JJ van de Vyver




South Africa


Management Consulting



By JJ van de Vyver

Look up, look around and look ahead

The Saïd Business School 2018-19 MBA cohort gathered at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford to celebrate the End of Course Ceremony in the first week of September 2019. In the company of family, friends and loved ones, and presided over by members of the school staff and faculty, the morning marked the end of the year-long journey of over 300 remarkable individuals.

Tanya Aritao and I were privileged to be asked to share “A view from the class”, a piece that followed beautiful addresses by Dean Peter Tufano and faculty member Dr Marc Szepan. Below are our speaking notes and photos from the graceful morning (there is also a video recording at the bottom for those who prefer to watch the piece).

Part 1 | JJ van de Vyver

Good morning to you all: celebrated students, members of the school staff and faculty, family, friends, loved ones – welcome to our community.

355 days ago, on the 17th of September 2018, 313 individuals from 62 countries stepped through the glass doors of Saïd Business School for the first time to become MBA students at the University of Oxford.

Today, the 7th of September 2019, we are seated together as Oxford students for the last time. When we walk through the wooden doors of the Sheldonian, we mark the end of one chapter andthe beginning of the next.

Now that is hectic.

What does it mean to be a student at Oxford? What does it mean to be an MBA graduate? What do the last 355 days mean? What does this room of people mean? What does this moment mean – to you?

The year was filled with many moments – grains of sand tumbling through the hourglass of time. Cold morning walks across the cobblestones on the way to school; the sound of chatter near the lockers between classes; looking around a lecture theatre filled with faces and bright nametags; the sound of bells in the bustling heart of Oxford; your first steps into a dining hall for a formal dinner; a quiet walk alongside the sleepy canals; the dark, dark windows at quarter-to-five in the endless winter; a speaker that made you sit up to get a little closer to their insights; putting on sub-fusc for an examination; submitting your final assignment; a time you felt you’d made a mistake in coming here; a time you knew you were right where you were supposed to be.

How do we navigate among these infinite moments and memories? How do we know whether we’ve moved forwards or backwards? The hint is all around us, in the reaching spires of this special town. From a good vantage point, you might see the Radcliff Camera, University Church, Tom Tower, Magdalen Tower, Exeter College Chapel, and many more. They all reach up towards the sky, pointing to the stars and to the place of our dreams. The greatest heights we can imagine for ourselves, for each other and for the world that we inhabit. Far beyond our individual moments here are burning balls of light so far away you can always refer to them to know where you are. And like a star-filled sky, if our dreams can light the way, perhaps we can walk a path of meaning.

Every person here has walked an individual path this year. Leaving old roles, finding new work. Giving life, losing a loved one. Ending relationships, beginning new love. Some would close the SBS library, others would close Hanks. Some preferred large gatherings, others preferred silent strolls. Some found clarity, and others found new questions. While wondering all of these Oxford pathways, corridors and ancient halls, we have learnt many things. About the world. And maybe more importantly, about ourselves.

My hope for our MBA class is that our dreams shine a little more clearly with our knowledge of self. And that, when we lose our path in the dead of night, we might look up and remember what we saw when we were free to dream.

As you decide what this year means to you, make wise choices. Today is not the end, but the beginning of our MBA journey together. We need not have regrets, only lessons that we take away with us. And we need not fear uncertainty – for there is opportunity ahead.

So, what does this moment mean? Well, like all things in the MBA, it depends.

There is a poem, by a legendary Oxonian who once walked these streets dreaming of hobbits, dragons and magical rings. As you step out of those doors and begin your new adventure, led by the stars of your dreams, it is worth remembering that:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Good morning to you all, and welcome to our community.

Part 2 | Tanya Aritao

Dear class, it’s good to see you. It’s good to see us here together, today.

Look around. Let us look at each other.

How incredibly privileged we are to sit where we sit, to celebrate as we celebrate, the year we have spent, endured, loved, dreamed of – at the University of Oxford. and the legacy of carrying this institution’s name. What an honor to be able to dream.

Many things will blur with the passing of time and memory, with the coming of new opportunities and new seasons. But today, we turn a page together.

We may not have recognized this during the dips and rises, the stumbles and twists of the journey – but we have been to each other, not just classmates and colleagues – but travel partner, study buddy, happy hour mate… also team mate, cheerleader, inspiration, challenger, ally, friend.

Here today in our class, is someone you have called in the shadows of winter, when you felt stuck, misplaced or just plain sick of the cold. Someone you called and who listened, when you were feeling unheard.

Here today in our class, is someone who has helped you carry your load – whether that was a project, an idea, or shreds of hard news in the middle of a hectic term.

Here today, is someone you have shared with – shared your lecture notes, your two-for-one happy hour drinks, your coffee credits, your home, your story, your secrets, your failures, your hopes.

Here today, is someone who has cheered you on, to wake you up for that morning run, to persist through one more hour in the library, to stay for just one more drink at the Oxford Retreat, someone who cheered you on to take the risk to apply to a job, to have the courage to turn down an opportunity or to bravely face a hard conversation, or to pick yourself up and try one more time.

Examine your spirit, your mind, your heart, and we will find that parts of us have toughened up, others softened, other parts bruised or still healing.

For some of us this year was a game changing year, transformative, the most special year yet. For some, it was good, it was different, it was fun. For others, this is the year we faced our biggest doubts and insecurities. For some – here in Oxford – we went to battle with our greatest fears.

Honour your journey. And honour one another’s.

Whether smooth sailing or stormy, full of laborious uphill climbs, scary tumbles down thorn-filled slopes, or calm, steady breathing, be grateful for your journey and honour the way you have travelled it.

We walk out of here today, together, with much to treasure, and much to be proud of.

Now let us look around again. Outside of our circle on the floor. We are surrounded by our school – our professors, the faculty, staff and leadership of the Said Business School, representing a larger team that has supported us through the year, many of whom work in the background and in spaces we do not see. From the admissions team that read our applications, the IT team that assigned us all of our many, many Oxford log-ins, the cleaning staff that get all our lecture halls ready for each day and the many other hands and minds and hearts that make up our school. To all of you, we thank you.

Now let us look around once more, but even farther out. Our guests, our families and friends – those present and those that celebrate us from far away – from the 62 countries from where we have journeyed and all the places we’ve called home. The community that has lifted each of us up, to bring us to this moment and beyond. Not one of us has made it to this day on our own. To you who have prepared our way forward, who stayed behind or who moved, who made sacrifices, who gave gifts, and who have stayed steadfast – to our community that embraces us, circling the world around, we thank you.

Now let us look ahead. Look at the days and years to come.

My hope for our MBA class is that we use our strength to serve.

“Strength is for service, not status,” says a passage from the book of Romans.

We will find ourselves in moments of strength. My hope for us is to find the ways our strength can serve another – family, friend, colleague or stranger. As we know, but easily forget or deny, our strength on its own can only carry us so far. Remember this beautiful community that has brought us here.

When you find yourself in moments of weakness, remember this class and know that you can draw from our collective strength. Somewhere in this class is a friend who will humbly offer the support you need, support that we will all need in the journey that lies ahead. Whether a word of comfort in a trying time, a warm welcome into a strange city, or the counsel to lead you to your next big opportunity – let us commit today, to show up for one another. And without casting judgment, let us show up to strengthen each other.

As we walk out of the Sheldonian Theatre, as thousands of students have before, choose to set this day apart from the rest – choose to look up, look around and look ahead.

My dear class, it’s good to see you. It’s good to be here, together, today.

Video recording: “A view from the class”

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