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Home / 2016 Fall Magazine / Features / Stepping In: Alumnus Ryan Jacobson Continues Tibetan Studies at Oxford University

Stepping In
Photo by Carly Carpenter.

Stepping In: Alumnus Ryan Jacobson Continues Tibetan Studies at Oxford University

by Billy Thieme

"When there’s an alchemical process that’s happening, it needs to be in a container,” says recent MA Religious Studies with Language graduate Ryan Jacobson. “Naropa is a good container….” Jacobson speaks from his own transformative experience at Naropa, which he is currently building on with a program at Oxford University, in the UK. 

In the fall of 2016, Jacobson enrolled in the Oriental Studies program at Oxford to continue research with Tibetan language and religions.

“I’m just very excited about that,” he explains. “Learning the Tibetan language and religion at Naropa is really going to facilitate my research there.”

There are certain conversations that happen at NaropaJacobson attributes the next step in his educational journey, at least in part, to the unique nature of his Naropa experience, both academically and personally. “Naropa draws a certain type of people,” he says, “people who want to open up. That’s a big difference in comparison to my undergraduate degree.”

Naropa’s small classes and cohort model inspire a much more personalized, integrated experience—there are no two-hundred-person lecture classes here, and the students seem to thrive in that atmosphere. With the contemplative aspects of the curriculum, students and faculty alike find a deeper connection with the subject matter in their classes, something Jacobson believes definitely enhanced both his learning environment and future plans.

“There are certain conversations at Naropa that don’t necessarily happen at larger universities, like the one I went to to get my undergraduate degree, that are more conducive to personal development,” Jacobson explains. Unlike students in larger, more traditional classroom or lecture settings, “… you can’t hide in a class of fifty or one hundred because [at Naropa] you’re there … right in the center of things.”

“Academically, there’s a qualitative difference in what we do here, too. We do papers and whatnot, but a Naropa class invites change and growth—from both academic and contemplative aspects,” he adds. “It’s about integrating the fact that you are a subject—a subject that is studying an object, or some types of objects. And so there has to be a contemplative side to learning, too, or it becomes very one-sided.”

The integration of academic investigation and personal inquiry is the hallmark of a Naropa education. Blending the contemplative with the rigorously academic helps each Naropa student to cultivate self-awareness and learn on a deeper level. Jacobson is a perfect example, having started with an interest in religion and Tibetan language. He’s taken his experience across the Atlantic and out into the world, to contribute to the vast knowledge and reputation of Oxford.

Jacobson also attributes his success to the Naropa faculty and their constant mentorship, knowledge, and approachability.

“The faculty support here is amazing,” Jacobson reports. “Phil Stanley, Judith Simmer-Brown, Amelia Hall, Sarah Harding, Lama Tenpa…. They’re very helpful academically: ‘Read this author…. Read that author.’”

“But the best thing about them is more practice-based, because they are practitioners at Naropa,” he explains. “At other universities when you’re studying religions or Tibetan Buddhism, the teachers have to wear a scholastic hat and that hat only—they’re not able to elaborate experientially upon their understanding or upon their wisdom, upon transmitting certain things to you.”

“Here at Naropa, [faculty] can wear as many hats as they want. And the view is very vast,” he adds. “You can approach them … asking practice questions, more experiential questions about what happens to you when you’re reading a text. Or about ‘What does this instruction mean?’”

“The value that Naropa students—and my classmates especially—bring to this world is a sense of ‘stepping in,’” Jacobson continues, “because we’ve had time to really engage with the religious texts, and with ourselves and, through that process, to engage with others.”

“After Naropa, regardless of what you go into,” he adds, “you have a sense of coming back into yourself in order to benefit yourself and benefit others. I think that’s a really strong aspect of Naropa’s curriculum.”