Blog post: My first 3 weeks at Oxford University after 3 years of living in a Bornean rainforest – “The Reverse-Imposter”

November 16, 2021

by Chrishen Gomez

In 2018, I embarked on a journey to study one of the most elusive and understudied apex predator on the globe, the Sunda clouded leopard. The journey has taken me many places, windy rivers, cloud forests, a witch-doctors house, a poachers camp-the list goes on, but the least expected of these places was Oxford University. I grew up as a child with deep interest and respect for the sciences, and naturally, its custodians became my heroes. Scientists, in my view, were pressing their ears against the quiet whispers of God to uncover the mysteries of universe, and thus, were in closest proximity to him. Needless to say, Oxford, that housed the many scientists I glorified in my youth, became a sort of temple of knowledge, to be revered.

My first week at the University, was everything I had expected it to be, and more! I stepped through its heavy timber doors, to be greeted with high ceilings, stained-glass of intricate detail on large window panels that let beams of light through the thick stone and brick buildings that has stood resolute since the 13th century. Around me, people discussed politics, law, physics, mathematics. There was so much brilliance around me, yet, the university was much more than that. Indeed, akin to space (in the cosmic sense), always growing and far, far bigger than all it could ever contain. The opportunities here have felt endless, with ample opportunity to for intellectual stimulation. The freedom to think and explore ideas to its very end have made for exhilarating discussions that have often gone on till the wee hours. My own research institute (WildCRU) is filled with thought leaders and global experts on a broad range of species and ecosystems. Just metres from my desk is the world expert on Persian leopards, and a short visit to the kitchen could mean having inspired chats about trophy-hunting with the global authority on the subject. The result of this confluence of thought, is the high productivity and consistency that has long been associated with the institutions stellar global reputation.

It is for this very reason, students who enroll at Oxford carry with them a looming feeling of unworthiness, that regrettably translates to feeling out-of-place. We know this today to be the imposter syndrome, and the university does what it can to support students as we navigate through this. In the weeks preceding my arrival at Oxford, I familiarized myself with all the signs and symptoms, and felt reasonably equipped to handle it.

What has plagued my mind over the last three weeks however, has caught me by surprise entirely, and I don’t know that anyone could have prepared me for it. As an academic at Oxford, many of us find ourselves working directly to solve global challenges that are of grave importance. As a result, a great number of us spend time in far flung countries, often in remote parts of the globe that have long remained in the shadows of academia and prosperity. My research on apex predators on Borneo led me to live amongst the indigenous of Sabah who are crucial partners and stakeholders of my research project. The close proximity we share for prolonged periods make us unwitting observers of the gulf of disparity in living-standards between the communities we work with, and the community we come from. This disparity was most visceral to me having very recently made the transition of lifestyles. From taking regular showers in icy mountain water in a detached cubicle, to being served chocolate embossed with the crest of my college after a 3-course meal in a grand dining hall. From eating most meals out of lunch boxes, to being served 3 different wines served in glasses of different shape and size. After having personally experienced my partners in conservation, make painful compromises on health and hygiene due to financial restrictions, one can’t help but feel gut-wrenching guilt for the excess that is inextricably linked to the lifestyle here at Oxford. If being an imposter is attached to unworthiness for being here, then it seems fitting that the feeling of guilt for being here must surely be the ‘Reverse-Imposter’.

While it may not be immediately evident, I know that this experience is in no way unique to me or my background. Indeed, you see subtle signs of it as you walk through college buildings. The very-recent heated debates around the statue of Cecil Rhodes over Oriel college, is only symptomatic of a university grappling with its very identity. The history of my own college, Keble college, is strongly associated with dubious characters of the Victorian era who profited from the ill-treatment of slaves of Asian descent, many of whom died in the process of this enterprise. As a university that looks to simply do good in the world and make it a better place, the visible signs of it doing the exact opposite over the course of its long history should serve as a constant reminder, that even with the best of intentions, we can still inflict multi-generational harm. Indeed, this experience has led me to evaluate my own actions and conscience. At this junction, I am unsure if a vehement rejection of the traditions that have propped the institution up for centuries is a solution, as both its longevity and success in nurturing the greatest thinkers of our time should serve as a testament of sorts. However, one can easily fall into the trap of losing connection to the harsh suffering of our neighbors as we wrap ourselves up in the soft linen of an Oxford experience. This reflection aims one thing only, and indeed it is the one most valuable thing about an education, attaining perspective.

  • The stark habitats of a conservation researcher. Top, matriculation day 2021 by the Radcliffe Camera, below, picture preceeding a 4-day expedition guided by expert indigenous research assistants.