I did, and the person I became brings me comfort and calm. That summer was perfect, exactly what I needed it to be and more. I’ll never forget the memories I created and the clarity brought home with me. 

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Sarah Walsh

U Mass Amherst '23

Sarah is a Senior at UMass Amherst double majoring in Communication and Journalism and minoring in Sociology. Her favorite tv shows are Friends, The Office, and New Girl. And her favorite movies consist of the entire Harry Potter series. She loves to workout, spend time with family and friends, and walk her puppy, Rory.