As I reflect on the past year as an MBA student at Oxford University, I am reminded of the following haiku:
The world of dew,
is the world of dew.
And yet, and yet –
– Kobayashi Isa
Isa recognized the fact that, although he knew and fully understood that life and experiences are ephemeral, there somehow remained inexplicable permanence to his emotions. In his case, he could not reconcile the fortitude of his seemingly permanent feelings for a recently deceased daughter with his comprehension of the transient nature of life.
In my case, I arrived in Oxford fully knowing the year would be finite, exquisite, and chaotic, and yet, now that it’s over, there is a void where once there was anticipation. Although I am often quick to gloss over loss and change, I also believe there is value in the recognition of a tangible and natural conclusion.
Lately, I have been thinking back on what distinguished the experience. From formal black tie college dinners in ornate dining halls, to canal strolls and moonlit bike rides through the woods, to Union debates, pickup basketball and my first games of cricket, to barbeques and potlucks, morning brunches and afternoon teas, Port Meadow jogs, bonfires and starry nights, whiskey-filled soirees, and ‘Pimms and croquet’ garden parties. Yes, I also still attended (most of) my classes with intelligent, supportive and motivated peers and professors from within the business school and across the University.
When I first arrived in Oxford, everyone kept reiterating a simple, arguably cultish statement: “it’s a special place.” I didn’t understand. Having lived in various cities for the last ten years, I was initially claustrophobic; I spent almost every weekend first term in London. And then, all of a sudden, the allure swept over me like a spell: cafés revealed themselves as quaintly charming, libraries as historic institutions of knowledge, dining cafeterias as grandiose halls (now, best known for Harry Potter film scenes), lawns as meticulously kept landscapes, and colleges as residences for infamous ghosts of the past. In the fields and meadows, I began to notice the mist as it whispered across the weeds and caressed gently grazing horses. On brisk nights, I noticed the clarity of the constellations above. Pastel townhouses beckoned pedestrians down their dreary lanes and ancient pubs lured me to duck inside where fireplaces crackled with winter warmth and friends adorned velvet booths. In short, Oxford transformed to what it had been for so many before me: a place of respite, of thought, of pints and laughter, of debate and conference and, most of all, of comfort. Oxford became home.
Over the recent graduation weekend, I reflected with friends on the best moments of the year: pan-European weekend excursions, bonfires and snowflakes in meadows, punting along canals, boat races, and black tie extravaganzas. Educational opportunities, both in classrooms and across the broader University at conferences, topped our lists as well. Moments that we all seek so fervently in our lives seem to abound here — moments where we feel alive and engaged physically, emotionally and intellectually.
Yes, we all have our quibbles and could replace platitudes with complaints about certain aspects of life in Oxford and at business school, but as we left, those sentiments subsided. In hindsight, nine hour a day classes followed by back-to-back (to back) study group meetings were acceptable. Examinations in sub-fusc (basically, black tie with a heroic cape), although ridiculous, became steeped in tradition. The business school, and Oxford at large, began to evoke a new feeling: nostalgia.
On the final evening of the year, as sanctioned graduation festivities of the weekend subsided, partygoers trickled from a glamorous, red-carpeted marquee and toward a signature downtown club where the class of ’15 clung to the night’s escapades in one last desperate youthful stand. Dancing until the early morning, the lights came on, the music subsided, and one thing remained: no one wanted to leave.
Oxford is a special place. The city and University have the uncanny ability to simultaneously gnaw at your ambitions while encouraging your wildest dreams. With nine hundred years of historic beauty and enchantment, Oxford draws onlookers in, like a mythological Siren, beckoning with promises of eternal youth and a stagnant permanence in the face of a rapidly changing world. Despite this complacent predisposition, Oxford also represents a platform to display global issues, challenges and opportunities, not only through the business school, but also through guest speakers, Union debates and constant cross-disciplinary learning opportunities (the Oxford Martin School).
As active participants of the external world constantly come to call on pupils of the institution and we, as students, seek to find our place amongst the existing challenges and opportunities, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. Due to the breadth of exposure, a logical conclusion would be that, surely, every global issue is not solvable. While it can be frustrating to be presented with so many challenges and asked to think of them as opportunities, particularly in a business context, I find hope among my peers’ endeavors. As they head off to their literal corners of the world to apply business solutions to healthcare, education, agriculture, climate change, hygienic sanitation, off-grid energy, infrastructure finance, sustainable fashion, or to determine what the best next step is, I am impressed with their courage. While I contemplate my next steps, having been presented with what seems like an insurmountable list of global challenges over the past year, I admire and respect their determination and decisiveness. Their commitment reiterates and underscores another inspiring phrase:
“Can we rely on it that a ‘turning around’ will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but whatever answer is given to it will mislead. The answer ‘Yes’ would lead to complacency; the answer ‘No’ to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.”
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– E.F. Schumacher