North America Alumni Weekend

Record-breaking Alumni Weekend in Washington DC

More than 600 alumni and guests took part in fascinating and enjoyable academic and social events during the first Alumni Weekend in the American capital.

Oxonians met Professor Louise Richardson, the University of Oxford’s new Vice-Chancellor, and heard from her about the latest developments at Oxford. Scholars and politicians also shared their timely thoughts about US politics, and the latest research on a range of topics, including medicine, the oceans, and the humanities. Highlights included the gala dinner at the Library of Congress – the world’s largest library – and a discussion about leadership with high-profile panelists, including Ambassador Susan Rice (Rhodes Scholar, New College alumna), National Security Advisor to US President Barack Obama.

The Alumni Weekend in North America, organised by Oxford’s North American Office, took place on 8 and 9 April, and it was the first time the gathering had taken place outside New York, where it is usually held every two years. This year’s gala dinner attracted more alumni and guests than at the equivalent dinner during previous Alumni Weekends in New York.

At the dinner, the Rt Hon the Lord Patten of Barnes, CH, the Chancellor of the University of Oxford, highlighted his long-standing links to the US, where he worked as a political campaigner after graduating. He emphasised the special relationship between the UK and US, and how Oxford continues to educate many young Americans. Today, 1,500 Americans are studying at Oxford, and 26,000 Oxford alumni live in the US.

The following day, Professor Richardson spoke of Oxford’s recent achievements, including its Medical School being ranked number one in the world for the fifth consecutive year, the acquisition of the twelfth millionth book in the Bodleian Library, and the Queen’s Anniversary Award for Oxford’s innovation in biomedical engineering. She said: ‘For centuries Oxford has served as a magnet for some of the best minds in the world.’ Professor Richardson spoke of challenges ahead and how Oxford is responding: Oxford Sciences Innovation is commercialising research, and £18m is being spent on outreach and bursaries. She also referred to the many donations for Oxford’s conservation work following the shooting of Cecil the lion – an animal tracked by Oxford researchers. Professor Richardson said: ‘The generosity of our donors has never ceased to amaze us.’

Politics was at the forefront of much of the discussion. Professor Marc Stears, Professor of Political Theory at Oxford’s Department of Politics and International Relations, spoke of an age of ‘fracture and despair’, created by ‘existential politics’ when certain groups feel their way of life is under threat from migration, and a world where children grow up to be less well-off than their parents. Predictions were also made about the presidential race with journalist and commentator E.J. Dionne (Rhodes Scholar, Balliol College alumnus) saying that Donald Trump will not win the Republican nomination, and that even if he did, he would get ‘clobbered’ in the general election. Congressman Jim Himes (Rhodes Scholar, St Edmund Hall alumnus) expressed his optimism that populism will decline and indicated his faith in the electorate.

The strength of the relationship between Oxford and its alumni was repeatedly mentioned throughout the Alumni Weekend. Professor Nick Rawlins, Oxford’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Development and External Affairs, praised the alumni groups, and applauded the time, energy, expertise, and financial support shown by alumni towards their alma mater.

Sean Denniston (University College alumnus), chair of the Oxford University Society (OUS) for alumni in Washington DC, attended all of the events, and organised a tour of the Botanic Gardens on Capitol Hill. He said: At the elegant Library of Congress dinner we were introduced to the new Vice-Chancellor and her shared vision for Oxford. The Saturday sessions more than held their own discussing three things DC sees as its own: politics, research and leadership. This DC-based Oxonian was impressed! 

Shiva Amiri (Wolfson alumna) made the journey from Toronto to the American capital for the events. She said: ‘It was another extraordinary Alumni Weekend in North America, with an appropriate emphasis on politics as part of a Washington twist. Having a background in computational medicine, I thoroughly enjoyed the session on Transformations in Medicine, which highlighted several Nobel-winning or Nobel-deserving medical breakthroughs. We also had the opportunity to hear and meet the new Vice-Chancellor. Professor Louise Richardson gave an open, practical and warm speech, which was well received.’

Dr Amiri, the co-author, with Dr Hammad Khan (Rhodes Scholar, Wolfson alumnus), of Oxformed: A journey through Oxfordadded: ‘The discussions and festivities with likeminded alumni certainly brought back the air, inspiration, and feeling of Oxford.’

Professor Dona Cady, president of the Oxford and Cambridge Society of New England (based in Boston), added: ‘The Alumni Weekend is, indeed, the perfect opportunity to connect, discover, and inspire. The conversations and branch networking over lunch, the wide-ranging insightful presentations, and the welcomes by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor – all serve to highlight the University and the alumni’s commitment to academic excellence and life-long learning. Well-done, DC!’