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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"I came to Oxford and now all I do is sit in my room and study all day," say Sachin and Josh

Whoosh from the cloisters of New College, where Sachin and Josh are members. (You may recognize it as the place Mad-Eye Moody turned Malfoy into a ferret in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.)

It’s been almost a month now since Sachin and I left our friends at beautiful Brunnenburg Castle and made our way from the Italian Alps to the green pastures of Oxford University. After a couple of days of thunderstorms, missed trains, and general difficulties, we found our respective tiny, shabby flats in the heart of the city. The weather was chilly and grey. We had a week to explore the campus, check out the town, get inducted into our College (sort of like a House at Hogwarts), and get ready for class to start.

It didn’t take us long to find out that there are really two Oxfords. There is the Oxford thousands of tourists see every day – cramped, crowded, old, and dreary. It is an Oxford of fast food and souvenir shops, with nothing real to see but the antique stone walls of closed colleges and libraries. The other Oxford, however, is a different thing entirely. When you become a member of a College here, you enter a world of absurdly idyllic, peaceful, walled off courtyards and gardens, of hidden, back-alley pubs and local bookstores. The college we belong to, the New College of St. Mary, or just New College, is actually one of the oldest colleges here, founded in 1379. It was used as a filming location for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Tomorrow Never Dies. Parts of our Chapel were copied for use in Canterbury Cathedral. A segment of the original city wall, over a thousand years old, runs through our campus, and has been maintained by New College in perfect order for over seven centuries.

The first few days at Oxford were great. They were full of exploration, excitement, good food, and new friends. Then, in a catastrophic turn of events, classes started.

Sachin came here to study the economics of healthcare, and I wanted to familiarize myself with English novels and poetry. What we knew, but didn’t quite understand yet, was that Oxford courses are different from courses at American universities. Oxford is built upon the idea of the tutorial – an intense one-on-one co-exploration of a subject by a student and a professor. It isn’t a class so much as a collaboration. Sachin and I both came out of our first meeting with our professors amazed by two things. First, we were astounded by the expertise of our tutors. They are unbelievably knowledgeable – true leaders in their fields. The second thing that amazed us was the sheer amount of work we had gotten ourselves into!

I am reading over a thousand pages a week of literary works and their relevant criticisms. Sachin, in addition to his tutorial, has been tossed into a more traditional class his professor was already teaching on public economics. We now spend the vast majority of our time reading, writing, and talking to our tutors. Sachin and I try and get together once a day or so for dinner or ice cream, just as a way to get up and move around for a while. We are neck-deep in the most difficult academic work we have ever attempted. We have never covered so much complex information, in such detail, in so little time. But we have learned an incredible amount.

Sachin has written on theoretical reasons for redistribution of wealth and why charity doesn't work. He’s written on smoking as an economic externality and how smokers may actually, quite perversely, help society by dying earlier and not taking pension benefits. And he’s currently in the process of writing about the US healthcare system. He is studying the theory behind how healthcare should be provided in an ideal community, comparing the US system to those of the UK and Canada and France and Norway, and examining the pros and cons of Obamacare. He and his tutor are putting together ideas on how healthcare in America can be improved.

I have written on Defoe’s precise use of nonstandard capitalization to develop narrative voice and regulate pace and tempo in his novels. I’ve written on the 18th century literary debate between the ancients and the moderns – the “battle of the books” – and how Alexander Pope’s mock-epic poem The Dunciad can be read as a comment on the direction of literature in his age. And now I’m in the middle of examining the complex relationship between ideas of eloquence, knowledge, and evil in Milton’s Paradise Lost. All throughout my explorations, I am studying an overarching theme of density and pacing in British literature, and trying to tie it to ideas of the urban, the industrial, and the imperial.

It is difficult, as the four-inch-thick book I must continue reading after I finish this post stares at me from my desktop, to truly say that we are having a fun time here. Particularly after we spent last month living in a castle and having tea with a Princess. Here, we barely see the light of day. We live on Nando’s chicken and Kinder chocolate. Our academics are our lives. So it is hard to say we are having fun. But we will both say that this is an incredible experience, and we wouldn’t trade it for the world.

The places built upon that which matters most

From left: Elizabeth, Julia, myself, Eric, Jackie, Jason, and Christianna. The Cuatro Estaciones (Four Seasons) Restaurant. Tuesday, July 26th, 2011. It's only fitting that I'm tucked away in the corner. I am defined by my relationships with others, and on that night, I don't think I could have picked a finer bunch to be defined by. It's been only a little over 24 hours since this photo was taken, but I already miss you all more than I can compose with words. One day, we'll all go back. One day.

This entry will not be about a place. You see, despite my past six weeks in Spain, my brief and beautiful weekend in Italy, and my current status of nursing a cold with Fanta and take-out Chinese in gloriously grey Dublin, today those places bear only marginal personal import. In addition, there’s a strong chance that if you dig well enough through this blog, you’ll find several other entries about the same-ish adventures in the same-ish places scattered about the continent. So instead, I’ll write what most likely has been thought and felt by my fellow Scholars but only mentioned at times.

