I was asked by a friend over at Boston Magazine to provide some tips on how to get a world class education. After you take a gander at the short list, come home and check out the full article here.
Begin to think of education (and dedication to the experience) as a means of building character and broadening your worldview. I moved across the country in 2009 with a few dollars, a job offer (with room and board) and the hope that in a place like Cambridge, opportunities would open themselves up to me if I began to seek them out. My favorite spaces are the MA Historical Society and the Museum of African American History. When you go, sit in the front row. If time and the space allow, ask one pertinent, meaningful question. Push yourself to show up, occupy space and interact with others as peers and equal contributors.
Learn in community with others. Reach out to the heads of houses of worship and ask to chat with them about their faith traditions, create a blog about your escapades, reach out to professors whose lectures you’ve attended and ask to chat for fifteen minutes during their office hours. When they agree to meet with you ask them about their story – why they chose their field, what excites and encourages them…and bring chocolate. That always goes over well. I suggest 33%, 55% and 71%.
The chocolatey trinity never fails.
Contribute a verse. I’m a Black woman from Chicago that grew up in a predominately Black middle-class Christian community. Being confronted with different ideas should shake the core of your value system – it can engender empathy, stir up an appetite for cultural change…and provide you with opportunities to develop a nuanced understanding of the world.
Volunteer. Email the events point person and offer to handle social media for the night. Follow up with a blog post / Storify article. Reach out to decision makers for a panel seat at a convention where your insight (and / or demographic) is underrepresented. Use that heavy feeling in your chest to connect with others and make change. When we work to change the world, we change ourselves…and develop a sense of our ability and value along the way.
My path has been an interesting one. I failed a Women’s Studies course in college and went on to create a coalition for legislation that would make Massachusetts the 20th state to ban a horrific practice that had roots in slavery. I went from singing my culture’s lifeblood in my alma mater’s Gospel Choir to attending Gregorian chant sessions at Harvard for fun. I read books by people that baffled and scared me senseless, so I attended lectures and talked with them to humanize hard concepts and rebuild my intellectual esteem. I wanted to be a person of use - a kinder, more empathetic person, so I put myself in positions to be humbled. I became an able-bodied person that joined an ASL Meetup group to learn as much about D/deaf and Hard of Hearing cultures as I could. I was a straight, cisgendered documented person that grew up under a Christian tradition, so I broke bread with people those labels didn’t apply to. I felt the deep and abiding peace that accompanies standing in the gap for other marginalized people…and on the humane side of History. I didn’t aim to be perfect or right all the time. I just wanted to stay humbled and tethered to the grace of community and the warmth of lessons learned.
I realize that it’s a luxury to do these things – that I was a childless person with a job that provided food and housing. That I was able to pop down to Providence or New Haven and use my skills and knowledge to make others feel comfortable opening up to me. I also had a childhood filled with books and was brought up in a family that relished my sense of wonder.
…but the seed that started it all was small. Here’s the simple, beautiful moment that gave me the capacity to think of myself this way:
I was at a choir rehearsal in Chicago when I was about 11. It was around the holidays and we stood in a circle for a closing prayer. The pastor began the benediction and lit his candle. At the closing, he turned and lit the candle of the person on his left. This continued until my mother’s candle was lit. She turned to her left, lit that person’s candle…and proceeded to walk across the circle to light someone else’s. That's it. That was the moment.
Parents pass down many things. The good ones will drive home the importance of eating your brussels sprouts and drinking plenty of water, but that day I learned two very important lessons that she likely never considered lessons:
Always be in a position to receive light and once you have it, it is your duty to share it.
The sharing of light does not have to be ordered.
So, in 2009 I ran out of money for school and decided to move to Boston because (and I quote): "I knew how the train system worked". I was devastated that I couldn't finish my degree at the time. I left school in 2008, languished for a year, and sat on the floor of my bedroom to make a plan: I'd move across the country and sit in on lectures to build some intellectual esteem. I got a job that provided housing and food, paid someone my last $12 to take me to O'Hare and made my way to Boston. Hundreds of lectures, interviews and volunteer shifts later, I realized that I had always been the person I set out to become.
Curious, daring, and hungry for an education.