SOUE News Issue 5

My Experiences on the Oxford-Princeton Engineering Exchange

Alistair Hann

When I arrived at Newark airport in early September 2003, it was the first time I had ever been to the USA. I took a bus from the airport to Princeton, and realised that I was really there and there was no going back. There had been months of preparation: a visa application, obtaining certification of immunisations, and paperwork for the university - finally I was there in the United States and it was really happening. My immediate impression was how big everything was: the cars, the buildings, the billboards - everything was much bigger than it was back home.

My initial impressions of Princeton University were very positive. The university is very well funded and this is reflected in the quality of facilities available to students. The electrical engineering laboratory and computer facilities were excellent, the libraries easy to use and good to work in, and the sports facilities outstanding. After a little while the novelty wore off and I found it difficult to adjust to such a large change in education system. After three years at Oxford this was always going to be a challenge.

In Princeton there are many courses run each semester and it is up to the undergraduates to select a set of courses to meet their needs. It was difficult to choose courses that had content that was new to me, yet were not too difficult. There was a large degree of flexibility in the choice of courses I could make, which meant I could choose to study areas of particular interest to me, and a number of things I was unable to study in Oxford. In my first semester I took Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Image Processing and Transmission, and Hi-tech Entrepreneurship.

The approach to engineering, as a subject, was very different to that in Oxford. There was less emphasis on a mathematical and theoretical approach to engineering, and a greater concentration on practical skills such as lab work and programming.

For me, one of the greatest academic benefits was the ability to do a number of short research papers as part of my courses, in addition to my fourth year project that would be assessed in Oxford. These papers allowed me to pursue ideas I had, and completely restored my passion to do research. In fact, those papers inspired me to apply for a DPhil which I am now in the second year of doing.

I managed to get involved in a lot of extracurricular activities during my year in Princeton. A number of the Oxford exchange students joined an eating club, which was an excellent way to make friends as well as a supply of great sustenance. Although I had limited experience, I was able to join the university sailing team, and they provided excellent training. I sailed with them throughout the year and took part in a number of regattas.

I attended a training course, run by the college radio station, in how to DJ and I did a number of radio shows during the year. I also joined the university marching band, which was something that I definitely wouldn't have had the chance to do in the UK. When Princeton won the 'Ivy league' at basketball we travelled with the team to Denver and got to play at a first round game of the NCAA basketball championships. There were a number of other chances to explore the USA during vacations and I managed to visit Florida a number times, as well as travelling in Pennsylvania and New York.

I think it is most definitely the friends and people that shaped my year the most. I met a lot of people from very different places and learnt so much from them. In October 2005, after a conference in Connecticut, I had the opportunity to go back and visit Princeton. It was a chance to see friends who were still studying there, but also an opportunity to meet with my supervisors and those professors that taught me whilst I was there. Again, I was impressed by the friendliness of the faculty who were willing to take time out of their schedule to catch up on news, and offer me advice about my career and research.

I wish to thank the Rhodes trustees for providing the funding that made my year in Princeton possible. It was one of the best years of my life, and I learnt an incredible amount - about America, engineering, people, and myself - that I will always carry with me.

Alistair Hann is in his second year of a DPhil in the Signal Processing and Neural Networks Group, supervised by Professor Lionel Tarassenko.

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