By Xander Brehm |


It’s better to travel well than to arrive. Even though summer feels like an arrival, a months-long break from dusty library stacks to crack open Pimms and trash Rose Lane, even though some of us are rewarded with that final arrival of sub fusc in the Sheldonian and a new diploma, I look back at three years in Oxford to find that the most successful people I met knew to travel well. I left Oxford for Bangkok and learned on the new job to meld work and pleasure so that success wasn’t something I chased like a degree, but something I built as new experiences and abilities in myself.


Contrary to undergraduate courses or most American programs, we leave our Oxford master’s degrees in drips and drabs: a B. Phil. is flying out for a Ph. D. course in Amsterdam, an NSEG grad is going to a sustainability position in southern California, a historian heads up to Edinburgh to write up his dissertation in quiet solitude. While other programs mark students’ departure in a ceremony en masse, our summer ritual is a steady trickle of those last conversations discussing memories of school and ideas about that next step in life. Each departure is personal. This post has some snapshots about what happened after a newly minted M. Phil. in economics took that next step.


Last August I flew out to an internship with the International Labor Organization, in the United Nations main offices in Bangkok, Thailand. The ILO has a mission to define and defend international labor rights. I worked to make surveys and analyze responses for the entrepreneurship team. They had developed a new program of workshops for entrepreneurs in refugee camps and in poor communities. The workshops were centered on a workbook of business skills such as accounting and marketing. This program, called C-BED, needed a wider base of evidence to establish its effectiveness. New surveys would help record income and employment improvements for each small business, tracking how entrepreneurs had created better work after taking home the lessons from their workshops.




We worked among many different partners in many different places. A Japanese labor fund supported us in teaching business skills to handicrafts makers in Bang Khun Thian, a quiet area southwest of the main city. We held a workshop in a temple, our mainly middle-aged female students circling up in eight groups of ten on the white marble floor to discuss accounting for revenue and costs. We lunched on fried omelets over rice, and I ran focus groups to learn the respondents’ experience using our surveys—what was unclear, what was easy to respond to—so our incoming data would be as clean and clear as possible.


I traveled to Lao PDR Luang Prabang to assist in interviewing guesthouse owners. The local tourism ministry had run workshops in the previous year to promote hospitality services and boost the tourist industry; we arrived to gather stories of success and failure for our participants in the year that followed. After the workshops, one proprietor made a new website, another built new rooms, and one married couple started anew by buying a riverside manor and refurbishing the rooms. We discussed with them how the risks of the strategies had paid off or fallen flat.


Bangkok and Luang Prabang could not be more different. The first is a hot, steamy concrete jungle with millions of inhabitants, international business headquarters, elevated trains and mass transit boats, with rooftop bars on 50th floors to overlook the steel and cement. The latter is a sleepy community of farmers and weavers in the cool highlands amidst a jungle forest. It was a privilege to pass through these different communities and collect see how their interaction through the workshops with fellow entrepreneurs was helping them to adapt and change. I changed as well in terms of professional confidence and pride because even on my vacation I was started promoting my project to potential new partners.


My vacations were as much an adventure as my work. In March I flew to the center of Sumatra to see my first total solar eclipse. I was lucky, since most people watching from the town square had their view obstructed by a thick trail of smoke from a fertilizer factory. Meanwhile my plane landed early morning on March 6, leaving me just enough time to dash out and see the eerie grey of the total eclipse, with the sun a diamond ring behind the moon in the east. When I came to the square later that day, I found it littered with film negative strips and other clear, dark materials people had used to see the eclipse (FALSELY thinking that film strips protect the eyes from the sun—they don’t! Readers, use properly approved goggles and viewing sheets!).


Afterwards I met a college student who took me south to Pagar Alam, a mountain town practically paved with tea trees. We fell in with a group of travel bloggers and visited farmers along the mountain, the main tea roasting factory, and a shop selling the tea alongside famous civet coffee. The civet is a catlike mammal that eats coffee berries and leaves the seeds in its dung. Farmers gather the seeds for roasting and sale, relying on the aroma the civet’s digestion imparts to the berries as well as novelty to sell the coffee at a premium. Taking in all that Pagar Alam had on offer, we saw megalithic heads left behind by ancient societies, visited rice farms, and I even drove my first a dune buggy on a dirt bike track. We left discussing C-BED with a local government head, who had paid for the bloggers’ tour to boost Pagar Alam as a tourist destination. Now we had him considering how to connect farmers and marketers to open their homes as guesthouses, as was done in Luang Prabang. It was wonderful bringing the experience from Luang Prabang to Pagar Alam, to negotiate with the local officials, and to hopefully extend a tool for further development of the community.


Trinity term 2016 is drawing to a close, and your adventure awaits. Hug the people you love close to you. Be generous with your leavers’ gifts. Take one more amble down Cowley Road together for good measure. Then get out there in the world, kick your fears in the teeth, and contribute wherever and however you can. If I can have thrive in Thailand and Indonesia, then so can just about anyone. If your next step has no rooted destination like a degree, and even if it does, enjoy each moment you experience.


Xander Brehm has recently completed an MPhil in economics at the University of Oxford.  You can find him on LinkedIn.