How garbage led me to Oxford

4 minute read

My journey to Oxford started with an experience I never should have had.

It was 2014, and I was a year away from completing my undergrad at Brigham Young University (BYU) in Utah, USA. Two friends invited me to join them on a summer study-abroad programme at the University of Cambridge. I flatly said no. It wouldn’t work for me. I had other, more practical summer plans like, you know, working.

Then late one night, things began to click. Through what I believe was inspiration from God, my mind put together how the study abroad just might work. It wasn’t practical but it felt right. Things came together with the application, and a few months later I joined my friends for a summer in Cambridge. I’m grateful I did. The experience I nearly missed out on changed my path for good.

My summer research in Cambridge was originally focused on commercial sales strategies (boring). The first few weeks yielded zero progress, given my utter inability to talk business with my humanities-background supervisor. Then one night I spoke with a close friend who had just returned from a summer in Ghana. He knew of my strong interest in waste and recycling. 'Ryan,' he said. 'You need to look into the waste situation in Ghana. It’s a huge problem.' His words resonated and, within 24 hours, I had a new supervision topic, a new supervisor named Ransford (a Ghanaian PhD student researching urban development), and a new fiery passion to learn about trash.

As my research on waste in developing countries concluded, Ransford encouraged me to travel to Ghana to experience the challenges myself. His invitation struck a chord. Although it took me a few years and seemed a diversion from a normal career path, eventually I made it: in 2018, my wife and I, along with our six-month-old boy, moved to Ghana to research garbage on a nine-month US Fulbright Fellowship.

We fell in love with Ghana – the people, the culture and the kindness. I also fell in love with the problem of waste in inner cities. Every day was focused on understanding why people dispose of waste the way they do, and how a solution might be designed to prevent waste pollution. What I learned surprised me in so many ways. This is a solvable issue! It’s a wicked hard problem, and definitely not solved by importing Western approaches to waste management, but solvable. People care passionately about their surroundings and how waste is managed. The problem became deeply meaningful to me, and my resolve to create solutions grew.

After the fellowship ended, my attempts to immediately return to Ghana to start a company fell through. Instead, I got a job and began exploring business schools. I searched for any school I could find with an environmental focus or with a joint degree related to sustainability. Very few exist. Oxford’s 1+1 MBA with an environmental degree from the world’s top School of Geography was immediately appealing. This would be two degrees in two years, allowing for deep environmental specialisation. It had a diverse, international student body, with immensely talented African classmates. There was a strong focus on social entrepreneurship and sustainability. Add to that the remote possibility of a scholarship for people who want to change the world, and I was sold. I applied to Oxford and nowhere else.

And, I was rejected. The environmental MSc programme I applied to said no. This was devastating...until Covid-19 shut the world down two weeks later. This allowed me an extra year of work experience and a chance to apply for the inaugural year of a brand-new MSc Programme in Sustainability, Enterprise, and the Environment. The countless hours I put into my applications somehow paid off, and now I’m here in Oxford, with my lovely wife and two kids, plus a third on the way.

Despite an atypical early career, my journey helped me discover what matters to me: helping people live clean and dignified lives. I am grateful for the friends and mentors who invited me to take the road less travelled; I never expected it to lead here. The Oxford community is filled with good, inspiring people who dream big, and I am delighted to learn from and alongside them over the next two years.

Ryan is an Oxford 1+1 MBA Pershing Square Scholar.