Reflections on Oxford, Nine Months Later

I find that I sometimes write best in airports, on airplanes, or in transit, especially when I am traveling long distances alone. I’m not sure why this is: I suspect something about witnessing landscape and people, about the transient state of being and reflection that travel brings, prompts me to write.

So, under these circumstances, it seems apt to take this time, during a bout of transatlantic travel, to reflect on where I’ve been and where I am going. I am currently en route to spend a few weeks back at Oxford and in the UK, to “officially” (and finally!) graduate from my MSc program in Higher Education from last year – but also to pay the place and some dear friends another visit and get a greater sense of closure. I’ve been away from Oxford for almost a year now, and am still reflecting on the place, what it means to me and to others, and how it remains with me. The opportunity to spend two years there was something that changed me in ways I am still discovering – and it was also an experience that felt extraordinarily strange and difficult to return from. Oxford feels not quite like anywhere else, like a sliver of time disjointedly excerpted from the past but still stirringly present, a location outside of ordinary time and place, as it were. (This is something that warrants a longer essay or longer piece of writing, once I can get to it.) Going from being an American expat, to being an American once again, and experiencing my bit of reverse culture shock and also of readjustment and that feeling of time marching onward, into new places and new experiences, has made for a bit of an emotionally topsy-turvy year. In the midst of it all, though, I’m thankful.

Attending Oxford was something I, a couple of years ago, would never have thought I’d do. Living abroad, period, was something I would never have anticipated. So, without further ado, here’s a scattered list of lessons I learned from Oxford:

·      Always be curious. Embrace the extraordinary. Embrace the ordinary, too, and find how that, in itself, can also be extraordinary.

·      You can often learn much, much more from deep and thoughtful conversations with your friends than you can from sitting in class.

·      Recognizing who your friends are, and investing in them, is better than maintaining only a network of superficial interactions.

·      In order to have better conversations and connect with other interesting people, think about how to ask better questions. Follow up. Listen. Be free to wonder. Embrace unexpected thoughts.

·      The people with whom you can give voice to your weirdest, most intense and absurd thoughts are likely the people with whom you will be lasting friends.

·      Travel teaches you about yourself. It teaches you a heck of a lot about other people, too. Some travel experiences can, and will, create lasting ties.

·      It is possible to run back to your room from a day of studying, throw down your stuff, and get ready for a black-tie formal dinner in less than 10 minutes. No sweat.

·      When asked to step into spaces that feel fancier, or more intimidating, than anywhere else you’ve been before, just try. Stepping into a sense of self-assurance doesn’t happen overnight, but it starts with believing that you, like everyone else, are a work in progress and will grow eventually.

·      Even other extremely smart, impressive people are just that – people. Recognize that. Moreover, recognize that everyone has something valuable and interesting to offer.

·      Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something and try to learn from those who do. Keep asking questions, even about things that seem wildly outside your area of expertise. Resist the fear of “looking stupid.” Everyone has this fear.

·      Surround yourself with people who don’t take themselves too seriously. Don’t take yourself too seriously, either. But do be serious about the right things, and recognize that in others.

·      Embrace joy, even (or especially) in the small things.

·      When you want to make change in your immediate environment, do it. When you want your friends to learn sign or communicate differently, ask them! Don’t be afraid to be your fullest self, even if that means uncomfortable self-disclosure.

·      It is okay to ask your friends for help or to recognize when you are having a hard time and need a hand. Unexpected benefits, or new relationships, can arise from the midst of struggle.

·      Don’t forget where you came from, and don’t forget those who helped you get from A to B. A nudge from one other person can change a life.

·      Be spontaneous, more than you might be naturally inclined to otherwise. Embrace new opportunities and new places. Recognize when you might not be able to do something again, and make the most of it as a learning experience.

·      You never lose anything by putting yourself out there, submitting your work, applying for something, or talking about a new idea. Success may not immediately follow – but, why not? There’s always tomorrow.

·      If something seems interesting to you, show up and go for it. Don’t let accessibility or “will there be ASL interpreters?” be an excuse not to do things. It is often possible – yes, sometimes with a cost – to figure things out.

·      Conversely, recognize when something is too much of an energy investment, or when something will not work out. It is okay to say no, okay to go your own way. Some things are not meant to be, and that is fine.

·      Recognize how institutions (even old, ridiculously venerated ones like Oxford) are not perfect. Resist their glamour and their brand. Work to change them anyway, but still take care of yourself.

·      When faced with entrenched resistance to change, such as change for accessibility practices, advocate for yourself anyway. Find the people to support you. They are out there, and they will.

·      If you’re the first deaf person to do XYZ, so what? Go do it anyway.

·      Work hard and be responsible and think about what matters, but still, sometimes: dance. Go out to a pub and stay up late. Talk. Say yes to wild ideas (but remember how to say no, too). Engage with others you don’t understand or agree with. Try out their ideas, and try out yours too. This is sometimes how you figure things out.

The list goes on. I am still discovering how these insights, and more, continue to impact my life and change how I interact with the world, even in places far from the Dreaming Spires. See you very soon, Oxford!