Hungarians in Oxford discuss living and studying abroad
Today, the University of Oxford has 34 Hungarian students and several eminent Hungarian faculty members. Among the eminent faculty members, Hungarian-born British pianist, conductor, and Grammy Award recipient Sir András Schiff is a special supernumerary fellow of Balliol College, Hungarian-British neurobiologist and recipient of the Hungarian Order of Merit Péter Somogyi is a professor at the university’s Department of Pharmacology, and Hungarian economist, lawyer, and former Hungarian presidential nominee Péter Róna is a research fellow at Blackfriars Hall. To learn about the lives of current Hungarian expatriates in Oxford, The Budapest Times interviewed Hungarian students at the University of Oxford and some of the Hungarian faculty members mentioned above.
Oxford Hungarian Society president Bence Tankó-Bartalis on the Hungarian undergraduate experience at the University of Oxford
“Hungarian undergraduate students at Oxford are some of the most outstanding Hungarian students”, Tankó-Bartalis told The Budapest Times. “They usually study sciences like Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, or Chemistry, but there are also students who study History or Classics,” he added. A graduate of ELTE Apáczai Csere János High School, Tankó-Bartalis completed his undergraduate studies at Pembroke College, Oxford earlier this year and is about to pursue a master’s degree in Engineering Science at the same college.
Tankó-Bartalis also stated that although the number of Hungarian undergraduates have been decreasing due to Brexit, “we are a very cohesive group”. “Sometimes, we also meet outside of official Hungarian Society events – if someone is like ‘should we go to a formal dinner, a pub, or have some tea?’, then we’re like ‘yeah, sure, why not’. We work together and are friends,” he said. Under his leadership, the Oxford Hungarian Society also has regular internal meetings with multinational and Hungarian companies and organizations, issues newsletters, and organizes events such as lángos and lager nights, pub crawls, formal dinners, picnics, and alumni meetings to bring the Oxford Hungarian community closer together. One of the society’s recent events is the 2023 Fresher’s Drinks in Budapest organized for incoming first-year students to help them integrate into the Oxford Hungarian community.
Regarding his own undergraduate experience at Pembroke College, Tankó-Bartalis stated that he “loved living in Oxford”. “I love how small the city is and how each building in the city speaks of several centuries and is immersed in academic and cultural traditions,” he said, adding that he also loves how interesting the conversations that one can have with other undergraduates are. “You can really meet people who are not studying your subject – the conversations can add a distinct view to mine in most topics, and this is immensely beneficial to understanding how the world works,” he explained. However, he also noted that he missed Hungarian food while in Oxford. “I usually lose weight when I’m in Oxford,” he remarked.
After completing his master’s degree, Tankó-Bartalis may consider pursuing a PhD degree or entering the industry as a software engineer, applying his knowledge in AI, robotics, and automation. “Ultimately, I would like to work at a company that has offices in multiple places in the world and that has a big impact on what is happening in the globe, because I would like to make the world a better place from an engineering point of view,” he said.
The Stipendium Peregrinum Scholarship Program
Tankó-Bartalis is also a recipient of the Stipendium Peregrinum Scholarship, a scholarship initiated by Hungarian president Katalin Novák to support the education of talented Hungarian students at top higher education institutions in the world. “It’s a very important help for most people because it enables them to concentrate on their studies more and not the financial burden that these universities can apply on students and their families. Student fees in the UK or the US are extremely high,” Tankó-Bartalis said.
Through the scholarship, Tankó-Bartalis was able to visit the European Parliament in Brussels during the last winter break. “One of my instructors at the scholarship, Enikő Győri, invited us to the European Parliament, because she is an MEP. It was a great experience, even for someone who is not studying International Relations or Politics, to take a look inside what is happening in the Parliament and how it works,” he stated.
With that being said, Tankó-Bartalis also remarked that the scholarship is highly competitive and that students need to meet specific criteria to be considered for it. The competitiveness of the scholarship was also confirmed by Cambridge-Oxford Alumni Club of Hungary president Péter Juhász, according to whom the applicants need to undergo a lengthy selection process. “The crucial part of the selection process is the applicants going to a selection camp which is a couple of days long. There are lots of people there, including some politicians, evaluating you and making a judgment,” Juhász explained.
Non-academic Hungarians in the city of Oxford
“There are some non-academic Hungarians who sometimes come to Oxford Hungarian Society events,” Tankó-Bartalis told The Budapest Times. “Next year, we are planning to actively reach out to them.”
