My journey to the United Kingdom for graduate school at Oxford University was an ocean away from any of my prior experiences, a forced opening to a new set of environments, people, and cultures. I like routines so moving to a new country was difficult, to say the least. I’d never been anywhere so different before, having gone to college only 10 minutes away from my home in South Carolina.
It took me almost a year before I fully settled in and felt truly able to absorb the positives of my new setting. As a new pattern started to emerge, I ventured to try a few new things. As a person with autism, I have a complicated relationship with trying new things. When I was younger, my mom would have to find creative ways to get me into new experiences and environments. As I grew through college and beyond, I began to try things on my own.
Last September I saw an interesting item on the social calendar at my college: “ceilidh.” I had no idea what that was at first, but after discovering it was traditional Scottish dancing, I thought I’d give it a try. After all, it did not involve small talk, eating, or social banter. If I didn’t like it, there was no need to go back.
It was in the college bar that sits partially underground, the gray walls colored by the occasional modern painting or ancient historical photograph. Two students from the Oxford University Scottish Dance Society were there to demonstrate and call the dancing steps. They didn’t waste any time, pairing everyone with a partner. Changing partners for each dance is common in Scottish dancing, and so everyone looked for a new partner after each song. This was great, as to find a new dance partner I just needed to vaguely look in someone’s general direction. I was not very skilled, but I certainly enjoyed the dancing that evening.
In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I took my mom along for the society’s beginners class the following week. Together, we began learning the steps and patterns, the puzzle pieces that are joined together in sequence to comprise a full dance. I found that I was fascinated by everyone moving together (hopefully!), ending up in the right places at the end of the pattern. I also met some lovely people through dancing, both students and residents of Oxford alike. It has given me a chance to meet people who aren’t students.
Just a few months ago I went to the Highland Ball, an evening full of food and dancing with students and dancers from both Oxford and Cambridge. I even borrowed a kilt for the occasion, which was also a first for me. Spending the night swirling and twirling to the lively accordion band, I was grateful I had given ceilidh a try.
Trying new things gives me a chance to test them out. As a result, I have participated in many groups and activities that I came to enjoy, like Scottish dancing. Other new things I tried and didn’t like. I discovered I wasn’t as good as I thought I was at predicting which activities I would enjoy; it turned out some things I thought I wouldn’t enjoy had facets I couldn’t see until I was close up. My rule now is simple and helps me streamline my approach to new things: I’ll give most things a try once, just to see.
Jory Fleming, a 2016 Schwallie Family Scholarship recipient, is currently reading for a masters of philosophy in environmental change and management at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. He received a bachelor’s degree in geography and marine science from the University of South Carolina. He loves nature (especially birds) and is passionate about the oceans and children’s literacy. His service dog Daisy helps him with autism as well as physical disabilities. To see more about him, check out his website, joryfleming.com, or say hi on Twitter @joryfleming.