Four years ago, when Brown’s course catalog arrived in the mail, I imagined that I was standing at the foot of a long and grand hallway. In front of me were far more doors than I could count. Some were engraved with words in languages I didn’t understand. Others combined disciplines I had no idea could intersect. I had no clue where to begin. In my mind, to walk through one door would be to leave all the others behind.
I soon learned that picking my first four classes was not the biggest decision I would have to make as an undergraduate. There were still many big doors to contend with. I learned that the thing people like to know after you’ve told them what you want to study is what you are going to do with it. And so, like many students before me, I picked a responsible-sounding answer: I was pre-med. Why wouldn’t I want to be a doctor? Didn’t I want to help people? Wasn’t it pretty clear what I had to do to get there?
Without any satisfying response to these questions, I began college fully convinced that my goal in life was to become a doctor. And when I came face to face with the hardest pre-med requirement, to my surprise, I found that the reactions of organic chemistry actually made sense. Crazy, I know. And I stuck with it, in part, because I was not very good at many other things. Most people trying to synthesize some complex organic molecule are like me when I try to decipher John Milton’s Paradise Lost. I’m mostly lost.
And it wasn’t until the summer after junior year that I was forced to fundamentally question where I was and where I was headed. I distinctly remember a friend asking me a simple, but important question: What if I couldn’t become a doctor?
What if, all of a sudden, it was decided by every medical school that they would just never take me, and that there was no way — just no way at all — that I could become a doctor? What if that door suddenly closed?
And in that moment, I knew I would be fine. The longing to become a physician just wasn’t there in the way I knew it was supposed to be. It wasn’t for me, and it took me a long time to accept that this didn’t make me a bad person.
But without any clear direction, I was terrified. I felt like I had mistakenly wandered back to the infinite hallway, reverberating with the echoes of “What are you going to do with your life now?” Except this time, I didn’t have four years of Brown ahead of me. This was our senior fall. I had two semesters to figure everything out.
The problem was that I had allowed myself to latch on to what I was good at and steer clear of what didn’t come naturally. But we should not walk through doors just because they are open.
Instead, we must distinguish between our strengths and our passions. Class of 2013, you are extravagantly talented. But what keeps you going and what keeps you up at night?
I told this story to a friend who is beginning medical school this fall. She told me that if the door closed on her, she would fight it. She would fight to keep that door open because she knows that this is what she was meant to do.
Some of us are lucky enough to naturally excel at the things we love. But sometimes, we have to pursue what scares us. I remember taking the introductory statistics course for students who want to concentrate in applied math. The first exam I failed at Brown was in this class. And even though the subject fascinated me, failing made me think that I would never be good enough to legitimately take that interest any further.
We have now come to a point where we cannot let our setbacks determine our fate. John Milton — in, yes, Paradise Lost — wrote the following of Adam and Eve:
They trespass, Authors to themselves in all
Both what they judge and what they choose.”
Authors to themselves. We, like Adam and Eve, are not simply victims of circumstance and coincidence. John Milton went blind in 1652 and had to dictate the more than ten thousand lines of Paradise Lost. He was not what happened to him, and we are not what happens to us. We are more than that. We can write our own stories. It’s been a challenging road since stumbling through statistical inference three years ago, but next year, I’ll be running statistical analyses to assess drug safety. I don’t expect it to be easy, but there is nothing else I’d rather be doing. And Brown, you have given me — given us — the courage to explore such intimidating and unfamiliar territory. You have shown us that as long as we are passionate and intentional in the pursuit of our goals, we do not have to be afraid to experiment and take risks, especially when it seems like everyone else has it all figured out.
And I credit this courage to you, Brunonians, because you have been holding doors open for each other for years. As peer advisers and mentors, you counseled each other through demanding classes and difficult times. As residential peer leaders, you turned dorms into communities. And as teaching assistants, you held review sessions and led discussions as if you didn’t have your own exams to worry about. We are not graduating today just as 1,554 individuals. We are graduating as the class of 2013, walking as one through the Van Wickle gates on the shoulders of those who have opened doors for us along the way. In return, the least we can do is continue this tradition of loving and supporting our neighbors, no matter where we go.
Some of us know exactly where they want to be in the next five, ten, or fifteen years. For the rest of us, that trajectory is considerably less certain, but we, too, must leave.
But the search for something worth fighting for does not end here. As we head forth, we will encounter what would have terrified my first-year self. We will find ourselves faced with a seemingly infinite number of doors. Some of these will be ornately decorated and lined with great salaries and generous 401(k)s. Others will be run-down and wearing at the hinges. Some will lead you halfway around the world and others will lead you back home. Some of us, inevitably, will build our own doors. But as you reach for the handle, remember this: Do not walk through a door just because it is open. Find the door you refuse to let close. That, I promise you, is the right one.