While I was sitting during the commencement waiting for the proceedings to begin I remembered a statement made by one of my professors a few years ago. It was a motivator for us to consciously appreciate the environment we were in during his class and, roughly paraphrased, it was this: Never again, after having graduated from here, will you be able to replicate the environment you’re in today, where there are countless others like you, with similar ideas and ambitions, broad and open minds who want to effect changes in the world to make it just a little more comfortable.
It was the one moment when graduation suddenly felt real. You ever feel that it’s mostly among the optimists and the dreamers and the do-ers that we, too, feel creative and emboldened? That those who do and discuss larger-than-us ideas make us feel a little more alive? Fill us up a little with a sense of purpose?
To be told that numerically such a concentration would be hard to find in the rest of your life is a depressing thought. Couple that with realizing that you’re 23 years old and among the oldest few in the room, and all your closest dorm room friends now have to take a flight and a train before they could even knock on your door is a realization too heavy for mid-commencement ceremonies.
I met that professor in my junior year when I took a class on social entrepreneurship that affirmed what I had long felt about myself. I knew then that I wanted to work in the social field somewhere in the long run. What I had lacked until then was the environment where there were others with similar desires and open minds.
Right from the start the class was different. The projects mattered because they were real-world projects with real-world consequences and real-world people working on them full-time on some different continent in different countries, and what you did or didn’t do during the semester directly affected someone’s livelihood. And given that we were working on making our small share of the ‘dent’ in reducing food wastage (specifically, in Africa), it directly affected someone’s survival too.
It was among the hardest classes I’ve taken, not for the number of hours it required but because it challenged us every step of the way to push ourselves beyond our limits. Up until then I had heard the phrase “out of the box thinking” being tossed around like a ping-pong ball to the extent that it was more likely I’d judge someone negatively simply for using that phrase. Semesters would start with professors regurgitating the same phrases, trying to make their classes sound more exciting and, in turn, end up sounding exactly the same. Cue the yawns.
Despite all that, there seemed a buzz in even the most boring classes. Moving on to a new phase of life, I already miss the environment. The late-night debates on world politics while eating cheez-its straight from the box or the unending conversations on how to make the world a better place, there was, in all, a common thread of ambition extending beyond just the self. That to work for something bigger than oneself was not just a good life, it was the essence. This is, for me, one of the reasons I enjoyed college quite a bit in my last two years.
I realize now that to be able to maintain such a desire requires constant revision of one’s own biases — something one can fall prey to quite easily outside of the company of similar minds. (It’s no surprise that adults are by far the worst learners. The biases are at their peak.) It is far too easy to blame the ‘system’ or lose hope in negativity or just sit back in comfort so as not to disrupt the state of things. I find it senseless and devoid of purpose.
I found people who were willing to discuss bigger things. I found them willing to take on mundane, menial tasks in order to nudge the system just a little. I found passion in people with inspiring and unnerving ambitions, but most importantly I saw that positively working on something, despite their being no fruitful outcome to it, led others to want to help you succeed.
As I think about this more and more, wondering what I can do to effect change in my own way now that I’ve left this electrifying atmosphere behind, I am reminded of a brilliant point made by the same professor: Let’s allow ourselves to rise above the talk and focus simply on making the world just a little more comfortable.