Columns, Commencement 2009

Fortunate circumstances

By
Executive Editor
Thursday, May 21, 2009

“I feel like we’re at a standstill.”

That’s what a friend said to me over a mid-semester coffee break. Since freshman year we had shared our Brown lives over weekly dinners and e-mail chains, four years of new classes, semesters abroad and summer jobs up and down the East coast. Then here we were, just a few months before graduation, and we weren’t talking about the new but the dead ends — the wait lists, looming loans and evaporated job offers. We asked what we were supposed to do now.

Hers were plainer words for how Edward Quillan ’33 began his graduation speech this weekend over half a century ago. “As we gather here this morning … we look upon a nation, indeed a whole world, whose industrial structure seems paralyzed.” Change “industrial” to “financial,” and his words strike a familiar tone. His class left this hill like we do, into the thick of one of the most painful economic crises seen in this country — times like now when unprecedented challenges opened unanticipated opportunities.

Like many of us graduating, I came to Brown four years ago and had no idea what I was getting into. I’m from a small suburb of Atlanta that rises and falls with the airlines’ fortunes, and in ’05, we were in a bit of a free fall. It wasn’t a good time for my family to run a risk and send me to out-of-state college. But I came here to open doors, and no one was more ecstatic than my dad. He had stars in his eyes and dreams of having a banker or a diplomat for a daughter. He described education as a formula: We invest X in a degree so that we can emerge with a salary some positive multiple of X, or the equivalent amount of prestige.

I was ready for it. I promised him a flawless GPA (only to learn that Brown doesn’t calculate one) and began mapping out the internships and awards I could attain.
Then times started to turn — transition. I’ve seen many a Brown student deviate from their plans when circumstances changed opportunities. A friend who graduated a year ago tried many routes popular among students — consulting, marketing, international governance — only to run into dead ends. She moved home after graduation day last year. But her story is not one of frustration. She’s exuberant, putting her talents to use with a group she previously hadn’t considered, an NGO in her hometown. Circumstance changed her direction, and I see no better place for her to be now.

Like her, we all have so much possibility when we are open to new callings and changing direction. That time is now for so many of us. To draw on my basic economics education: The opportunity cost has rarely been lower to pursue something radically different than what we think we’ve prepared ourselves for. I found support for this in an unexpected source — the “Smart Money” investment column of the Wall Street Journal. In the December piece, “Finding the Best Times out of the Worst,” James Stewart recounts the risks he took in several past recessions, and comes to a surprising conclusion: “Recessions have coincided with some of the best times of my life.” He recognizes that a bad economy causes real and deep suffering, but adds, “to the extent recessions shake up the status quo and force us to examine our goals and priorities, they also offer us enormous opportunities.”

And I came to Brown for opportunity. Now I had been languishing this year, imagining myself in this senior “standstill,” when a classmate did me the favor of reminding me of this. She asked if I had five minutes to check out her lab. She was tripping over words and squeaking giggles as she explained that she had been working with other students to design rainwater pots for areas where clean water is scarce. They would divert water from rooftops, she said, filtering it through burnt coconut shells, making the whole process less labor-intensive than carrying pots from a well and healthier, too. We hope it will be a dignified way for people to meet a basic need, she said.

Then it hit me: This is why I came here. This is what’s special about Brown, where great minds and great hearts can run wild. I realized the great privilege we students have now, that we can respond not to the incentives offered us but the needs and wants we see. We are in very promising times.

I admit, I came here four years ago measuring my achievement by shrinking spaces on my resume. But I’ve changed my attitude and taken a new look at the opportunities in these times called tough. And of all people to agree with me, my dad’s on board. I haven’t been home much for four years. Then when he was driving to the airport after my last abbreviated Thanksgiving jaunt home, he turned down the radio, read my mind and said, “You know, don’t worry about getting some big-shot job for now. The market’s tough. I’ve missed you.”

If my dad can ask me to leave Brown and come back to Fayetteville, Ga, then we can all reexamine our values and decide where we are most needed now, whether that takes us home or across the world.

I hope that we can all use these times to pursue exactly what it is we feel compelled to do when no other pressure bends our wills. Edward Quillan would agree. The old ways of doing things cannot be sure to rescue us, he said in closing his ’33 address. “Our industries have changed, our country has changed, the whole world has changed. … Is it not probable, therefore, that as we look forward we must be willing and able to devise new methods for meeting new conditions?”

We must. The task seems made for the famously footloose and free-thinking Brunonians. Classmates, congratulations. We graduate into a world in special need of our energies. How fortunate that we are at liberty to offer them.

Taylor Barnes ’09 will not be earning some positive multiple of her Brown tuition as a journalist in Boston.