Journalist Michael Petrou in Afghanistan in 2001, before beginning his studies at Oxford
By Michael Petrou
(St Antony’s, 2002)
An emotion occasionally washes over me that feels a lot like regret but can’t be. The sensation is a mournful sadness about not taking a path I did in fact take. What I almost missed is attending Oxford as a mature student.
In the winter of 2002 I was 27 years old and had recently returned from reporting on the war in Afghanistan. Three from among a small group of journalists based in the same northern village as me had been killed in a Taliban ambush. Other journalists with whom I didn’t work directly died as well. I was dealing with a mild case of post-traumatic stress. And I was newly in love.
Against this backdrop, I received an offer of admission to pursue a DPhil in modern history at Oxford, with a Chevening Scholarship from the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office to partially fund it. I wasn’t sure whether to accept. Returning to school felt self-indulgent. I had what appeared to be a promising career in journalism. And I didn’t want to leave the girl.Petrou's group of graduands outside Oxford's Divinity Schools
In the end, I did—go to Oxford that is, not leave the girl, who came to Oxford with me and whom I eventually married.
Yet it felt as though things could just as easily have gone another way. I might have concluded I really was too old to return to university, kept my newspaper job and relegated attending Oxford to a list of fantasies one really should outgrow. Knowing how narrowly I avoided making such a mistake unnerves me still.
Ernest Hemingway once described Paris as a movable feast. If you are lucky enough to live there as a young man, he wrote, it will stay with you wherever you go for the rest of your life. Oxford is the same. And while it is no doubt an enlivening place to study as a teenaged undergraduate, there is something uniquely nourishing to be there when one is no longer quite young but can still hear the echoes of youth reverberating ever fainter within. Then the experience of Oxford has the added sweetness of a prolonged Indian summer. St Antony's College, where Petrou enjoyed his DPhil
My undergraduate student days were memorable, but mostly for non-academic reasons. There was the newfound independence of living away from home, the angst that is typical of that time in one’s life, and, for me, the all-but-consuming passion of working at the student newspaper. Classes were something I crammed in when I could.
I began my doctorate, on the other hand, wanting to soak up as much of the academic experience as I could. I don’t think I would have had that same scholarly drive if I hadn’t spent those years working beforehand. Students at university are often told how lucky they are, but you can’t really appreciate that until you leave. Returning to academia after time away allows a mature student to benefit from a realization that comes too late for most.
This doesn’t mean I was myopically focused on my studies. Sunday nights were enlivened by regular poker games at the home of St Antony’s then-warden Marrack Goulding, a former under-secretary-general of the United Nations who hosted a regular cast of students and other guests. His background music of choice those nights was Bob Marley.
I took long walks in Port Meadow. I attended any lecture that looked interesting. I played basketball for the college, and ice hockey for the University, even though I lacked the athletic vigour of some of my younger teammates and opponents. But here again was the sense that I had grabbed hold of something before it slipped away, making the experience all the more rewarding.One of Petrou's images from life in Afghanistan
I graduated a few weeks before I turned 32, older than most others in the ceremony. But by then the age difference that had seemed so consequential when I contemplated beginning the degree hardly seemed to matter. Given the opportunity, I would have started a new course of study then and there. A decade on, I still would.
Michael Petrou, (St Antony’s, 2002), wrote his DPhil on Canadians in the Spanish Civil War. An Ottawa-based journalist who has reported from Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East, his most recent book is Is This Your First War? Travels Through the Post-9/11 Islamic World.
Images © Michael Petrou, Oxford University Images