From Purposeless to Purposeful: Graham Jones on Finding Meaning in Swimming and Studying Abroad

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Senior student-athlete Graham Jones (photo by Ron Szot)

By the beginning of his junior year, Graham Jones was worried that he was wasting his time in college.

Jones switched his major twice but felt unfulfilled by his studies. He was competing on Fredonia’s swimming team but was only doing it because he was expected to; by January he was burned out by his sport and had to take time off. He was anxious that he’d graduate without a purpose for having gone to college.

Then he got accepted to study abroad in South Korea.

Jones’ decision to study abroad reignited an imaginative purpose for his college education, while his time away from swimming reignited his ambition to break a 31-year-old school record.

This is the story of how Graham Jones went from purposeless to purposeful:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: Tell me about your background.

Graham Jones: I grew up in North Buffalo with five siblings. I went to a good, private elementary school and then I went to a public high school. That helped me a lot: getting a disciplined private education early in life and then exploring different things that I’ve never seen. I like that about public school and I like that about Fredonia–there’s a lot of diversity, which is appealing to me because I absolutely love traveling. My family hosted an exchange student from Ecuador in 2004 when I was eight years old. That was my first exposure to someone of a different culture. From there I was completely fascinated.

Maloney: How did that experience translate to your interest in studying abroad?

Jones: When I came to Fredonia I heard there was a study abroad fair–I talked to every single school and every single representative and heard about this program in South Korea through Geneseo. I thought, “Oh, that would be cool.” The way they described it sounded like it would be extremely cost-efficient: housing there is a third of the price of what it is here. I actually saved money living there, and the money I would have spent on a dorm room here I used to go on a two-week vacation to Vietnam.

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Graham Jones in Vietnam

Maloney: I’ve heard that–that other places in the world are extremely cheap to live in in comparison to the United States.

Jones: Yes. I always thought that it could never actually happen. I thought, “I’ve got swimming and school and it would delay graduation. I couldn’t make this work.” Then I had an anxiety attack one day and I decided that I need to be doing what I actually want to be doing–studying abroad was that. So I looked into the program and found out that it’s actually pretty easy to apply. I found out that their semester starts after our swim season ended, which was perfect, so I got to be here and focus only on swimming before the trip.

Maloney: What do you mean you had an anxiety attack?

Jones: I was panicking because I was at school working on a boring degree that I didn’t care about when I just wanted to be traveling. I would think, “I could be working and saving money instead of being a full-time student.” I didn’t feel like I was getting value out of my education. I was always having anxiety about wasting my time.

Maloney: Why was your major a waste of time?

Jones: Not anymore: I enjoy what I do now. I’m on my fourth major now, which is international studies with a concentration in international political economy and a minor in business administration. I started as a biology major but I never really enjoyed it–I only got good grades in it in high school. Then I switched to music industry which I genuinely loved and was passionate about, but after a while I only liked it as a hobby. I couldn’t picture myself doing it as a career. Then I went into business finance but that was the worst. I think that was my least favorite major.

Maloney: Where did all this interest in traveling come from?

Jones: Being the youngest of five siblings in an adventurous family helped. Even being in Boy Scouts: our troop would take trips to big cities like Washington and Toronto and New York. Just seeing places like that–seeing that there’s so much more. Even just getting out in Buffalo you find things. I find new things every summer that I never knew about. Even in Fredonia: there’s places everywhere that you can’t even imagine. I’m pretty imaginative and limitless in that way.

Maloney: Tell me what you think differently about now after having gone to South Korea. What do you notice that other students might miss?

Jones: Weird things, like fake smiling at people. No other culture does that–they think it’s really creepy. Americans hug a lot and it’s not genuine, but there’s a societal pressure here to be friendly all the time.

Maloney: Like when we haven’t seen each other in a while and we hug.

Jones: Yes, that kind of thing. In other cultures there’s an understanding that if two people want to talk to each other they will. If you see someone you have a class with but you’ve never held a conversation you’re not going to flash them a grin. You wish them the best but you don’t go out of your way to do more than that.

Maloney: So it’s a little more authentic.

