“Disturbing” is the word Olivia Wall uses to describe walking the full length of the Gardens of Versailles. She recounts the opulence at the beginning: gilded walls, beautiful fountains, intricate landscaping. But the further she went, the more it seemed statues were covered up and fountains turned off. By the end of the mile-and-a-half walk, the grounds were unkempt—grass uncut, leaves decomposing quietly. The decay and deterioration of the gardens was eerily reminiscent of the decay at the heart of the gilded age, Olivia reflects, extravagance that the government couldn’t afford to maintain.

Experiences like this helped Olivia see the human element in the history she was studying. The dry fountains and covered statues brought home to her the real people who had been affected by the Palace of Versailles’ extravagance: real people had starved as their monarchs built lavish tributes to themselves that the country couldn’t afford, and real people had started a revolution in response. And though the French Revolution happened two centuries ago, “even today the effects are being felt. Even today they can’t afford to keep up Versailles.”

While Versailles was one of the more memorable moments of Olivia’s time abroad, she spent the majority of her semester studying in Oxford. Double majoring in history and political science, Olivia embraced the opportunity to not only leave the United States for the first time but to live on her own in a foreign culture. “I figured England is probably as close as you can get to America,” she laughs, “but it was still very different.”

The most obvious difference was the education system. While American higher education utilizes the classroom model, students at Oxford don’t attend classes like American students do. Instead, they meet with professors on an individual basis. Olivia would meet once a week or so with her professors, who would would chat with her one-on-one, assign her a topic, and then release her to study on her own.

Olivia was impressed when she learned that many of her professors were the leading researchers in their fields. She soon learned that Dr. Diane Purkiss, her professor for Witch Trials in Early Modern Europe, had authored sections of the textbook as well as several of the articles Olivia came across in her research. Not only was she a leading researcher herself, but Dr. Purkiss also had connections with other scholars Olivia found. “Glad you found that article! He’s a dear friend of mine,” she’d say. Suddenly, research wasn’t a dry, methodical process one went through like a chemical formula—it was alive. Real people with real personalities were authoring articles, and it was Olivia’s job to figure out what they were talking about, enter the conversation, and hope to say something, however small, in response.

While she missed the opportunity to interact with classmates and see her professors more than once a week, Olivia appreciated the way the British education model developed her researching and writing skills. She would spend hours researching at the Radcliffe Camera Library, at first hardly able to concentrate due to the intricate domed ceilings, balustraded upper gallery, soaring windows, and stacks and stacks of books, many of them 200 years old.

As if the architecture wasn’t enough to distract Olivia from her studies, a fascinating depth of history seemed to crop up in even the most mundane places. At the same time she was studying the English Reformation, she would take walks along Broad Street in the heart of Oxford, where one of the key leaders of the Reformation had been burned at the stake. “There’s a memorial for him,” she says. “I’d be writing a paper on him, and he was burned at the stake right there.” (She admits wryly that much of British history ends with, “and they were burned at the stake.”)

When she wasn’t attending lectures, meeting with professors, or studying in ornate libraries, Olivia would attend services at different churches, often making it to evensong, a service unique to the Anglican Church. At first, the high Anglican style of the services felt foreign to her, especially when the priest would begin to pray for the Queen of England. Definitely not in America anymore, she would think. But the liturgies and hymns, rather than estranging her, began to make Olivia feel more deeply connected to church history and tradition. The idea that people had been hearing the same words and singing the same songs for hundreds of years left her in awe.

Perhaps, for Olivia, stepping into Oxford was like stepping into a web: Everything was interconnected. The transcripts of witch trials she pored through at Radcliffe Camera had sentenced real people to death, the hymns she sang in church had been sung by thousands before her, and the musical she attended in the ritzy West End of London depicted the very same French Revolution that would be made real to her during her walk through the Gardens of Versailles.

When asked whether she’d recommend the Oxford program, Olivia doesn’t hesitate to say yes. But she emphasizes that students would have to be academically committed. Count the cost; be willing to put in the work. Otherwise, you’ll start out with intentions of beautiful fountains and end up with unkempt lawns and dry leaves.