The Courage to Fall in Love
Mai Libman ’00 had a rocky relationship with Bowdoin, and it wasn’t until many years after graduation that she reconnected and found her community here.
MAY 27, 2000, felt like the happiest day of my life. When I was handed my diploma, it was like I was escaping from four years at Bowdoin—four years of difficult suffering and painful isolation. As a woman of color from a refugee family, it seemed to me that no one even noticed how traumatic it was to suddenly be dropped into Bowdoin from a radically different culture and socioeconomic class. In so many ways, my college experience was demoralizing, humiliating, confusing, and depressing. When I got my diploma and left Maine, swearing never to come back, I felt like a refugee again, escaping from a place where I didn’t belong and wasn’t accepted.
My Bowdoin years were difficult, there’s no denying it. But I’m pleased to say that, in retrospect, my inner suffering in college has, step by step, led to quite a wonderful unfolding. The education I gained at Bowdoin prepared me well for grad school and a diverse public service and business career. But for nearly twenty years after getting my diploma and separating from Bowdoin, I couldn’t look back at those lonely, confused years without tears. The pain of feeling left out, stuck on the periphery of campus life—this phase of my life was the hardest experience I ever encountered, even harder than living in abject poverty as a child refugee trying to assimilate into a foreign land. When I was a child, my mom held me, begging for a bowl of rice on the streets of Bangkok, or waited in line on Seattle’s Rainier Avenue for a block of cheese. I went through high school wearing no more than two pairs of jeans that I rotated with different tops. At least back in my “’hood,” I’d had my family and friends in a rough-but-cohesive subculture where I felt I fit in. Bowdoin simply had no place for me.
But I now know that, ever since I left campus, Bowdoin has been doing its very best to evolve into a more inclusive community. I now even see myself as the ungrateful one in the relationship.
I was given everything Bowdoin had to offer back then. I received the opportunity to break free from my unlucky social order, having been born into a war-torn country. And I was given the chance to mingle with a network of the world’s brightest. I had the opening to build everlasting relationships—and of course there was the golden intellectual opportunity to grasp new knowledge of facts, life, and self. Looking back, I can see that Bowdoin made every effort, with the right intentions, to help me learn and grow in ways that have forever altered my personal and professional path.
But back then, nothing quite made sense or seemed to have any value to me. Even seventeen years later, as I stood on a mountain in Asia with two lifelong Bowdoin friends—one of whom is my husband, Arkady Libman ’00, and the other like a brother, Naeem Ahmed ’00— I didn’t have the courage to accept and be thankful for everything positive that Bowdoin gave me. My painful memories still clouded my heart with darkness. So many nonspecific unravelings of events culminated in a mountain of hate—being told on my first day by a classmate that I got into Bowdoin because of affirmative action; struggling to fit in among whispers from fellow students; or my all-nighters to be able to achieve what most could do in a few hours. From the beginning, I approached Bowdoin with the idea that I didn’t want to be there. Coming from the not-so-glamorous neighborhoods outside of Boston, I wanted to be in a vibrant city atmosphere, not out in the proverbial sticks. I made the decision to attend Bowdoin because the College accepted me and gave me a generous financial aid package. But even back then Bowdoin was taking steps to move toward creating diversity, bringing in someone like me—a first-gen refugee, a woman of color coming from a socioeconomically depressed community.
I didn’t have attributes that would signal the perfect Bowdoin student. My schooling had not been up to par; I had the bare minimum SAT score—I definitely didn’t look like someone who would give back in the future. Bowdoin was giving me the chance of a lifetime to break through barriers and rise up. I now know that it’s really very difficult for someone like me to be assimilated into a small homogenous college like Bowdoin. I came to the school with an ingrained negative attitude of being an unwanted outsider. And I projected that attitude onto everything that happened to me for the next four years. Even though I learned to do well in my studies, I didn’t learn how to transcend my defensive attitudes and feel like I was part of a larger community, and I mostly related to a few other immigrant and low-income students who felt like I did. After I left, I really didn’t want to have anything to do with the College.
Until Molly Carr reached out from Bowdoin’s annual giving office, asking to meet for coffee.
I was perplexed. I was, after all, an ungrateful alum. Why did Bowdoin want to reach out to me? But one cup of coffee with Molly at Café Fixe forever transformed my attitude. I needed that hand reaching out to give me the courage for introspection, helping me see the light. What came after was unimaginable—my feeling of genuine inclusion. Soon thereafter I was invited to a gathering in Boston, where I met Sarah Cameron ’05 from the alumni relations office. Then Kristin Brennan, director of CXD, reached out about my speaking to students during Bowdoin’s Sophomore Career Bootcamp just before COVID. Through that experience I met an old friend, Adam Greene ’01, and a new friend/mentor, David Brown ’79. A definite inner healing was taking place.
I was then nominated and invited to join the Alumni Council, where I met Rodie Lloyd ’80, Matt Roberts ’93, Awa Diaw ’11, Michel Bamani ’08, Tim Brooks ’67, and many others who have welcomed me with open arms and listened to me even when my views differed from theirs. I was, after all this time, falling in love with Bowdoin. I felt included and respected as an equal despite my differing experience and perspective. I was shocked that Bowdoin even wanted someone with my negative experience to represent alumni and to share my perspective so that we all can learn together. My voice was heard, and it wants to be heard. I am finally feeling accepted into a community that I wanted to be a part of so much. My glee to jump on calls and visit Bowdoin is the feeling I wish I had had when I was in college. I am given an opportunity, in a way, to relive college. I am making friends who will not just greet me at our Council meetings, but to whom I can always reach out to talk, grab dinner, or simply connect for the sake of friendship. My budding love for my college has shocked my close family and friends who knew about my difficult undergrad years at Bowdoin. Step by step, a new level of reflection has allowed me to see that Bowdoin was steadily trying to effect change, even when I was there— they were already looking to detect potential talent in applicants, beyond their test scores, during a time when most other schools were overly focused on tangibles, with little regard for a candidate’s intangibles. In turn, Bowdoin was also self-reflecting to change.
My involvement with the Alumni Council has allowed me to witness firsthand Bowdoin’s mission to effect real change at all levels. Every Alumni Council committee has spent hours thinking through processes, programs, and mission statements to create a culture of belonging for all students and alumni, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political views, and more. As a woman of color, I believe strongly that this is the right direction, and I am pleasantly surprised at how much progress Bowdoin has made through honestly learning from its past. At the same time, I hope the College doesn’t ignore the ongoing challenges of student groups like white men, who also have their struggles and contributions and who have helped me advance personally and professionally.
Coming to recognize that no person or organization, including Bowdoin, is perfect has helped me realize that the most important thing is to continue trying to make change, create a positive impact, and elevate everyone together. It’s essential for the College to continually look forward, without forgetting those who have been pivotal in creating the past. We must all regularly reflect, listen, and share new visions of an ever-brighter and more-inclusive future. To paraphrase Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, only then can real dialogue and desired change take place.
Mai Libman '00 is CEO and cofounder of Haystack Dx and author of the recent memoir Worlds Apart: My Personal Life Journey through Transcultural Poverty, Privilege, and Passion. She chairs the diversity committee of Bowdoin's Alumni Council.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Bowdoin Magazine. Manage your subscription and see other stories from the magazine on the Bowdoin Magazine website.