This photo, snapped in a flash of a second, took years in the making. The men and women captured in the stillness of this frame made moves from across the globe. A dizzying array of separate journeys collided at Balliol College, at the University of Oxford, sometime in the early part of that year called 2020.
I recently organised a brunch gathering for a group of classmates who balance busy schedules with a litany of family and work commitments. It took several weeks with circular messages and reminders to convert the brunch from idea to reality. In the process, I learned more about my classmates’ family commitments, which included tennis lessons or play recitals for the kids, date nights with loved ones, work travel, and completion of a major fundraising round. Suffice to say that our lives are dense. It made me wonder if I would have met any of these wonderful people seated across from me at brunch if it wasn’t for Saïd Business School – chances are quite slim, I suspect. This is because, despite my extensive travels, making a connection with someone takes time – a resource running exceedingly scarce in our tech-savvy world.
Seated silently in anticipation for my name to be called inside the Sheldonian Theatre, I noticed the rays of sun illuminating the centuries-old art and intricate sculptures that loomed over us. I failed to understand the significance of a sculpture of an arrow sticking out of a lion’s mouth perched above the exit door. However, it did serve the purpose of reminding me of the feeling I had while attempting the Finance exam a year earlier. There was something special about this oval-shaped theatre that, through time, has witnessed hundreds of thousands of graduates celebrate the end of their academic journey; and carrying with them the promise of following their passions and making this world a better place – the Oxford emblem hung silently in their conscience.
The Sheldonian celebrates an illustrious history, and I was bemused to learn that the traditions and Latin narration we experienced during the ceremony are something that has been maintained since the very start of Oxford (aka 10th or 12th century, depending on who you ask). The bouts of silence between the announcements compounded the anticipation and self-reflection. However, our excitement was tempered by the absence of classmates who were unable to attend due to travel restrictions. Most of the attendees’ eyes were fixated on the stage where the Dean of Saïd Business School sat on an ornate cathedra resplendent in her academic gown. Those of us with wandering eyes exchanged smiles and reassuring nods. It was an emotional setting that took a lot of intricacies from locating our gowns, tying a knot around the shirt collar that came close to looking like a bow tie, walking in a straight line, and preserving the symmetry of the rows where we were seated.
We, of course, also had to get our bowing game in order, which, for me, despite having been to Tokyo and Kyoto, was particularly challenging thanks to muscle aches from a night of dancing on a boat tour of the Thames with fellow classmates. While we smiled and chanted cheers, it made many of us realise that this may be the end. Or, as Winston would say, the end of the beginning.
At the end of the carefully crafted ceremony at the Sheldonian, the next step in the Executive MBA journey ranged from starting a new career, gaining a promotion, adjusting your relationship status, starting a family, extending a family, co-founding a business with fellow classmates, and planning reunions.
For now, I was hungry, and my plan was to retreat to the graduation reception at the Divinity School where crumpets and tea were being served in quintessential English fare. Clouds obscured the sunlight that had illuminated the theatre earlier, but that did not deter the sense of achievement we all felt about closing such a pivotal chapter in our lives.
The J19 cohort had an electric chemistry from the outset, riddled with emotion and passion that exuded a confident energy built over years of experience. There was a comradery that just formed so naturally among our cohort. It’s quite the feat considering the diversity of different professional backgrounds in our class.
When a classmate in our cohort got admitted to the hospital for unforeseen surgery, a classmate thought on her feet and decided to orchestrate placards for each member of the class to display in front of a camera wishing our ill friend well wishes. The seemingly simple gesture travelled thousands of miles to lift our friend’s spirits and brought together the class in unison.
Another classmate had to delay the programme after learning about his wife’s fight with cancer and, once again, we came together as a cohort in support. There are a dozen other stories of thoughtful gestures that I can recall about our cohort. It reminded me about humanity and decency that, though scarce in many parts of the world, still exists in many circles. And. at Oxford, it’s not too hard to find.
I like to tell friends and colleagues that going to school is like going to the gym for the brain. When I attend my cross-fit classes at Barry’s boot camp, I am so focused, my heart racing, and every physical manoeuvre serving to sculpt a particular muscle in shape (at least I hope – though my waist speaks otherwise). In a similar fashion at Saïd Business School, your brain is getting the exercise it needs to multiply/connect the neurons. You are being challenged to think, to counter your own ideas, beliefs, and biases; to appreciate someone else’s perspective, and to push the limits of your cognitive abilities.
Students are challenged to glean through thousands of pages of material and case studies leading up to an upcoming module (some are more prepared than others, I must admit). The difference between reading for work versus reading for school is that school pushes you to think, retain, and apply. It’s a different muscle that can only be activated during study mode, which, in my opinion, is an absolute necessity for our progression and for our mental health. That is really what it comes down to.
You will face disappointments surely: maybe you don’t like a class, a professor, an assignment, a school policy, whatever it may be. But, in the end, the good far outweighs the disappointments.
I picked Oxford because I wanted to attend a university, not just a business school. At my college dinners, I would meet students and alumni from different walks of life. I would argue for or against controversial motions at the Oxford Union where authentic debate takes precedence over political correctness, and I would take pleasure in learning about the lives and successes of my classmates. The one glowing revelation that dawned on me, as I straightened my back sitting silently at the Sheldonian, was that change comes not with what you do but how you do it. The ‘how’ involves time, tact, emotional energy, and persistence.
Going to business school requires a lot of effort and commitment. It’s a life choice, and it’s a precursor to sustainable change. For change to embrace permanence, it takes time, unlike week-long psychedelic retreats that are becoming increasingly popular for providing people inspiration along with a promise of hope and perspective.
I am not entirely against the short stints of inspiration through these avenues, and I realised that not everyone has the time or luxury to chart the course that we took as a class. But I do strongly believe that change does not come easily or quickly – you’ve got to work for it and invest your time and energy in whatever activity or endeavour it may be.
Saïd Business School will wholeheartedly hand you that opportunity over 21 months. Those were some of my reasons for picking Oxford. What are yours?