Canada’s 2020 Freshers

The OCST send-off for the cohort of new Canadian students at Oxford and Cambridge

The Oxford and Cambridge Society of Toronto invited our Vice President, Akaash Maharaj, to be part of their virtual send-off event for Canadian Freshers.  His remarks are below.

I was very flattered when the Oxford and Cambridge Society of Toronto invited me to speak to you, the 2020 cohort of Canadian Freshers.

Those feelings were only slightly blunted when the Society explained that they were hoping to offer you the perspective of a “seasoned graduate”, the implication being that I have been well and truly marinated by the years that have passed since I was myself a student at Oxford.

I can not deny that I am more seasoned than fresh.

I read Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Teddy Hall.  PPE is, infamously, the degree most associated with people who think they should be running the world, but whose careers tend to prove that there is no limit to the human capacity for self-deception.

The foremost emotion I feel in being with you today is a sense of happy envy of the adventures you are all about to begin.

You will certainly be matriculating at an unusual moment in history.  But Oxford and Cambridge carried on through the Black Death of 1347 and the Great Plague of 1665.  The Pandemic of 2020 will be comparatively trivial, and will likely involve fewer people being burned at the stake.

For me, studying at Oxford completely changed the trajectory of my life.  It opened up new possibilities that I had previously only glimpsed as a distant observer.

Today, I serve as head of the Mosaic Institute, which advances pluralism in societies and peace amongst nations.  It operates through Track Two Diplomacy, and brings together people, communities, and states, to foster mutual understanding and to resolve conflicts.

In every mission I have ever undertaken, I have found myself tripping over other Oxonians: in desperate conflict zones and in the deep ease of diplomatic institutions; in razed villages and in glittering metropolises; on the barricades and in palaces.

Studying at Oxford helped all of us believe that the world could be a more humane and more just place.  It imparted to us a sense of responsibility to advance that dream.  And it gave us the most extraordinary opportunities to work towards making that dream a reality.

I have three observations to offer you, as you start your own journeys at Oxford and Cambridge.

The first is that you will be immersed in an ocean of riches.  The university buildings form part of the built heritage of the human race.  The tuition is intensely intimate.  The extracurricular activities are a marvel of diversity and depth.  And I am embarrassed by how quickly I took it all for granted.

You should savour the moments.  This density of opportunity will almost certainly never come your way again.

The second is that Britain can be a lonely place, especially if you are someone like me, who has had to work to overcome natural shyness.  The English, in particular, tend to be sceptical of easy friendliness, seeing it as glib and superficial.  They are often cutting, and sometimes cruel to one another.

But it is worth the effort to pierce their barriers, because the friendships you make with them will be all the deeper for it.

The third, is that you should do everything you can to maintain those friendships after university.  The true wealth of Oxford and Cambridge lie neither in their architecture nor indeed in their classes, but instead, in the fact that they draw together truly exceptional people, including yourselves.

I have forgotten almost everything I was taught at Oxford, but I remember almost everything I learned, because that came from the conversations, the experiences, and the dreams I nurtured with my peers.

The ties that will bind you together run deeper than the foundations of the modern world.  They have proven more enduring than the countless kingdoms, countries, and empires that have risen and fallen away during the nearly 1000 years since our universities first took root.

You will graduate into a world where societies everywhere are tearing themselves apart over questions of whom they recognise as friends and whom they reject as strangers.

In that context, the greatest gift Oxford gave to me is the knowledge that I am part of a fellowship that reaches across time and around the globe.  It includes people who speak different languages, profess different faiths, come from different ethnic groups, abide in different nations, and have been on opposite sides of history and warfare.

Yet, as Oxonians, we understand that there are no strangers amongst us: only friends we have yet to meet.

I genuinely envy the journey you are all about to begin.  I wish you well in adding to the stories of Oxford and Cambridge, and in adding Oxford and Cambridge to the stories of your lives.

Akaash Maharaj (St Edmund Hall) was the first overseas student elected President of the Oxford University Student Union.  He is Chief Executive Officer of the Mosaic Institute, which advances pluralism in societies and peace between nations. His personal web site is www.maharaj.org.

Human Mobility and COVID-19

The second of the North American Three Capitals Webinars

The second instalment of our Three Capitals Webinars series examined how physical mobility has affected the spread of coronavirus, and what public policy measures have succeeded and failed to contain the pandemic.

Our guest speaker, Dr Moritz Kraemer, joined us directly from Oxford. He is attached to both the University’s Department of Zoology and the Oxford Martin Programme on Pandemic Genomics.

This webinar series is joint project of the Oxford University societies in Mexico City, Ottawa, and Washington DC. This event was moderated by our colleagues in Mexico.

The struggle against coronavirus is one that involves the peoples of every country, and we were delighted to welcome audience members from across the world.

The Oxford College Arms

The first of the North American Three Capitals Webinars

Our inaugural collaboration with our colleagues at the Oxford University Societies in Mexico City and Washington DC was a great success, attracting more than one-hundred Oxonians from across North America.

Dr John Tepper Marlin entertained us with stories of how the College coats of arms came into being, and what their symbols tells us about their times and character.

This was the first instalment of our new series, the Three Capitals Webinars. The Oxford University Societies in each of the North American capitals will take it in turn to host an online event. We hope our series will strengthen the bonds of friendship between Oxonians on this side of the Atlantic, and enable us to draw on the depth of knowledge and insights of our peers across our continent.

Our next Three Capitals Webinar will be hosted by Mexico City, on Thursday 20 August 2020, and will discuss Oxford’s role in tracking the spread of coronavirus and developing a vaccine against the disease.