You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

Dear reader, permit me an indulgence. I recently returned from speaking at the inaugural Schwarzman Rhodes Symposium on Public Leadership held at the University of Oxford, where I spent three years studying for a doctorate in the sociology of religion on a Rhodes scholarship. My mind is brimming with reflections on what I learned there, and how those learnings have shaped my life.

This is, therefore, not a typical "Conversations on Diversity" blog post. Still, in a roundabout way, I will touch on themes at the heart of what makes higher education such a magical space for building community and understanding what it means to live a good life.  

One of my first memories of Oxford was attending the ‘Opening Reception for Rhodes Scholars’ at Rhodes House, and being greeted by Lady Kenney, the wife of the Warden (I’ve never quite gotten comfortable with the titles the English seem to be so fond of, but I’ve also discovered there’s no real way to avoid using them either). Lady Kenney shook my hand, noted my accent, and said: “An American? How marvelous. Have you met Bill Clinton? Charming man!”

I was like, “Ummm, my parents own Subway Sandwich stores in Lisle, Illinois. No, I’ve never met Bill Clinton.”

That’s how it felt for me for the first few months at Oxford. It seemed like my fellow Rhodies - at least the ones who had gone to Harvard, Princeton and Yale – all knew at least a dozen people doing graduate work at the University and were on a first name basis with their home state Senators, and probably Bill Clinton, too. The only people I had ever met who had gone to Oxford were the people who interviewed me for the Rhodes. It was very much a ‘from the center to the margins’ experience.

In my head, I knew how unbelievably fortunate I was to be in this position, but my daily experience just felt painfully lonely. Other people seemed to know how to eat sticky toffee pudding, what invitations that read ‘6 for 6:30’ meant, which events required tuxedos. I just felt very brown, and very out of place.

After a while, I became friends with those Ivy League types who seemed to know their way around Oxford and came to realize that what they had really done was master a different skill: overcoming imposter syndrome. A lot of them had grown up professional middle class like I had and had their shock when they went off to elite U.S. universities. They had learned the art of ‘faking it until you make it’, and their talent rubbed off on me. As long as you actually commit to mastering the material along the way, there’s no harm in putting yourself in positions that are beyond you. After all, somebody has to be in those positions, it might as well be you. It’s a lesson that I try to impart to first-generation college students who are asking themselves, ‘Do I belong here?’

While there are many different types of courses at Oxford, the signature pedagogy of the University is the tutorial. A student reads the assigned material, writes a five-page paper, and reads it aloud to a professor, who then proceeds to rip it apart.

I remember my first meeting with my doctoral advisor, Professor Geoffrey Walford. We discussed my research interests, he stroked his chin for a while, then stood up and took a book off of his bookshelf and said, “Read this and come back next Thursday afternoon at 2 pm with a five page paper for me.”

"Just one book?" I thought to myself. I told Geoffrey that surely I could read more than that. He looked at me a bit quizzically and responded, “Why don’t you just read that one more closely?”

That line typifies much of what I have come to call the Oxford approach to life. Why do more when you could do less more carefully. Why go faster when there’s more to learn and enjoy if you go slowly. Why have a one hour dinner when there is so much more conversation over a two hour dinner?

I had come from the part of America where more and faster were always better. My mastery of that model (plus an awful lot of luck) had landed me here, a place that required it for admission and then told you to crumple that whole way of life into a ball and throw it away. 

Perhaps the hardest thing for me was not being at the center. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois I had been a recognized leader across campus, the founder of a half-dozen student clubs, a columnist for the college paper. I couldn’t walk ten steps without bumping into someone that I knew. I enjoyed being at the center. Frankly, I constructed my life so that I could be.

What I didn’t realize at the time was that the only way to be at the center is if the place you occupy is small. Putting yourself at the center, therefore, requires shrinking the world, and that takes energy. At Oxford being at the center wasn’t an option. The University comprises 38 independent colleges and dozens of departments that famously have little to do with one another. After a time, it occurred to me just how much opportunity there was in viewing the world from the sideline. You could put your energy into expanding it rather than making it small. 

I must say the transition was bumpy, but as Oxford didn’t seem up for changing, and as there were no points for going fast, what choice was there except to slow down. Once the downshift was complete, I learned just how much pleasure and wisdom could be found in approaching life at the speed of a walk instead of a jet.    

I read multiple novels a month, I saw three or four concerts/films/plays a week. When I went to London for my ethnographic research, I’d just show up at the Barbican at 7 pm, buy a student ticket and see whatever was on. Any author or public figure that spoke in Oxford – Ali Mazrui, Anita Desai, Wole Soyinka, Shimon Peres, Salman Rushdie, Michael Ignatieff, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Taylor Branch, Martha Nussbaum, Kofi Annan, Peter Gomes – I was in the front row. I treated the walk from my house in the Cowley Road area to lunch at the Covered Market as an event – paying attention to the 15th century buildings I passed along the way. When I ate meals with people, I didn’t rush. Why? The heart of a liberal arts education, and the meaning of being human, is inextricably linked with conversing with others.

American life, at least in the lane that I am in, doesn’t operate like that. Why stay an hour if you can get your work done in ten minutes and then bolt is our approach. I probably read twice as many novels in the three years I was at Oxford than I have in the past fifteen. At Oxford I would see two plays a week, these days I see two plays a year.

But how I treasure that time now that I am in a position of responsibility, running a nonprofit organization that works with five hundred college campuses on interfaith programs. How I rely on the lessons of the novels I read, the speakers I saw, the conversations that lingered. Everybody needs a well of wisdom from which to drink, and mine is filled with the waters of my slow-life at Oxford. 

Next Story

Written By