According to Tankó-Bartalis, several Hungarian parents are organizing Hungarian afternoon schools in Oxford, and there are also Hungarians working in the material science industry or as company leaders in Oxford. He also knows some Hungarian non-academic staff members at Magdalen College, Oxford.
“Some of the non-academic Hungarians in Oxford work in the university administration, but I only know a handful of them. Based on my knowledge, many non-academic Hungarians also work in restaurants, machine shops, and factories in Oxford,” Juhász said.
Tankó-Bartalis stated that the experiences and practical knowledge of non-academic Hungarians in Oxford are also of great importance to the Oxford Hungarian community. “If you are still in Oxford, please feel free to contact us on Facebook or via email – the Oxford Hungarian Society uses the email addresses firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. We are happy to be your home away from home.”
Graduate students at the University of Oxford
“Most Hungarian students in Oxford are master’s and doctoral students – they are not so visible in some ways,” Juhász stated. Juhász also said that unlike undergraduate students, “the numbers of graduate students at both the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge are growing despite Brexit”, a phenomenon which he attributed to the possibility of former Hungarian undergraduate students at Oxbridge who arrived in Oxford and Cambridge between 2014 and 2016 – a period of exponential growth in Hungarian students in Oxbridge – currently continuing their education as graduate students at the same institutions.
However, according to Juhász, unlike Hungarian undergraduate students at the University of Oxford who often get to know each other in Hungary at regional or national competitions or after-school university preparatory programs when they are in high school, Hungarian graduate students in Oxford usually feel less cohesive due to fewer opportunities for them to get to know each other before traveling to Oxford, long working hours in their respective departments, and looser connections with their respective colleges. However, he noticed that “Hungarians in Oxford are all usually quite happy to hang out with Hungarians”. “If you meet another Hungarian, you have a common cultural background and a common language, which is incredibly important to a lot of people, because while the UK still has European culture, it is markedly different from what you have in Hungary,” he explained.
A number of Hungarian doctoral students noted an adjustment process that they had to undergo in Oxford. “Even though I’ve lived in Oxford and Cambridge for 6 years, I think the UK is quite different from continental Europe,” doctoral candidate in Economics at Nuffield College, Oxford Eszter Kabos said. “One aspect which is different from home is housing for sure – the heating is not always very good, they have single-glazed windows, and the water system can be weird. The weather is not as horrible as some say, it is not raining all the time, but I don’t like that the sun doesn’t shine that much. British people are also unique in their own ways,” Kabos added.
Housing was in fact a major issue that several doctoral students had to face during their time in Oxford. “Whenever I had to move out of college accommodation, it was really hard to find anywhere that’s close to your department and inside the city and that has an acceptable price,” Emese Végh, recent doctoral graduate in Scientific Archaeology at Wolfson College, Oxford stated. Problems in housing seem to have been worsened by UK economic fluctuations caused by Brexit, the pandemic, and the Russia-Ukraine war. “Everything just got so ridiculously expensive all of the sudden,” doctoral candidate in Organic Chemistry Daniel Rozsar said. “I suddenly couldn’t afford to stay at the place where I was staying mostly because of bills.”
Some science doctoral students also noted an academic adjustment process that they experienced when starting their doctoral degree. “Doing a PhD compared to doing a master’s or an undergraduate degree is a massive change,” recent doctoral graduate in Synthetic Biology at New College, Oxford András Sándor remarked. “At the undergraduate level, there would be loads of classes, lectures, some tutorials, and some lab practice, but to do a research PhD, you need to be in a lab, and it’s almost like a job. You need to be doing research and to be quite independent, which can be a bit daunting,” he added. Part-time doctoral candidate in Psychiatry Zsófia Dombi noted that the statistics knowledge required at the PhD level compared to undergraduate and master’s levels was a challenge for her. “What they teach before PhD is not at all enough,” she said. “Undergraduate was a joke, master’s was better, but you can only learn these kinds of things when you’re actually doing them.”
Despite the challenges they had to face, doctoral students at the University of Oxford generally enjoy being in Oxford. “I think Oxford is really nice, because it is a European community, is still quite close to Hungary, and is accessible with quick and relatively cheap flights from Hungary,” Kabos noted. Similar to Kabos’s remark, Rozsar said: “The aspect of life in Oxford I enjoy the most is how diverse it is when it comes to the students and colleagues – I’ve always enjoyed spending time with them, and getting to know a lot of people is always an extremely valuable experience.” For doctoral student in Engineering Science Csaba Botos, the diversity of activities students can participate in is his favorite aspect of life in Oxford. “You can row in the morning, go for a hike in the afternoon, you can join a chess club, join fencing, or enter a musical. There is even a psychedelic society,” he said.
