Thursday, December 16, 2010


Did Oxford really happen? These last few days, it's almost felt like a dream. I have nothing here that anchors me to the faraway, cold-and-misty world of the UK, nothing except my photographs and souvenirs and memories. Already it's been far too easy to slip back into old routines and old pastimes. But yet, one can't experience such an experience-packed three months as I did without emerging with some reflections. "Real" life continues (if this is indeed real), and I have nothing more to report on the abroad experience, so I'd like to wrap up this blog with a few thoughts about what I got out of Oxford.

Did the experience live up to my expectations?

Yes, more than. I admit, the decision to go abroad was a somewhat complicated one, so I tried to go in with few or no expectations. It was so unlike anything I'd ever done before, and so the stepping-out-of-my-comfort-zone part of the quarter made for many experiences that knocked me over with their novelty and beauty. I learned and discovered so much (as I'll discuss later in this post), and that in itself was what I had hoped would happen. Looking back, it was really what I needed at the time. I had fallen into something of a funk at Stanford and needed to get away, needed to change my routine, needed a fresh dose of perspective. These past six months - not just Oxford, but the summer that preceded my quarter abroad - have accomplished all of those things. I doubt I've ever experienced so many new things within a comparable timeframe, and I'm hoping that my sense of optimism, bravery, and proper proportion stays with me even as I return to the Stanford grind.

Are there things I regret, areas where living abroad fell short? Anything I would change?

My biggest regret is something that I can't change: I wish I could have understood the British accents better. I wish communication hadn't been so frustrating at times. Yet this is an issue I face in my everyday life, even when I'm not in the UK, so it's hard to single it out here. If anything, I guess it keeps reinforcing the importance of resilience and a good sense of humor. Anyway, it's not like I didn't expect this obstacle, and it really wasn't any more overwhelming than I had anticipated.

A few other small regrets: I wish I'd been able to see horses more often (and hadn't abandoned my own horse for three months), I wish I hadn't missed out on those weeks in my friends' lives. The whole overseas experience, though, was more than worth it. And, as I'm finding out now that I'm home, horses and true friends are always there, even if you slip offstage for a little while. No big deal - and a bonus is that we now have more to talk about with each other!

As for England itself: totally amazing, despite the weather and sometimes questionable food. I already miss its aura of discovery.

What are the biggest things I learned?

In a word, independence. The world opened up to me, and I found myself suddenly experiencing it, rather than only reading about it (though I did do a lot of reading!). Every event, every concept in the history of the world has arisen in a specific place, time, and context, and I felt like this truth kept hitting me head-on as I traveled England and other parts of Europe. I placed myself out of my familiar context and liberated myself to go and discover different things. History and art and culture, among other aspects of the human condition, became more real to me - and, what's more, I became more real to myself. I learned that I can be and do more things than I might have expected. I am more flexible and more capable than I could have imagined, and I am up to the challenge in a range of unfamiliar situations.

I learned to have an open mind. The sheer size of the world kept impressing me, as well as the number of people in it. If one option or situation doesn't work out, there's always another. Likewise, there are always ideas and beliefs and possibilities out there that I haven't considered. Life should be a continuous learning experience. This vastness of knowledge, possibility, and experience can be intimidating (and sometimes was for me!), but at the same time people are less dissimilar than we sometimes think - which is in itself reassuring.

When there was something that I wanted to see or experience, I learned how to go for it. My time abroad was so short, what else was there to do? From the start, I realized I might never have those opportunities again, and I feel like I succeeded in making the most of the time I had. I wanted to see Stonehenge; I made it work; I saw Stonehenge. How empowering. Now, what would happen if I applied the same mindset not only to my travels, but to my "normal" life as well? Not in a selfish way, of course, but grasping the reality that the only time we have to realize our goals and dreams is now.

In that vein, I also learned about my own personal characteristics. I understood my own abilities better, and learned to come to better terms with (while still not stagnating in) my own limitations. Situations that work for other people might not work for me, and I learned how to be more okay with that, seeking the friends and opportunities that set me (and others) up for success. I learned about the types of people I best like and communicate with, while discovering that this set might not be as limited as I might once have thought. All in all, I learned how to be a better friend to myself, something that I think helps us to be better friends to other people. I learned to better appreciate and utilize my daily "alone time" with myself. In testing myself in a range of different situations, and trying on different possibilities to see how they fit, I came to a more cohesive and more contented idea of my own identity.

What are my fondest memories?

Getting off the bus and seeing Oxford for the first time. Feeling like I was whirling around and around and still not taking it all in. Ditto for Paris, especially the moment when I turned around on a street and - wham - saw the Eiffel Tower looming right there.

Ditto (again) for the first time I saw Stonehenge, Canterbury, the cliffs of Dover, and other such places. Realizing that the photographs could never, never do them justice.

The first time I played polo, out on a huge grassy field surrounded by hills and fall colors, feeling the level strides of the horse under me, even while steaming in the pouring rain.

Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, Bath, the Soane Museum. Ah, architecture.

Visiting Cambridge on a sun-dappled day, snapping pictures and hardly believing that England could be so colorful and gorgeous.

Touring through London's royal parks and people-watching. Becoming an expert on the workings of the London underground. Also, becoming a museum junkie.

Visiting Notting Hill and other quirky London streets.


Attending formal hall at Corpus with some friends, buying wine as we walked in, then sitting around the lamplit table talking about books and complaining about British food.

Afternoon tea. Every day. With milk and scones. Especially fruit scones. Yum.

That sweet moment each week when my tutorial paper was actually done.

Impromptu conversations in the kitchen at the Stanford house, in which I realized just how fascinating and smart my peers are.

Getting lost in the Stanford house. Or climbing too many stairs, or walking so much that I was sore the next day.

Arriving at the library before anyone else on a Saturday morning, breathing in the wood-and-old-books smell and feeling relieved that no passersby were around to make the ancient floorboards creak.

Walking through the fog (or rain, or snow, or just plain cold) at Oxford, shivering but also hardly daring to believe that I was lucky enough to spend so much time in this place.

There are really too many to list.

What's next?

I come back from Oxford with a renewed sense of possibility, which I hope I do not lose as I return to Stanford. In being suffused with British-isms for so long, so many American-isms now seem a bit foreign or strange, and I feel like I'm looking at things more objectively, with more of a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. I hope this objectivity stays with me as well, and reminds me (once again) that the world is much larger than this tiny little cube in which I subsist.

Now I'd like to travel more, of course, but I also better appreciate the value of home and of settling into an environment that suits me well. In the end, what I hope Oxford has given me is the worldview and the courage to go out and keep experimenting with all those possibilities, places, and forms of knowledge, so that I can truly justify that I am leading a life that suits me, but also allows me to add as much value to the surrounding world as possible.

It's hard to sum up three months in so few words, but fortunately the journey does continue. And so I wrap up this blog - here's to what life holds down the road!

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