Today was rough.

It was the last day of my program with the Fundación Ortega y Gasset in Toledo, Spain. I was the only UTD student as part of a small contingent of other solo students with Arcadia University. The rest were large groups from Ohio State, Notre Dame, and The University of Minnesota. I lived within Fundación itself: the convent San Juan de la Penitencia reconverted into a dormitory/classroom building. Living and learning within “The Fúnd” (pronounced “foond”) gave me a taste of dorm life I never had at UTD. And within there and through other students who lived with host families, I developed friendships that are infinitely more valuable than any gilded locale of antiquity.

It’s pretty obvious, but what makes any place a home, regardless of the language spoken, are the people there. You see, Toledo is a beautiful city. It really is. It sits on a high rocky hill surrounded on three sides by the Tagus River and is postcard worthy from any angle at any time of the day. The perilously narrow and steep cobblestone streets challenge tourists and taxis alike, and even with the canopies and cleverly designed curving streets, the Spanish sun can still make it feel as if one never left Richardson. There’s lots of culture, art, and history. El Greco, swords, and marzipan are big deals here. But in all honesty, Toledo merits a long weekend trip from Madrid at most. It became surprisingly predictable after a week or two.

However, Toledo merits a special place in my heart because of the people I met there. I’m not particularly religious, but I can’t help but feel that some (non-Tarantino) divine intervention was at work during my time there. I expected to make friends and have a good time, but I didn’t expect just how close some of us would become. It worked counter to all my other friendships built upon time much longer and experiences more difficult. It happened in just six weeks. But it worked. And I can’t help but feel indescribably blessed by the people – not the places, food, nor tours – I have been given. Indeed it is my experiences with those people that are the most important part of my time in Spain.

It was by having breakfast early on that first Saturday that I went on my first run with Jackie. It was a chance encounter that would help me find a new running partner, but by the end of our last run, help me find a true friend when I needed one most. It was through playing cards the second afternoon that I met Jason, a young man who served as more than just a font of free laundry supplies but also as a measure of how far I’ve come in three years and how much I still have to go. It was by playing ninja in the lobby that I met Christianna, a young lady wise well beyond her years, with whom I shared precious conversations on her balcony about life, love, swing dance, and God. It was through buying a pesky red wristband and touring too many Toledan churches that I met Julia, our unofficial “líder” whose mind is as sharp as the sword she’s bringing home, and Elizabeth, the tall gentle beauty (who’s not actually 25 and from Australia) with whom I shared a passion for art and tasty food in Italy. It was through something random that I met Dickson, a manic of a man who rivals some of the people I know at UTD in bluntness and hilarity. It was through random musing about Onomatopoeia and flash mobs that I met Viktoria. It was through just sitting down at lunch with two new dudes that I met Lonnie and Sarvesh, two glorious gentlemen that taught me how to plank, made me speak Spanish during mealtimes, and gave a weekend in Italy to remember forever.

Indeed it was chance encounters with the above and so many other wonderful people that makes me feel even more blessed when I reflect upon how strong of friendships we have cultivated in so short a time. If there’s anything to be learned from this it’s that the scenery of a study abroad location is just that: scenery. The cast is the focus and should be. It is the lifelong friendships I’ve made here that inspire me to write as tangentially and cheesily as I have. Places like the Alhambra and Venice will be around for a while, hundreds or even thousands of years in some cases. People won’t. It’s precisely why they’re that much more precious, more deserving of space on this blog than whatever shiny old thing I saw in some overpriced city.

Today was rough. We had to leave at 5:30 for the Madrid airport and this did not allow for the most ideal of goodbyes. Viktoria and I learned the hard way that one cannot travel between terminals, even after check-in, even if it’s just to see dear friends off. I then had to go by myself to here in Dublin, where the grey skies reflect my sense of melancholy after departing sunny Spain and the friends I had there. I already really miss them, even though some are still within transit in the US.

But I know that one shouldn’t be sad that something is over and instead be happy that it actually happened. I think Dr. Seuss said that. I feel nostalgia in the most bittersweet and painful sense, and when I finally return home to the United States, it’ll hit me harder than today that I’m not quite sure if and when I’ll see mis queridos amigos de Toledo. It’ll hit hard when I actually stop procrastinating and upload all the photos I’ve taken in the past month.

But for now, I’ll upload the one that graces the bottom of this entry. It’s of several of us on our last night, having a nice last supper as former strangers, now lifelong friends. I have no idea when we’ll ever take that photo ever again. But I have faith it will. Somehow. Some way. Some day. For now, as much as I look forward to my planned trips through Ireland, London, and Scotland, I’m even looking even more forward to the days when I can travel to Columbus, Ohio; Notre Dame, Indiana; and Minneapolis, Minnesota. And of course, I look forward to returning to Fort Worth and Richardson. These aren’t places built upon cobblestone and gold, nor grand history and culture. These are places that are built upon that which matters most. These are places that are built upon friendship and upon love.