Jones: Yes, and I enjoyed that. All of my international friends were astounded when I asked if I could bring food to their library. They thought, “Food in a library? That’s so strange–why would you ever do that?” I told them that in the U.S. you can bring your dinner with you into the library. They found that strange. And just how loud people are here. Nobody makes a peep in their library–you don’t talk to your friends at all, which was helpful. That’s not the same here.

Maloney: No, it’s completely the opposite.

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Graham Jones in South Korea

Jones: It’s hard to explain what’s different about me now, but I no longer worry about the things that I used to overthink. When I would have to walk up to a stranger who speaks a different language and ask them for directions I wasn’t thinking, “Are people watching me do this? Do I look weird doing this?” The answer is that I’m doing what I have to do.

Maloney: Has it made you think differently about what international students are going through here? Especially because you have a Chinese swimmer on your team.

Jones: I understand how difficult it is, and I imagine it’s more difficult for him than it was for me. China is the polar opposite of the United States. In China there are over 60 cities with populations of over 1 million people–here there are only nine. There’s a huge concentration of people there, and he comes to Fredonia and it’s the opposite. I have to imagine everything is opposite.

Maloney: Let me ask about swimming: at this point last year you had no interest in swimming anymore. Take me back to that point and tell me what was going through your mind.

Jones: I felt like I was just doing something I was expected to do. Whenever I would show up to practice it wasn’t, “Oh boy I can’t wait to grow from this.” It was, “I don’t care if I get stronger. What does it matter because I don’t care about the end result.” Then I decided to take a break at an extremely pivotal point in the season–just really stepping back and deciding that I do want to swim. I practiced that entire break on my own: full practices that we would do here, because I made the decision to be conscious of what I’m doing. If you told me to be conscious of what I’m doing before I went on the trip, nothing would have happened. I really needed to take myself out of it to realize, “Okay, I wish I were there training with them. I did this for a reason and I want to commit to it.” There have absolutely been times this year when I wanted to not show up ever again. But I have a goal that I’ve been staring at since freshman year that I never thought was possible. Going to South Korea was something I never thought could be possible. But I made it happen, and that’s how I feel about this: I’ll just make it happen.

Maloney: So tell me what that goal is and where you are with it.

Jones: At SUNYAC’s last year I went 4:44 in the 500-yard freestyle and the school record is a 4:38–a six-second difference, which is achievable. But right now I’m slightly concerned because despite working hard and improving I went slower at this year’s Invite than I did at last year’s Invite (Blue Devil Invitational held at Fredonia each December). As of right now that hasn’t gotten into my head but it’s definitely something that’s easy to remember.

Maloney: Does it motivate you to work even harder?

Jones: Yes. I’m very much looking forward to the training trip. I’m looking forward to getting into a really good regimen that’s going to prepare me for what I want.

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Maloney: Why is breaking the record so important to you?

Jones: It’s just part of the human condition: you see something is possible and it’s appealing to chase it by working hard. It will be completely insignificant after I graduate but it’s a personal milestone right now. If anybody were in the position to accomplish something I would hope that they try for it and not be intimidated by the consequence of failing.

Maloney: When you told me that you, “just want to travel,” what does that mean?

Jones: From the perspective of a lifetime, even if I spent every single day with unlimited money and accommodation, there’s still too much to cover in the world. There’s so much I want to see while I have the chance.

Maloney: So the purpose is just to explore?

Jones: Yes–just to fully embrace other cultures. In Vietnam I sat on a plastic stool a foot high and ate a bowl of noodles with a 25-cent ice cold beer. You watch all the people ride by in mopeds with kids on the back and no helmets or sneakers. Everything is just so different.

Maloney: But the question has to come up: “Graham, how are you going to make money after college if you’re just traveling?”

Jones: Over the summer I’m pretty good at accumulating money and I know how to budget it well when I do travel.

Maloney: So you don’t necessarily have a career made out of traveling, but you just want to travel for fun?

Jones: It could turn into something, but I don’t know who I’ll meet or what I’ll do. When people ask me what I’m doing five years from now, I don’t even know what I’m doing one month from now. I’ll change, for sure.