Regarding common career pathways Hungarian graduate students at the University of Oxford choose after graduation, Juhász stated: “Hungarians usually come back home after studying in the UK, but not necessarily straight away. The usual life pathway is that you go to university in the UK, you stay there for a couple of years and have a job there, and once you’ve established yourself both professionally and financially, you come home and maybe start a family in Hungary.”
Speaking of her future plans, Kabos is not planning to stay full-time in academia. Having worked in consulting and as chief of staff for a deputy mayor at the Municipality of Budapest, she said: “I would like to work in the public sector or industry in the area of economics – the topics closest to my PhD are regulation and competition economics – and policy-making.” Like Kabos, Botos is also considering working in the industry after graduation. “Originally, I wanted to stay in academia, but I just see that currently, my field specifically is not driven anymore by academic findings but more by tech or industrial research projects,” he explained. Rozsar, however, would rather stay in academia after his Oxford PhD. “I want to be a postdoc after finishing my degree. I’m not yet sure about which way to go exactly, but I am eyeing the US,” he told The Budapest Times.
Hungarian-British neurobiologist Péter Somogyi and former Hungarian presidential nominee Péter Róna on their lives in and beyond Oxford
For Somogyi, his path to Oxford was not an easy one. Born to a very poor family in the provincial town of Szentendre, he had to do manual work in his family’s farm on a daily basis as a child to supplement his parents’ income. Amidst the manual work, he was determined to become a scientist.
After graduating from high school and completing compulsory military training, Somogyi studied Biology on a scholarship at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest, where he would later also receive his PhD degree. As an undergraduate student, he also worked in his high school biology teacher’s husband István Benedeczky’s electron microscopy laboratory at Semmelweis University. “He was a very good man, a very kind friend, and a very good mentor who taught me the techniques and concepts of cell biology,” Somogyi recalled. Benedeczky spent a year at the University of Oxford in the late sixties as a Wellcome Trust research fellow and became friends with David Smith, a departmental lecturer at that time who went on to become department head. Recognizing Somogyi’s diligence and talent, Benedeczky recommended him to Smith. “István thought that by working with him, I could develop better than in his lab,” Somogyi said.
Smith recommended that Somogyi come to Oxford as an undergraduate student intern, but it was at the time of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain – there was a physical iron curtain at the Austrian-Hungarian border, so students were not able to travel abroad to study. After his university would not process his application to carry out his graduation research project in Oxford, Somogyi complained to everybody around him, “cursing the communists, the Cold War, and (his) misfortune”. Still, he met a high school friend on the street whose father was the director of a big forest where the highest members of the communist party went hunting for wild boar and deer. “He had to accompany them on their shooting trips, and as luck would have it, the same week when my friend told her father that Péter couldn’t go to Oxford because he wasn’t able to get permission, he was hunting with the Minister of Education, and he mentioned my case to him,” Somogyi recalled. “The Minister of Education remembered my case and called the university the next day for me to submit my application to spend one year in Oxford.” Somogyi’s year in Oxford resulted in two first-author academic publications, one of which appeared in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.
After returning to Hungary, Somogyi still had some subsequent periodical visits to Oxford with the help of the then head of the Department of Anatomy of Semmelweis University János Szentágothai. Following a postdoctoral position in Adelaide, Somogyi was invited back to the University of Oxford by Smith to be the associate director of the newly established MRC Anatomical Neuropharmacology Unit, a research facility that functioned from 1985 to 2015.
Today, as a research professor at the university’s Department of Pharmacology, Somogyi is conducting systems neuroscience research with methodologies from neuroanatomy, neurophysiology, and molecular biology, and he would like to “have a holistic explanation of events in the brain that lead to behavior”. Beyond Oxford, Somogyi is also a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of Academia Europaea, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. In his spare time, he is working on his English language autobiography, which he would like to complete this year.
Notable students Somogyi has mentored over his career include the current president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences Tamás Freund, neurobiology professor at the University of Szeged Gábor Tamás, and neuroscience and neuroanatomy professor at Stanford University Iván Soltész. “The biggest impact of my life is the number of people whom I have influenced to bring out from themselves what talent they have and then contribute it to the world,” Somogyi said. “They carry on contributing it to their pupils and their students. This continuity of thought which I call in one of my speeches ‘the intellectual stardust’. Just like the fact that every atom in your body came from stars, some of which disappeared or became new stars, educating others distributes the intellectual stardust down the generations,” he added.
