Why do we allow ourselves to be put in boxes? Or worse, why do we build these limitations around ourselves? Watching this incredible speech written and presented by my friend and Stanford classmate Rachel Kolb, I was struck by this thought like never before. Her stories from her childhood reminded me of my own—of being told by my Chinese teacher in high school that I would never be the best student because I was a girl, or of being informed by my track coach that he had no interest in coaching ‘full-figured’ girls (read: with wide hips like women are actually supposed to have) like me. But unlike Rachel, who never allowed those detractors to get in the way of her goals, I acquiesced. I withdrew from the classroom; I developed a crippling eating disorder to try to live up to my coach’s expectations, with the result that I was so malnourished that I was slower and more injury-prone than ever.
Worse still, I got in the habit of building limitations around myself without anyone else’s help. I quit the trombone, an instrument I loved and at one point dreamed of pursuing at conservatory, because I sensed that I had no future in it because there were so few professional female players. I did the same thing with conducting. I avoided history at my high school and in college for the same reason, because I convinced myself that it was a ‘boy’s subject’ where I wasn’t welcome (I went into art history instead, the acceptable ‘girl’s history’ in my mind). I told myself I wasn’t an artist because I couldn’t draw, wasn’t an athlete because I wasn’t on varsity, wasn’t a scholar because I wasn’t the absolute best at every subject in school.
Throughout college, I got better and better at building boxes. I had only to gather the whisper of someone’s expectation of me, real or imagined, and away I went. I could build them so secure and tight that I had no chance of escape. By the time I graduated, I was nested so deeply in this labyrinth of my own creation that I felt like the innermost of one of those Russian dolls: insulated and blocked from interacting with the real world by dozens of layers of artifice that resembled me, but weren’t really me at all. I was paralyzed, locked tight in this box that I had built myself.
That realization of paralysis was, circuitously, the reason behind my application to Oxford. I realized that I needed to do something that was going to shake me out of this spiral of ever-tightening stasis. I chose Military History because it epitomizes the sort of history that I scared myself away from in high school and college, surrounded by male teachers and reading male authors talking about men and feeling out of place. Military history still makes me feel out of place: I cringe at the fact that I’ve never read a book in my subject written by a woman, ever, at the fact that I can’t find any female professors in the subject listed on Oxford’s websites, or at the fact that the standard reaction I get when telling people of my chosen course is, ‘but you don’t look like a military historian’ (I think this is meant as a compliment? Unclear).
But now, I’m excited at the prospect of entering this uncharted territory. I’ve come to hate these prisons I set for myself. If I became good at making boxes through high school and college, my only hope for Oxford is that I might start to learn how to become good at breaking them. I know that it will be difficult, and that returning to the preppy, laddish, boy’s club of Oxford could be perceived as jumping straight into the jaws of the dragon. I might not be ready, but I’m determined. So it’s a start.
I was very happy to receive an email today that I’ve received my first choice for housing next year: a 9-month contract in the Geoffrey Arthur Building on Pembroke’s extended campus. Phew! One of my only reservations with being assigned to Pembroke initially was their lack of guaranteed graduate accommodation: my luck with housing was so unbelievably miserably awful as an undergraduate that I felt very gloom and doom about my chances of securing anything unless it was literally guaranteed to me. So a big relief that it worked out!
I hemmed and hawed over whether to get a 9 month or 11.5 month contract, and ultimately opted for the 9 month. The summer between the first and second year of the MPhil is spent undertaking mandatory research for the dissertation, so there was an argument to be made for the year-long lease. I have a sneaking suspicion that I will have to/want to go abroad for a significant amount of my research, however (if I end up doing anything remotely along the lines of what I’m currently toying with as a dissertation idea), and I didn’t want to be suckered into inactivity by having a housing contract that I was tied to. If I need to stay in Oxford for the summer, there are other places to rent for those few months.
So I’m very pleased! Slowly but surely, the pieces of the puzzle feel like they’re falling into place.
I’m currently trying to fundraise for my living expenses and school books for the upcoming academic year. If you’d like to help me by purchasing one of my photographs, I’d love you forever and ever and ever. Srsly.
(or rowers, it could be that they’re manufacturing rowers)
as a graduate student, things like the norrington table do not remotely affect my academic experience, real or perceived. as a member of the female sex, having hot rowers around seems like a pretty major perk. looks like a win for me.