In Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, a young shepherd leaves his Andalusian village to seek buried treasure in the shadows of the Egyptian pyramids. And though he has only seen the treasure in a dream, the boy sets off across the desert, aided solely by the strangers in his path: an old king, a humble shopkeeper, a scholarly Englishman, and an alchemist. From every chance encounter, the boy gains pearls of wisdom that move him closer to his goal. Says the old king to the boy, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
I had just finished reading The Alchemist when I met with an admissions officer at the University of Oxford’s North American office in Midtown Manhattan. With the king’s words fresh in my memory, I felt destined for greatness, despite the fear that Oxford would reject me. That didn’t happen, but to my disappointment I was waitlisted; an entire year passed before I would board a train, and then a plane, and then a bus and finally step out into the cobbled streets of Oxford—ancient, grey, and a continent away.
No matter. My “personal legend,” as Coehlo calls it, felt closer than ever.
Like the boy, I too would be guided by strangers in my path. First, there was Martina, a cheerful Spaniard who shared my bus ride from Heathrow Airport. “You’re extremely lucky,” she said, sensing my nervousness as the British countryside rushed past my window. “Think of all those people who applied to your program and didn’t get in, even though they were just as qualified as you. Think of all those people who were just as deserving as you, just as driven. It’s a game of chance. The odds were against you. Be grateful.”
She was right. And so with humility I stepped out into a privileged world built by kings and priests, walled off and raised up over a millennium in the pursuit of knowledge and power.
A few days later, it looked as if my housing was going to fall through. Fighting panic, I took to the streets in search of new accommodations. That’s when I met Stuart, a kindly South African and fellow MBA candidate, just outside the Saïd Business School. Upon hearing my situation, he offered me his extra bedroom without blinking an eye. Never mind that he hadn’t asked his girlfriend, with whom he shared the apartment. Never mind that he’d known me a full two minutes. “You’re welcome,” he said warmly. Thankfully, everything worked out. I never had to impose.
There were others: Deniz, who bought me lunch and helped me grasp the complexities of corporate accounting; Michaelanne, who helped me join the mobile platform used by SBS students to stay connected and up to date; Rich, who loaned me his bike when I didn’t yet have one; Igor, Iurii, and Alexey, who took me with them to see Leeds Castle and Canterbury Cathedral one weekend; and an Asian cohort—six young men and women who taught me about life in Japan, China, and Hong Kong over lunch at a nearby Thai restaurant. My chopstick skills have never looked better.
Since my first day inside the business school, I’ve watched my classmates—some 330 MBAs from 60 countries—band together to help one another succeed. They’ve divvied up reading assignments and formed study groups and tutoring sessions. They’ve shared jokes, drinks, encouragement, and advice. They’ve organized dinners, acoustic nights, board game competitions, yoga classes, professional interest groups, weekend getaways, and, yes, even a trek to Everest. Who were these people but strangers just a few months earlier?
Like most of my classmates, I want to think that I belong here, that I deserve to be here after so many years of struggle and sacrifice. But this idea that I didn’t get here on my own still tickles at my cranium, refusing to go away. Without parents, grandparents, mentors, colleagues—even the realtor who helped me sell my house so that I could afford tuition—I’d still be a shepherd back home in Andalusia, to borrow a metaphor. And without the people I’ve met along the way, I’d never have found my footing in Oxford. How could I not feel gratitude?
W. B. Yeats, himself a one-time Oxonian, said, “There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet.” I’ve tried to keep that in mind as my MBA experience unfurls itself. It’s too hard alone; thank goodness for study groups, section buddies, school administrators, and professors.
And what of the protagonist in Coehlo’s story—the boy in the desert? He is waylaid, beaten, robbed of everything he owns, and yet, against all odds, he finds his treasure.
Call it luck. Call it destiny. What has any of us ever achieved alone?Back to top of article