Al-Salem ’17: On leaving a mark

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On my college applications, I wrote that my greatest goal in life was to leave a mark on the world before I leave. During senior year of high school, making that grand statement, I imagined that mark would be some amazing combination of winning a Nobel Peace Prize for literature and rescuing Palestine from occupation. By sophomore year of college, I still have no idea what that mark will be, but it has recently been consuming me. I do not want to be just one number amongst many.

When I read headlines like “20 dead in freak accident” juxtaposed with even bigger headlines like “So-or-so celebrity dead at 56,” I always wonder who those 20 accident victims were in their lifetimes. I wonder why they couldn’t all have big headlines of their own commemorating the lives they led.

It may sound narcissistic to associate tragic deaths with my own personal fear of being another footnote to the world’s dead, but being someone special today feels like even more of a challenge than it ever did before. As argued in the opinions column in TIME “How the Cult of Early Success Is Bad for Young People,” young people are more and more expected to become household names by the time they turn 20. Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate, and pop star Taylor Swift are only two of the many examples of people who have eternally imprinted their names on history due to their accomplishments.

I find that at college the expectations of success and aspirations for fame are even more present and daunting. On my Facebook newsfeed, I see posts from many of my peers excelling in their studies or extracurriculars, getting phone calls from Congressional representatives or having Google take interest in apps they developed. And then I look at my own life feed, and I see my half-attempts to get up with my alarm for class. And failures to do so.

The presumption that we can all accomplish our supposed life goals or make our mark becomes a vortex we get sucked into. On one hand, we are pulled by the desire to succeed and do something worth remembering. On the other hand, we get trapped when we slip up and let our failures bury our visions for success. We get burdened by feeling inadequate.

This sense of insufficiency can be exacerbated when the legacy of success comes through one’s family. My friend’s sibling graduated with degrees from Harvard College, Harvard Medical School and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and is now working for a famous doctor. The pressure on my friend to follow in a sibling’s footsteps is an additional weight to carry along with the more natural desire to excel individually. If family were a metaphor for life, you would instantly be the middle child whose accomplishments were constantly overshadowed by an older sibling.

While I am not trying to water down the personal success of getting into Brown, it feels at times that’s not enough. The privilege of being a student here — and constantly being told that you have to do something big and are talented — often feels like it means you need to do something like find a cure for a rare disease or become a best-selling author, world-famous musician or successful defense attorney involved in a sensationalized criminal trial. We have many of these types of notable alums from Brown who work in every field, including politics, activism and the entertainment industry.

Though I still struggle myself with this ideal of expectation, we can leave impacts without having our names plastered on important news bulletins. It is the impact we make on individuals that can leave a deep legacy, even if it does not become a part of the public consciousness.

Especially during this stressful time of year as students work on completing those last midterms and finalizing — or initiating — decisions about summer plans, we should be reminded that everything from selfless kindness to a well-articulated or passionate argument about a particular issue can leave a strong impression on our peers. Every interaction we make today leaves a butterfly effect that we can’t always trace.

The mark you leave on this world will not always take the shape of an amazing internship at McKinsey & Company consulting firm or a job working for Facebook. Though these accomplishments are substantive and can be life-changing for those who attain them, each of us will make a unique, individual mark on our environments and the people in our lives.

College isn’t an easy place to feel like you are becoming the best version of yourself. For that matter, being in your 20s isn’t an easy time to feel assured or successful. And that is okay. But it’s vital to believe that you are more important than you will ever know, and just because your name isn’t the headliner, it doesn’t mean you are only a number. You will never just be a number. Those you affect will hold your story and your life with them like an old newspaper in which you are the only headline.

Banksy once said, “They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.” It’s up to you to leave as many small, powerful imprints in your own life as you can, but don’t ever belittle your worth for the starry effect of becoming a household name. Everyone you touch is a household that will hold your name close long after you pass.    

Sara Al-Salem ’17 can be reached at

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  1. I have a dream that I will win a Nobel Prize for exposing the truth about Islam and its supremacist, individual-crushing ways – and in doing so freeing 1.4 billion people from Islam’s occupation.

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