Campus News

Amit Shah, Class of 1999 "The Bowdoin Gift"

Story posted May 29, 1999

President Edwards, Governor King, Distinguished Guests, and Members of the Bowdoin Community.

I thought since we were having such an intellectual event here today that I would start with a story about the first time I stood in this wonderful quad.

It was almost four years ago, on a cold, cloudy afternoon. The quad was empty there was no one around. It was very silent there was only a faint breeze and the odd rustle of autumn leaves. Just thirty-six hours before, I had been in a bus on my way to the Calcutta Airport; the weather had been in the nineties and the roads were congested with people and noisy cars. The change that I felt standing here in the quad for the first time, was intense, and I felt more alone and more scared than ever before. I wanted to run back home, where I had spent eighteen years of my life, to my friends and my family.

But somehow that was not an option. I already had my share of airplane adventures that day you see, I had almost boarded a flight to Portland, Oregon, before a kind lady told me that I was heading to the wrong ocean! I decided to go back to my dorm and accept my fate. If I was destined to be in this strange land I might as well make myself at home. And so I started arranging a few possessions in the barren dorm room. While unpacking, I discovered a long white box. simply marked "Love, Grandpa," which I had not seen before. Feeling quite thrilled at my discovery I tore the box open. In it lay a strange gift: a handcrafted wooden walking stick. My grandfather, who was 89 then, meditated for sixteen hours every day. He was considered very enlightened in our community. But that day when I saw the gift, I was puzzled after all, what is a walking stick good for? It wouldn't be useful at least for another fifty years. But I was too tired and confused to ponder the meaning behind the walking stick... I put it away and went to sleep.

When classes started the following week, I forgot my feelings of alienation and the puzzle of my grandfather's gift. I was absorbed by the intellectual challenge of my courses. For all of my life, I had attended free schools run by British missionaries in Calcutta. Now teaching and learning there were very different: The teachers mostly gave monosyllabic commands and stern looks. Learning on our part generally meant memorizing and sitting silently in the class. And I mean dead silent. At Bowdoin, I found the classroom exhilarating and refreshing. In one of my courses, I had a teacher asking me to challenge the opinion of the author and even to develop one of my own.

In my math class we didn't memorize any complex functions; instead we used computers to draw them, in order to learn their roots. In my history course, the generous professor would periodically bring donuts and apple cider, and every class was a discussion led by students. It was like an adventure on uncharted seas. My only maps were an incessant desire to learn and the wealth of resources at Bowdoin two richly endowed libraries, access to hundreds of periodicals from every part of the world, high speed Internet gateway, writing workshops, and much to my quantitative delight even math tutors.

As I advanced from one semester to the next with this sense of adventure, I realized that the Bowdoin education is not focused on teaching one particular doctrine or theory; instead, it offers each of us the tools of critical thought and logical reasoning, along with the courage to challenge traditional assumptions the assumptions that have been passed down to us. And with this courage Bowdoin also inspires the confidence to engage in open debates to formulate new paradigms. It is not a process of blind inculcation, but one of personal intellectual liberation, for true knowledge does not result from large amounts of information alone it requires the application of a critical eye, a thoughtful mind and a courageous spirit. This is the simplest, yet the most profound, aspect guiding scholarship in a liberal arts tradition. The Bowdoin education therefore is much more than the multifaceted courses, the challenging books, the inspiring faculty, and the engaging students...It is a process of self discovery, of learning about our strengths as well as our limitations, of following our aspirations, of cementing our principles and of cherishing our values. In effect, Bowdoin's liberal arts education doesn't just force us towards a specific direction, but more importantly, guides each of us so that we may discover our own unique paths.

As I was discovering the wonderful world of Bowdoin academics, I was also struck by the people at Bowdoin. Take, for example, my friend Carl, a vibrant and funny soul from South Georgia. Sometime during my first week, he woke me up in the middle of the night and excitedly announced that he had decided, after much contemplation, that I needed lessons in chopping wood. He had a shiny axe in his hand, and although I definitely wanted to sleep, I jumped down from my bunk bed and quietly dressed myself.

Having grown up in the streets, I knew that always right no matter what the time! ! By the time we reached the beautiful Bowdoin pines with some, small logs, Carl seemed to have changed his mind. We just sat there, staring at the shiny stars and the grimacing moon, and talking about our childhood, our families, our aspirations, and our dreams...Time flew by and I ended up missing my morning classes.

But I did not mind: I had discovered something amazing about the Bowdoin community: the value of reaching out and establishing relationships. I realized that we might have grown up thousands of miles apart, in totally different cultures, with different languages or even with different wood chopping skills, but once we became a part of this community we were bonded with a thread that transcended all these barriers. Over my last four years at Bowdoin, I have had many such incredible bonding experiences with fellow students, with faculty, with administrators, with athletic coaches, with maintenance staff, with dining hall servers, and with the residents of Brunswick. And I am sure I am not alone: for all of us assembled here today, such relationships are what makes Bowdoin so special, so much a part of who we are and will be.

So what do these wonderful adventures signify? What is the value of self-discovery and building relationships? Simply put, these advantages bring with it a responsibility to the common good. The Bowdoin experience, at its very core, is about being responsible towards others, of creating communities based on mutual respect and compassion. I say this because building a community is not a process that can exist in a vacuum it requires assiduous nurturing and constant rejuvenation. It requires an understanding that the common good is precisely this: an intensely personal commitment to create communities wherever our paths lead us to, whether it is to Uganda as a Peace Corps member or to Wall Street as an investment banker. And as we have learnt from our experiences at Bowdoin, communities result from overcoming barriers of being black or white, of being rich or poor, of being American or Indian, of being gay or straight, of being a liberal or conservative.

Today as I stand once again in this beautiful quad, I cannot but reflect back to my first day at Bowdoin. And once again I feel scared and a bit alone as I prepare to move on to a different world. This fall, I will be traveling to Northern Ireland and Sri Lanka on a year-long Watson Fellowship to live and work with orphans. I have only visited these two countries in my dreams and my thoughts. But the feeling of excitement mixed with an equal amount of trepidation is NOT totally new. I had the same dreams and thoughts about United States, which I had never seen before my first day on the quad.

But there is something new and unique this time around: my grandfather's walking stick. I think that I have finally understood the meaning of my grandfather's gift. I think he wanted to pass on a lesson, one that is important to all of us. My grandfather's gift, I believe, was a reminder that we must go down the road ahead of us, however scary and difficult it might seem at the beginning. His waIking stick therefore belongs to all of us. It represents the gift of self-discovery, of profound relationships of loving communities in essence, the gift of Bowdoin. So let us all cherish it. And, with a sense of gratitude let us all carry it deep within us as we move on to a world beyond Bowdoin...

Thank you and god bless.

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