You’re off the Treadmill: A Reflection by Mathew Quallen SFS’16

Matthew Quallen is a 2016 graduate of the School of Foreign Service, where he majored in International History, and currently the holder of a two-year Marshall Scholarship for graduate study in the United Kingdom.  During his time at Georgetown, Matthew worked at the Supreme Court, the Brookings Institution, and served as a member of the Working Group on Slavery, Memory and Reconciliation.  In Britain, Matthew has just completed an MA in History at the University of Manchester, with a concentration in the Lancashire Cotton Famine — an economic crisis in Britain resulting from the American Civil War.  This year, Matthew will study for an MSc. in Law, Anthropology and Society at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Here are Mathew’s reflections on his time as a Marshall Scholar thus far:

Almost every organizational orientation involves a stock phrase—a set of words repeated reluctantly but reliably, like a cliché. At orientations for new Marshall Scholars, that slogan is “you’re off the treadmill”.

“You’re off the treadmill”—it has the sort of clarity that comes from being evocative but vague, like saying the rat race is over. Off the treadmill, fine. But still running? What does it mean to have been running without moving? And what constituted the treadmill in the first place?

Without dwelling too deeply on a metaphor, I want to think about what it says about a fellowship. Because the concept of being off the treadmill suggests a rupture of some kind: that there is something different about being on the treadmill and being off of it, and that being on a fellowship reflects this difference.

The most significant difference suggested by the metaphor, and the most relatable across postgraduate life general, is a change of direction. Treadmills tell us where to run—forward (but ultimately, without advancing). By contrast, the runner in the world has to decide where to go. In the context of the Marshall, I’ve found this to reflect a lack of close management and the disappearance of many signposts for success. One may study at any university they choose. As long as one completes their proposed course of study, they are welcome—within reason—to do what they please. Especially living abroad, there are fewer structures to guide one’s choices. It is up to the recipient to decide whether they would rather study, vacation, learn a new skill, try a new sport, learn a language, or whittle away months at a gym.

To a limited degree, freedom is natural on a fellowship. For many fellowship recipients, the year, two years, or even three spent abroad is a hiatus, a waystation—remove the fellowship and you might simply leapfrog to the next step. A sense of freedom can be one of the most rewarding parts of a fellowship—if leveraged. I chose to spend several months studying the medieval history of the book. I will likely publish in the field. But medieval history is not and will never be my profession.

Despite the advertisement, this apparent directionlessness is available to undergraduates as well. And students in high school for that matter. What it really represents is an increasingly variable blueprint for success—getting good marks in a good program is wonderful, but it is not revered as success. Grades will come less often and mean less. Nobody will tell you what to do. There is no treadmill on offer, and being off the treadmill requires not only selecting, but often designing one’s own destination.

In truth, I am skeptical of the idea that fellowships take people off the treadmill. I think they largely aim to select those who have made the decision, at least at some point, to forgo the treadmill—in other words, to eschew a typical path to success (say, consulting at Georgetown) and do something different. Something, usually, they designed themselves—be it a role as an advocate, a topic of research, or an organization built from the ground up. At Georgetown, we should aim to be off the treadmill already.

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