First Impressions of Oxford

I arrived in England last week (September 21), and I have been enjoying the ambience at Oxford ever since. Immensely so. There’s a certain indescribable aura of intellect and sense of history and tradition that pervades this place, with formal academic dress for final exams, ancient Gothic architecture, and a sense of place and identity not found in larger cities.
I enjoy the architecture here; there’s a small bike path I use every day. It passes through a series of medieval alleys wedged between the various colleges that comprise the university. On the way, I pass by the bell tower of Magdalen College, pictured below. From around the city, this bell-tower is visible, as if a focal point or compass that orients the eye not to north or south or east, but toward Oxford and the center of its campus. Most every college at Oxford has its own tower or medieval spire – each one a compass of sorts.
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Magdalen Tower – built 1492
Like Magdalen Tower in Oxford, great works of art refocus our attention; they are compasses that point not to north but to Truth – Truth with a capital T. And I think this is why the study of art history and the mission of the university are both so powerful – among many things, they both teach one to admire and appreciate beauty. Someone versed in art history can read a painting as one reads a book – identifying its brushstrokes, content, and composition and extrapolating the story these details tell. Someone having attended college can hopefully, too, understand current events with greater depth and the benefit of a thorough understanding of history as cyclical.
Both the study of art and the university should provide us, in brief, with an intellectual  compass through which to orient and understand ourselves. As Magdalen Tower is a literal compass to navigate the city of Oxford, an education is a symbolic compass to navigate life more broadly. Through education, I realize that all things and all events and all disciplines and all ways of knowing are interwoven in a larger web, more colloquially called the “Liberal Arts.”

A little about me…

My experience so far at Columbia.

Many describe their lives as paths. I describe my life as a map that I draw and nurture with time. A path has no room for deviation. A map, however, presents all possible paths toward one’s destination.

P1580335Sitting at my workbench with the blank expanse of creamy white paper before me, I draw. The blank canvas has limitless possibilities. From this emptiness, I draw maps of entire cities, aerial views in pen and ink of my urban environment. Sometimes, I am tempted to use magnifying lens to attain the precision I desire. Other weeks, I am content filling several square inches in twelve hours continuous work, meticulously drawing every window and stone.

Drawing sharpens my mind, forcing me to block out all distractions and noise and to reflect on where I am headed. I experience life from the perspective of 61 inches above ground (add an inch if I’m wearing hiking shoes). The map empowers me, permits me to view my world and choices from above – To see not just the fork in the road but where either road will lead me, and the possibilities either road unlocks. Through drawing, I feel somehow relaxed, as if attaining a higher mental vantage point.

From my parents, I learned to define myself (and my map) not by others’ or society’s expectations but by the activities that brought joy and meaning to my life and to others’. I’ve worked to oppose the gentrification of my inner-city community of Newark and the privatization of its water, long victim to neglect by elected officials and government policies. To oppose the use of urban land for parking instead of housing and development, I spoke countless times before the City Council, photographed the decay of my city for my documentaries and artworks, and built computer simulations and interactive maps as urban planning tools to illustrate the dangers of both parking and over-development. When I speak before large crowds of neighbors and citizens, I feel the adrenaline rush of hundreds of eyes, the larger an audience the better. And, when I work in the archives of the city and state library, repairing, organizing, and digitizing historic maps, I reflect on the past and present of my city, and the role I play, however small. Looking back, I wish only I had done more.

Image still of computer simulation.

From my history courses, I am learning to esteem scholarship. Inspired by the many cathedrals I explored and painted in my travels, I conducted research with my faculty mentor to develop a series of computer models simulating the construction and experience of visiting a Gothic cathedral, to be used in the classroom instruction of nearly 1,000 students per year in Columbia’s Art Humanities program. Through this yearlong process of building an accurate-to-the-inch model, I worked toward scholarship, balancing my time between five classes and eight hours a day researching cathedrals. More importantly, I realized scholarship requires the hard work and passion to share one’s knowledge.

Plan of Saint Gall.

I continued to articulate my passion for maps when I discovered the Plan of Saint Gall: a meticulous map of the hypothetical and ideal monastery. As the only known map in the 900-year period between Rome’s fall and the Renaissance, it is a scholarly tool to understand the monastic life and world-view. The ideal monastery is insular, with all functions of daily life condensed within the walls of a self-sufficient world – a universe. As the (likely) subject of my thesis and (hopefully) research at Oxford, this map guides my path through the university – itself derived from the Latin word for universe: universitas.

But, my universe expands beyond my work and activism. From my mentors, friends, and family, I am reminded of my good fortune. To a certain extent, I earned my place at Columbia and Oxford, and I cultivated the relationships with my mentors. But, in larger part, I am not ready yet to measure my self-worth by these accomplishments, lest I fail to live up to the responsibilities of scholarship and the traditions of these institutions. From my university, I learned the value of scholarship and the hard work required. From my mentors – individuals further on their life paths than I – I learned the pursuit of knowledge is a constant in all stages of one’s life map. And, from my parents, I learned the value of caring for one’s environment and tending to one’s garden, both the literal gardens our family grows in the vacant lots surrounding our home and the metaphorical garden I must cultivate with love for family and community.

Scholar. Activist. Teacher. Leader. These are not words I would describe myself as. I am too young, too naïve, and too lacking in self-knowledge to truly embody these values. It is not that I lack self-knowledge or maturity in comparison to others, rather that I do not have the degree of self-knowledge I demand of myself. But, these are words I hope others will one day describe me as. Education is exactly this: the lifelong process of becoming.

I am not prepared to accept my time at Oxford as something earned or deserved. Rather, this is an opportunity to hold myself to a higher personal ethic – that of scholar and student. I prefer to believe I was accepted not on the basis of present-ability, but on the promise of future potential, on the promise of who I will become.

A path implies a destination. A map implies a journey. I do not know the destination of my life path; no one under age 25 could be expected to definitively know. But, I do know my life is a map, not the self-contained universe of the Plan of Saint Gall, but a map with many paths, one of which leads to Oxford and maybe once again in the sometime future, if I am fortunate. My map is unfinished and imperfect, but the greatest maps and the greatest works of scholarship are all, in some way, imperfect and unfinished.

Oxford in a Box


This is a paper architectural model of the University of Oxford. The model folds out of a re-purposed, antique leather box measuring 7 by 14 inches with a depth of only 1.5 inches.

One half of the model features the historic university buildings: The Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, Church of Saint Virgin the Mary, and the Clarendon Building. The other half features the campus of Saint Catherine’s College.

This model is made from paper cutouts, measured and folded to form the shape of various buildings. Below is the image of one of these cutouts before assembly, and the groundplan of the campus before the paper buildings were mounted on cardboard.

This model in a suitcase will be a souvenir of my study abroad experience. Below is a view of this model with my hand for scale. Attaining this amount of precision in so small a model is difficult, but it is possible. This model represents about two weeks (or 100 hours) labor.

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