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27th September 2011

Wordsworth Scholar relishes opportunities at Exeter

The Wordsworth Scholar, Michael Mayo (2010, English), has been making the most of opportunities at Exeter College. Here he describes what it means to him to have found an intellectual environment like no other he has experienced before, as well as some of the ways he enjoys giving back to the College.

Life as a ‘mature’ student means much of your identity requires those scare quotes: ‘mature’ as in old, ‘mature’ as in wondering whether you’ll be fully welcome to jump right into vigorous MCR discussions or stagger into the communal kitchen during an all-night study session. But one of the greatest benefits of that alleged maturity is having the experience and growing self-knowledge to make the right choices, to determine where in the world you’ll best fit. In choosing Exeter, I couldn’t have made a sounder choice. Nor, without the Wordsworth Scholarship, could I have done it at all.

One of my previous degrees, a master’s from Middlebury College, brought me into tutorial with Exeter’s Jeri Johnson. While I was a schoolteacher and principal, I spent two summers studying Joyce and the modern novel with Ms Johnson, and with her legendary guidance and wisdom, she helped lead me to the decision to drop everything, move from the US to the UK, and pursue a DPhil. And it was she who encouraged me to apply for the Scholarship, which allowed me to make the change.

Once I arrived at Exeter, I found that the rumours about the College – that it was small, storied, friendly, serious – happened to be true. The MCR, for one thing, could not have been more welcoming. My fellow graduate students were as smart and driven as they were unpretentious and downright helpful – qualities rarely associated with any graduate programme I’d heard of. I made the choice to live in Exeter House for my first year, and there lived comfortably (and very well-scouted) while meeting people from around the world. Again, in contrast to those of other graduate programmes and even other Oxford colleges, the culture at Exeter gave me the environment I needed to do my best work: friendship without competition, among a cadre of serious students.

In my first term, Ms Johnson and the College invited me to teach composition to some first-year undergraduates, and thus I was able to start meeting members of the JCR right from the start. This offer of a teaching job was an excellent gift to me – not only was I one of the very few first-year DPhils in English asked to teach (thus helping my job prospects in the future), but I was able, while doing my research, to engage in the task I find most sustaining: hashing through ideas and writing with students. In my previous life, I’d taught mostly 11- to 14-year-olds, so when one of my Exeter students presented me with a lovely gift and card at the end of Trinity, thanking me for what he’d learned about writing, I was gob-smacked. The College recently received funding so I can continue this work for the 2011-12 academic year, and for that I’m grateful.

In addition, I was hired as the College’s Careers Officer for this calendar year, and this work, more than any other, has helped me integrate most fully into general College life. With the excellent supervision and support of Emily Watson, I’ve spent this year helping Exeter undergraduates and graduates find internships around the world, from working as a staffer on Capitol Hill in Washington to performing on-the-ground environmental research in Bangkok. Almost all of these internships are exclusively for Exeter students, so a great deal of the work has been meeting with partner organizations – both existing partners and potential ones – to shape the internships for the particular needs of our students. One of the most salient achievements this year has been crafting a new, intense internship programme with Essar Group, an international corporation that, under the guidance of the Rector and after innumerable meetings, planning sessions, interviews, and logistics, offered Exeter ten fully funded internships, around the world, each one tailored to the needs of each individual student. We’re looking forward to continuing this relationship, and to cultivating a few more, in the coming months.

Amid all this extra-curricular activity, I managed to produce a lengthy piece of writing (10,000 words) as an application for my Transfer of Status – the English Department’s formal consideration of a student from Probationary to full DPhil status. In addition to the writing – a chapter-long consideration of Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’ – I had to pass a viva voce, with panelists from the Department. What I told them at the start of the exam was true: I was both terrified and thrilled, and the committee expressed their pleasure with what I’d written and had to say on my topic.

Since then I’ve done much more exploration in my chosen field, which includes an examination of psychoanalytic practices developed by Melanie Klein. At a psychoanalysis reading group, I met a Kleinian analyst who in fact asked me to come to the session he runs for Kleinian analysts-in-training to speak about that chapter on ‘The Dead.’ In the fall, I’ll be presenting my work on Klein with that same analyst to the same reading group in which we’d met. It’s this kind of intellectual experience – these encounters with interested, critical, knowledgeable, challenging, and supportive people – that I’ve never found anywhere else.

And it happens to be true that without the support of Exeter and the Wordsworth Scholarship, none of this would have happened at all. As my second year begins this Michaelmas, I’m extremely grateful for their support. Whatever else ‘mature’ might mean, I believe, at least in this case, it can signal deep appreciation for the gifts you’ve been given

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