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03rd November 2023

Student voices: Joshua Swank’s Exeter College Summer Programme experience

Joshua Swank shares his not always straightforward journey to Oxford, via Exeter College's prestigious Summer Programme.

My academic journey began with one word: “No”. Thankfully, I was determined, and remain to this day, not to let it end that way. My path to postgraduate study at Oxford, guided through my past efforts as an undergraduate and my participation in the Exeter College Summer Programme (ECSP), certainly did not proceed in a straight line. I consider this, in retrospect, a great gift; allow me to explain. I attended the University of California, Irvine (UCI) from 2018 to 2023. I was initially rejected from the university. I sent in a letter to appeal this decision and, as luck, fate, or my sheer stubbornness would have it, I succeeded. I carried the weight of this turn of fortune with me throughout my years at UCI. In many ways, it enabled—or emboldened me—to make the most of my potential and the opportunities a scholar’s life afforded. I ventured abroad to the Middle East to study diplomacy, interned at the US Senate, and even sought entrance to the esteemed halls of Oxford through ECSP. I was accepted to ECSP in the autumn of 2020, and I could hardly contain my excitement.

Of course, the best-laid plans are no match for a global pandemic. ECSP was cancelled and, like all of us, the ensuing lockdown forced me to reflect on my personal, professional, and academic goals. Nevertheless, this winter of isolation allowed me to further cultivate my natural tenacity—taking on new research projects and internships, doubling down on my potential. Truly, sometimes the only “Yes” you need to hear is the one you say to yourself. Undeterred, I stood firm in the roots of who I am, who I saw myself becoming, and resolved to reapply for ECSP. Two years later, I was readmitted. At ECSP, I forged new friendships, received a merit scholarship for my studies, and delved into courses on forensic linguistics and international relations amongst a committed, diverse cohort of student leaders. These experiences revealed the invaluable opportunities offered by postgraduate study at Oxford. Back at UCI, I was recognised as Outstanding Undergraduate of the Year in 2022, thereafter completing a one-year Master’s programme in Philosophy, Political Science, and Economics—graduating this past spring. I will return to Oxford this autumn to embark upon a new journey, reading for the two-year MPhil in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony’s College.

I am grateful for the role ECSP and its incredible coordinators and instructors played in blazing my path forward. I would like to conclude by sharing a brief story. In sunny southern California, where I am from, there is a rather unique shrub known as Acmispon glaber, or deerweed. It is a fire-follower. This humble, native plant is easily destroyed by fire—but its seeds benefit from the flame’s scarification—adapting to the heat such that it improves their germination rate. When the flower blooms, it blossoms amidst the ashes with a fiery display of scarlet and gold-coloured petals. Be like the fire-follower and rise from the ashes. Winter is long, but know that spring is waiting for you.

Joshua Swank

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