Columns, Opinions

Clare Steinman: Holding greatness close

Guest Columnist
Friday, May 24, 2019

On the sweltering evening of last year’s Campus Dance, as the Class of 2018 prepared to take the stage for their Senior Sing, I found myself in conversation with an alum visiting Brown for his 30th reunion. We talked about the many ways that this place had changed and stayed the same, and he shared with me a lesson that I returned to over and over throughout my senior year, in order to remind myself, as often as I can, what a remarkable group I’m here with.

As recorded that night on my phone’s Notes app, he told me, “You expected people who do great things to be a little different.” At first glance, this sounds like a quote from an early Apple “Think Different” ad. And of course, we at Brown pride ourselves on being “different” — the quirky, creative, nonconforming Ivy that sees your norms and shatters them. Maybe that’s what it takes to do great things, that little spark that sets you apart from the crowd.

But he was saying something else, too. When we expect greatness to be hiding among the different, we miss it when it’s right in front of us: in our dorm rooms and dining halls, curled up on our living room couches or running just faster than us on the treadmill. These changemakers that we build up in our heads don’t look like us or act like us. They’re certainly not sitting next to us in section or asking us to read over their emails before they send them. But that’s the secret of a place like this: They are.

We come to Brown riding the high of our greatest accomplishment to date — getting here — and are quickly brought down to earth by the scale of the achievements of our classmates. Greatness is everywhere, inescapable and often overwhelming. But then we find our “things” and we find our friends and our friends find their “things” and we forget, all too often, the sense of wonder that our fellow Brunonians once sparked in us. It’s far too easy to fail to recognize the accomplishments of those around us, the effort that it takes to build the communities we take for granted. I know that I often failed to appreciate the work that went into sustaining the organizations that mean the most to me until I saw all that occurs behind the scenes.

In my last weeks here, I’ve seen my friends and classmates present their theses, participate in their final sports competitions, perform in musicals (and puppet shows), win fellowships and accept jobs halfway around the world. Watching this unfold has brought this sense of wonder back, taking the form of gratitude rather than the imposter syndrome of earlier days.

When I used to think about what it would mean to be a Brown graduate, it was always remote and abstract, but somehow impressive. Now, as that nebulous identity becomes my reality, I still don’t have a grasp on what it means. What I do know is that I spent a lot of time here thinking about my own path, the skills I wanted to develop and the memories I hoped to make. I doubt I’m alone in this: From the day we choose Brown, we’re immersed in the sense of individuality that starts with the open curriculum and permeates everyday interactions. We’re told to be the architects of our own education and chase our passions, and for the most part we do. But it’s never been a solo journey.

I want to take a step back, and return to the feeling of being overwhelmed. Not overwhelmed by the future (which I am, most of the time, anyway), but overwhelmed by the accomplishments of the people with whom I’m about to take the Commencement stage. Overwhelmed but empowered by knowing that great people — advocates, changemakers, community builders and caretakers — are not different than us. They are us. By forgetting this we do a disservice to our friends and to the world we hope to change. In remembering it, we make that greatness our own.

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