Christian Thompson is one of the first indigenous Australians to attend Oxford, writes James Howe.
Artist and Oxford University doctoral student Christian Thompson always knew he wanted to go to ''big school'' one day but was never quite sure how the details would pan out.
''When I was a kid I used to say to my mum, 'What happens after high school?' And she said, 'That's when people go to big school.'''
So when Thompson began study at Oxford last year, he saw it as a realisation of his childhood goal. ''Now I'm at one of the biggest and best schools in the world,'' he says.
Thompson is one of 250 Australians studying at Oxford, where he and fellow doctorate student Paul Gray are the first indigenous people to attend. But, unlike most Australians studying in ''the city of dreaming spires'', Thompson's arrival happened by accident. He had just completed a master's degree in Amsterdam and had received an Australian Postgraduate Award to do a PhD. His planned research would involve looking at Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum, which houses an eclectic collection of anthropological artefacts.
So when he stumbled upon the Charles Perkins Scholarship - designed to bring Aboriginal people to Oxford University - he saw it as the perfect fit.
''I just thought it would be an awesome opportunity to actually work with the real collection, rather than writing about it from miles away,'' he says. So Thompson embarked on the gruelling task of getting into Oxford. ''My application was 120 pages long,'' he says. ''The actual process of just getting it in; it was sort of a preoccupation for a while.''
Thompson was required to demonstrate his academic qualifications and source letters of recommendation from former colleagues and supervisors around the world. In the end, he made the cut for the Charles Perkins Scholarship and Oxford University.
Today, he straddles the divide between student and professional life. Recent notches in his belt include shortlistings in this year's Blake Prize and the $100,000 Basil Sellers Art Prize. In the past, he has sold works to Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton.
Today, as a resident artist at the Fonderie Darling Studio in Montreal, he flies into Oxford regularly to keep on top of his student duties. Thompson is now studying a collection of photos from Australia's colonial era at the Pitt Rivers Museum. He plans to generate a series of art influenced by this work, which will be shown at the museum for six months.
As with many other students, access to some of the world's greatest minds most attracts Thompson to Oxford. ''It is pretty amazing, the people you have access to,'' he says. ''Really, you could just get lost in the university and go from lecture to lecture.''
Recent callers include the Dalai Lama, Michelle Obama, Ban Ki-moon and Gordon Brown. Connection to power is a prime pulling card for young Australians; it's not uncommon for students to have the enviable opportunity to meet world leaders in an intimate social environment. John Howard dined with 15 Australian doctoral students recently after giving a lecture and a month ago the opposition education spokesman, Christopher Pyne, mingled with 10 Australian Rhodes Scholars at a lunchtime talk on the future of Australian education policy.
In April, Governor-General Quentin Bryce, while in Britain for the royal wedding, popped by to meet 40 Australians. During Bryce's visit, Thompson showed her around Oxford. ''Where else would you get that experience?'' he says of mingling with some of the greatest minds in the world.
Home to the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, Oxford University has had people such as Bill Clinton, Bob Hawke, Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott pass through its halls and has bred British prime ministers David Cameron, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher. But Thompson is not the first to point out the strange eccentricities surrounding the pomp and ceremony. His college, Trinity, as with most at Oxford, requires students to wear academic gowns to dinner each night.
Thompson has also come up against the infamous British-Australian cultural divide.
''I was at one event and I was just talking off the cuff about something that was probably really quite stupid,'' he says.
''And then I sort of realised, 'Oh, actually, this is completely the wrong context for this conversation.' But you don't think that as an Australian - we'll talk about anything anywhere.''
It's not unusual for Australians to find Oxford's rigid social hierarchy confronting. Fellows (lecturers) eat at a higher table than students and are served more courses and better food. They also stroll on patches of turf off limits to students.
''I think you get a formal education but then you kind of get a social education as well that comes from the whole experience of being at Oxford,'' Thompson says.