"Bad things can happen anywhere. If something bad's gonna happen, I should probably go ahead and go as balls-to-the-wall as possible now, so I won't have any regrets if that bad thing happens... It's so important to just go hard, sooner." (B., Episode 58)
Back in January when I posted in a certain Facebook group's collaboration thread saying that I was looking for guests, B. Pagels-Minor is one of the people who emailed me to express their interest. B. mentioned that they studied at New College, University of Oxford in England, an experience that "has been pretty foundational in my continued success." So of course I had to arrange a time to talk with them so I could hear more! Including my cousin Jaqua Bryant (episode 6) and my friend Justin Gardner (episode 11), B. makes the third Young, Gifted and Abroad guest who's studied at Oxford or Cambridge.
When I asked B. to introduce themselves at the beginning of our conversation, they were quick to say that they are "a Southerner through and through", born and raised in Mississippi near the Tennessee border. And though they were the first among their siblings to travel internationally, B. certainly wasn't the first in their family to want to see the world. Before having B. at age 21, B.'s mom had been considering joining the military so that she could travel. Raising her children took priority over that dream, but she was understanding and incredibly supportive when B. set their sights on studying abroad in undergrad at age 19. Their mom would say to them, "You need to go everywhere. Now that you have the ability, you need to go out there and you need to explore as much as possible."
Following B.'s freshman year at Duke University, they got accepted into a summer program at Oxford with a relatively small cohort of other selected Duke students. To this day B. marvels at what a grand opportunity it was, since going abroad wouldn't have been possible for them if Duke hadn't covered all the flight and program costs. As a political science and American history major, at the time B. wanted to become a lawyer ("I legitimately just wanted to be Clair Huxtable!"), so they were looking forward to the international law classes that Oxford had available. Additionally, since the U.S. exists in part because of Britain, B. was incredibly curious to find out how British people think about the world and what makes Britain the way it is. B. spent the entirety of summer 2004 in England. Flying that far and in such a large plane was a first for them, and upon arrival their wallet was stolen before they could even get on the bus from the airport. However, thanks to the assistance of a local police officer and one of B.'s aunts back home, B. arrived at New College safe and sound.
Although other Duke students were there too and a handful of outings were planned that they could participate in together, B. didn't end up seeing their fellows very often. Everyone was studying different disciplines and had their own intentions for the trip. So while they had plenty of potential travel buddies in each other, at the same time none of the Duke students had to interact with each other if they didn't really want to. Instead, B. found community among people who worked at Oxford, folks they met while eating and drinking around town, and a surprising number of fellow Black American and African people who were studying at Oxford just like B. Many of those students were pursuing graduate studies, and being around such talented Black people who seemed to have a solid sense of who they were and what they wanted to do made B. feel like, "I was seeing living representations of what I could be".
B. felt themselves being challenged to grow both inside and outside the classroom. Writing and argument-based instruction pushed B. to step up their critical thinking skills and their ability to pivot as the situation required. Hearing British people discuss the 2004 American election cycle inspired B. to become more informed about current events in other parts of the world, beyond the American-centric focus they were used to back home. And trying "strange but delicious" new foods was an adventure in itself—during our conversation B. spoke approvingly of goat meat, kebab, tzatziki sauce, full English breakfast, and Pimm's, but they firmly drew the line at duck meat. It was enough for B. to be outside of their home country for the first time, so they didn't country-hop around Europe like some of their classmates did. Instead, food, drink, and hanging out with new people they met on campus and in town became B.'s own personal way of exploring. B. listened to their peers' travel stories and filed them away in their mind, so they could visit those places later on.
And if all that wasn't enough, studying at Oxford was also the catalyst for some monumental shifts in B.'s life trajectory. B. was emboldened to reject cultural norms back home that were holding them back. As a Black person from the South, they'd become accustomed to racism and casual disrespect, but being around such diverse and international people at Oxford who seemed to not be bothered by B.'s race convinced B. to claim their place in the world in a more decisive way. Furthermore, B. embraced their attraction to women while at Oxford, came out to their mom during their sophomore year at Duke, and is now living as a proud non-binary person with their wife in the Bay Area.
Speaking of the Bay Area. Another impact of B.'s Oxford experience is that they realized Duke wasn't the right school for them, so they transferred to Northwestern University. They took advantage of being near Chicago by working and networking to get opportunities instead of doing unpaid internships, which gradually resulted in B. shifting interest from law to the tech industry. B. met people who taught them what they needed to know, and then B. kept building on that knowledge through various job opportunities that further pushed them in the tech direction. Now, after over a decade of living in Chicago, earning two master's degrees (MBA and MIS), and establishing a career in tech, B. works in Silicon Valley. They've worked for some of the largest and most impressive tech companies in the world, which young B. never would have imagined doing. But B. gives credit to their own willingness to change course, maintaining that, "You probably shouldn't do something just because it's what you always planned, if something else comes up that actually really sparks your soul."
"See how different the world can be"
Unfortunately, the passing of B.'s mom meant that B. never got to take her on international trips once they had the time and means to do so. But B. has made sure to keep traveling the world for their own sake. B. and their wife have been to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, and the couple even had a destination wedding in Greece—which was actually one-fifth the price of having a wedding in Chicago where they lived at the time.
When I interviewed B. in February of this year, they mentioned looking forward to going to Tokyo with their wife in March, a plan that likely had to be cancelled or postponed due to coronavirus-related travel restrictions. Looking forward, B. and their wife have been aiming to take at least two or three trips a year, with the Maldives, Asia more widely, and South America being high on their list of destinations. B. also hopes to go on a European trip with their Chicago friends. As B. continues to be more successful, they want to figure out how to make study abroad opportunities and funding available at more colleges/universities. B. never forgot how university funding made studying at Oxford possible for them, and they want to extend that opportunity so more young Black and Brown folks can "go out and see the world, and see how different the world can be". B. loves to chat, and welcomes people to reach out via bpagelsminor.com and @bpagelsminor on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Maybe There's Hope (OXFORD)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!