Before Oxford, Róna already had a challenging yet successful life. Originally aspiring to become a painter, he had to give up his dream amidst the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 which forced him and his mother to flee to the United States. In Washington, D.C., he enrolled in a high school without speaking any English. “I was socially very much ostracized, and we had absolutely no money,” he recalled. After juggling his studies and intensive work at a restaurant for two-and-a-half years, Róna apparently earned the highest SAT English score among all the schools in Washington, D.C.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree at the University of Pennsylvania in the US, Róna went on to study Law at University College, Oxford in 1964 on a scholarship. “I remember getting off the train when I first arrived in Oxford and walking from the train station with my suitcase to University College and High Street with this overwhelming sense that I had finally arrived home,” Róna told The Budapest Times. “As much as I admired the US, and I still do, I’m too much of a European, so I didn’t quite feel at home there… I loved Oxford – I enjoyed it very much.”
That being said, Róna’s initial adjustment to the Oxford environment was not without challenges. Not long after he first arrived in the city, he went to a student event where he encountered former UK prime minister Alec Douglas-Home’s son. “In this very condescending and aristocratic way, he said to me: ‘Oh, you’re from Hungary, are you? Do tell me about the gypsies!’ I said to him: ‘I would love to, but I came to Oxford to read Law, not Ethnography, so I don’t know how much I can tell you about the gypsies.’ That destroyed him – it made him look very silly,” Róna said. “This kind of tone carried me through Oxford. But I learned that what may have seemed like an insult was in fact just jousting in a humorous way,” he added.
Róna has many favorite memories of his student years at Oxford in the 1960s. One such memory is witnessing an incident at a formal dinner he attended at University College right after a sherry party for Law students. “One of my fellow students, who was the son of a Yorkshire butcher, had nine glasses of sherry. He staggered – I supported him – into the dining hall, sat down for dinner, and the people at the high table (a table where university fellows and their guests sit) marched in. The guest of honor that evening was Michael Stewart, the foreign secretary of Her Majesty’s Government at the time,” he remembered. “While the dinner’s prayer was being said, my friend was mumbling that he really needed to go to the bathroom. I kept telling him to hold on and wait until they finished the prayer. When the prayer ended, students were supposed to stay standing and quiet until the people at the high table gathered their robes and sat down. In that moment of silence, he lost control, and, in a sufficiently loud voice that could be heard throughout the hall, he said ‘f**k’,” Róna continued. “Next morning, he was summoned to the Master of the college in cap and gown… The Master learned about the context of the incident, and my friend ended up only being fined a reasonable fee for it, making him greatly relieved. We subsequently learned what had happened, though – after dinner, after a heated discussion among the high table people about the incident, my Law tutor said: ‘As you don’t need to be a practicing Christian to be a member of the college, you don’t need to respect the prayers. Supposing your view is that it’s inappropriate to say a prayer before eating, if you had the chance under those circumstances to express your opposition with one word, what would that word be other than the one this young fellow uttered?’”
Academically, Róna “was terrified of failing” at Oxford. A hard-working student, he enjoyed Oxford’s intellectual environment. “I can only speak in superlatives about my experience at the University of Oxford as a student… I had fantastic tutors, one of whom is still a very close friend of mine,” he said. With excellent academic achievements, Róna received his Law degree at Oxford in 1966 and went on for another year to study Legal Philosophy. “Through legal philosophy, I got involved in philosophy, the philosophy of social sciences, and then back into economics,” he noted.
Today, as a research fellow and lecturer at Oxford’s Blackfriars Hall, Róna’s is still focusing on studying the philosophical foundations of the social sciences, particularly emphasizing economics. In Hungary, Róna was also a presidential nominee representing the United for Hungary political alliance in 2022. Regarding his presidential nomination, he said: “I was like ‘if all the 6 opposition parties nominate me to be the president, I’ll accept the nomination’, and that’s what happened – they all agreed.” Róna has also written papers and given speeches and interviews primarily directed at the economic conditions of Hungary and Hungary’s constitution.
Róna’s Oxford experience has influenced his worldview in many ways. “First, it has made me understand how difficult it is to know something for sure. Second, it has made me realize how valuable it is to try to know something while being aware that the chance of ultimate success is quite slim. Third, it has made me realize that one of the problems about knowledge is that it, in some way, separates us and sets us against nature – as we gain greater knowledge of things, we gain greater dominance over nature and the less fortunate amongst us in the world,” he said, adding: “One narrative about knowledge is that it is enlightenment and that it makes things better, ultimately producing better lives for a greater number of people. At the same time, knowledge is also very destructive. The problem is how to navigate between these two narratives.”