Maloney: How have you changed through all these experiences?

Jones: I understand what I’ve gone through. I understand why it was a problem. I understand how I reacted poorly and how I reacted well. I learned what works and understood that that’s the way it is now. I think I always try to find a logical understanding for what’s happening. If I can understand something it’s a lot less scary.

Maloney: Can you give me an example?

Jones: If I’m panicking about something now I find the source of the problem. If I got lost while I was abroad, it was “I’m going to figure out where I’m going because there’s no other option.” There’s no use in panicking because I’ll get to where I need to go, or what, I die? Which is just not an option. So I would always try to rationalize: “I’m lost now, but this is what I need to do.” Now, if something bad happens (in swimming) I try not to spend a lot of time thinking, “Oh that was so bad, I didn’t do well, I had a horrible race.” There’s nothing I can do about it now. I can only do my best to not have another bad race after that.

Maloney: Do you have anything to say about diversity on this campus? Our campus is becoming more diverse but I just read an article in the Leader that some people think we’re not very inclusive–there are groups here that feel very separate from each other.

Jones: I can definitely see that, but how do you integrate? I don’t have an answer to that. That’s something that human groups have been trying to figure out for millennia: how do you integrate people with different backgrounds and values? It’s difficult. I applaud the people who make an effort to do that, but it’s difficult to do.

Maloney: But I imagine part of the answer is what you’re doing: traveling to other cultures and understanding them.

Jones: I absolutely think everybody could benefit from traveling and looking at what other people do: looking at other developed countries and developing countries, looking at how the handle things responsibly or irresponsibly, looking at how they are making the best out of their situation or how they’re continuing to make things worse. That exists in every culture and every organization.

Maloney: Do you have advice for someone who might want to travel? How do they even start to think about traveling?

Jones: Research. Start to understand where you’re going. Just look on Youtube–you can find videos of compilations of the cheapest places for people just graduating college. There’s “Top European,” or “Top Adventure” videos that can give you ideas. Once you find something appealing there’s Wikitravel where you can find different attractions and cultural facts. Doing your research really helps: that was how I was so calm going to South Korea, which most people think is pretty extreme. That’s not studying abroad in London.

Maloney: Can you tell me about South Korea?

Jones: It’s really developed–really high-tech. The cars are so new–even the taxis are 2016 Hyundai Sonatas. In the subway they have these sliding doors so that you can’t fall in and they’re always on time. The streets are so clean and yet there’s nowhere to throw your garbage. You have to hold onto your garbage because there’s nowhere to throw it out, yet there’s no litter in the streets.

Maloney: That’s bizarre. Here we have trash cans everywhere. . .

Jones: And yet people still can’t throw out their garbage!

Maloney: So why would people be scared to go to a place like that?

Jones: Because of what you hear about North Korea, but it was never a problem with me. The Koreans don’t let it bother them–it’s the same issues they’ve been dealing with forever. What can the average person do about it besides live in fear? They choose not to.

Maloney: Were people talking about North Korea?

Jones: Yes. Its like, “Oh, there they go again.” It’s the same repetitive runaround. It seems new to us, especially with the new president who’s never challenged them like that before, but it is the same talk on their side that it’s always been. It’s been very consistent, for now.

Maloney: Did you know anybody before you went?

Jones: No: that’s what I was really looking forward to. I wanted to meet completely new people.

Maloney: Really? I feel like a lot of people would be nervous about that.

Jones: There were three other students from Geneseo that I was kind of in touch with, but going into it I had no plans to meet up with anyone so I could get used to it. I had the option to get an American roommate, a Korean, or a “wildcard” foreigner, and I of course chose the wildcard. I had a German roommate; it was a great experience.

Maloney: That’s a lot of culture in such a short time. I just wish everybody had the opportunity to do it.

Jones: Exactly. When I was extremely anxious earlier in college I thought, “I’m not here for no reason. I need to make something out of this.” That was studying abroad. That’s how I’ll walk away from Fredonia. That was the highlight of my college career.

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