When Scholar-in-Residence Jonathan London came back to Explo last summer, he felt like he was 15 again. To him, the Explo spirit hasn’t changed in 20 years. And that’s a magical thing.
Scholar-in-Residence Jonathan London is 37 and has earned accolades for his directorial work and his podcast, Geekscape. At the conclusion of last summer, Explo sat down with Jonathan to talk about his experience of returning to Explo as a Scholar-in-Residence 20 years after he first attended Explo as a high school student. During his time on campus, Jonathan spoke with and mentored students in filmmaking, writing, and storytelling courses.
What has been your experience been like, working with students in the role of guide or mentor?
When I was last at Explo, I was a student here, and I worked at a comic store. Now I'm a Scholar-in-Residence, and I work in comic books. And the message that I've been giving to students is that who I was then was good enough. And so are they.
Who you are on the inside doesn't have to change. What you are on the outside, your skill set, your maturity in dealing with others, your ability to embrace challenges and be a good person, that stuff has to progress. But your core and the values that you hold, that stuff, you got it. I see that in every student here. Life is effort, and oftentimes it's a struggle. But at Explo, if you find the inspiration, then absolutely you can hit every single one of those hurdles as it comes. It's just a matter of listening to yourself.
Returning to a place that had such an impact on you as a student — how has it been for you?
It has been incredibly invigorating and soul affirming. I talked about it a little bit on the Geekscape podcast [which Jonathan recorded live on campus last summer], but it really was one of those opportunities where you always want to go back, and then you have the chance to experience the parts of your life again. Everybody romanticizes their youth, sure, but Explo gave me a chance to revisit it. I have always been thinking about Explo.
Wow! What was it about your Explo experience that has stuck with you?
Explo opened my eyes to the fact that I didn't have to stay in Texas. That my horizons weren't just what I could see, that I could meet people from around the world that have something in common with them. And that is really empowering, especially when you have not really been anywhere. Keep in mind, Austin is a great city. It's got diversity. But I think anywhere that is your home becomes the known. You're not going to necessarily explore beyond your world — you don't have to.
Jonathan London Returns to Explo in 2016
Jonathan London returns to Explo for the summer of 2016 as part of our Scholars-in-Residence program. Our residencies offer a unique opportunity for students to engage with top field professionals, and for both students and professionals to learn from one another. During Jonathan's residency, students will be able to meet him in class, discuss storytelling with him during an activity period, and pick his brain at the dinner table. We're excited to welcome him back to campus!
It seems that Explo opened up what you thought your future could be. Were there any differences on an educational level?
I went to a giant public school. I had never been really challenged with concepts that were individualized, you know? You get the education that is given to you and to the other thirty people in your class. It's the same education that the state provided to the class before you and the class after you, and the individualism aspect kind of gets lost in the shuffle of just size.
At Explo, [learning] is individual. It was an individually challenging experience on a mental level, and I never knew that I could experience something like that until I was here. Had I not come to Explo, I would not have gone to an Ivy-league school. I would not have even applied to an Ivy-league school. And I really only applied to Penn because my RA at Explo was a Penn grad.
You returned to Explo for a second summer. Was it a different experience for you?
Yes, it was a totally different experience. I literally found out that my brother had been hit by a drunk driver and killed when I was packing my bags for my second summer at Explo. I ended up arriving late [to Explo], but it was something I needed to do because I needed to step away from the aftermath of everything that had just been taken away.
My world was just turned upside down. I didn't know how to fit into it anymore. I always think of my brother’s accident as a turning point in my life. The absolute, definite close of a chapter. And the first moments at Explo were the first pages of the next part. It was me putting myself back together and getting the empowerment that I needed. To say, okay let's figure out a way to even get back on your feet, re-find your place in the world, re-find a direction. Let's stop the spin, let's heal, let's find community, let's re-embrace challenges. Which came only a week after the accident.
Explo saved me, in that it gave me a place where I could start that process. If I didn't attend, if I din't go, I'd be a much different person. So of course, I've been thinking about my summers at Explo ever since. It was the beginning of the rest of my life. People just don't get a lot of those opportunities. It's been phenomenal.
That's incredible. In your opinion, has the program changed much in the last 20 years?
In terms of some of the logistics and the campus, that's changed from when I was here. But in terms of the energy and the vibe of the place, it's the exact same. Coming back has been so incredibly reinvigorating. The perspective I've gained has been just as profound as the perspective that I gained when I was a student.
Teenagers are teenagers and they're going to find their friends. They're going to push boundaries and want to establish themselves. They're going to want to let their personalities out. They're going to want to do all the things that teenagers did then they want to do now. But Explo's been such an incredibly well designed program that I think it works.
At Explo, students have the freedom to be themselves, but at the same time they know that staff members are always there to help or guide them through with whatever they need. Students learn so much at Explo — through their courses, definitely, but also and maybe even more so socially. The fact that they get to take courses they're interested in is the coolest thing, but I think students learn even more outside of class than they do in it. How to navigate roommate issues. How to walk onto a campus full of people they've never met before and make a ton of new friends from so many diverse cultures and backgrounds. And how to become more independent, mature, and well-rounded human beings. It's just so awesome.
Any final thoughts?
Explo will never know the ripples that go outward from what they do. They can't. There are too many to count. But today's students are going to be reflecting on their experience here for the rest of their lives. I truly believe that.