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Optimism and Community, Discomfort and Responsibility

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by Modhurima DasGupta, Assistant Professor of Sociology

About 45 years ago in Calcutta, my father taught part time at five different colleges to earn enough money for a one-way ticket to San Francisco. He wanted to go to the University of California at Berkeley to earn his Ph.D.

His mother, my grandmother, never got beyond the seventh grade because she was married off to my grandfather when she was just 12 years old. She had never traveled outside of India, never flown on a plane, and never learned English. Yet my grandmother was the only person in my father’s family to enthusiastically support his decision to pursue his dream.

As my father packed his bags, my grandmother came into the room and handed him a small going-away present. It was an old cigarette tin filled with paper clips. She had collected them for years, believing they would help her youngest son succeed in graduate school in America. My father accepted that gift, assuring her that, indeed, those paper clips would be indispensable in his scholarly pursuits. 

I grew up with that cigarette tin full of paper clips on my bookshelf. By the time I was born, my father was a tenured professor at Berkeley. As a child, I didn’t understand why we needed to keep those rusty Indian paper clips around. Over the years, however, they’ve come to mean the world to me. I’ve grown to realize they symbolize hope across the generations.

Many of you have traveled great distances, both physical and emotional, to get to Lewis & Clark. You came filled with hope.

I’ve talked with many of you, and I know, like me, you have occasionally felt isolated and alone. Sometimes you’ve felt completely invisible; at other times, starkly visible. But I also know you have built strong bonds and relationships that are irreplaceable. You have found a sense of community.

Many of you have felt frustrated engaging in campus conversations about community, diversity, multiculturalism, common ground, or what have you. There are tensions here. But I strongly believe that tensions should not be avoided but embraced.

In the future, as you think back on your experiences at Lewis & Clark, remember that it is normal and important to feel discomfort. It is even more important to explore that discomfort— to ask what it says about others and what it says about you.

The College’s conversations about diversity are unfinished and, in a certain sense, they will never be finished. This does not mean that you should not add your voices to that conversation; rather, it is all the more urgent that you speak to these issues and take the time to think honestly about your own unease. Part of that unease comes from the fact that you are not just members of one community, but always of many. The self is always multiple, and our multiple selves don’t always get along.

Building community requires conflict and contradiction. Don’t shy away from that. What you do in and after these uncomfortable moments often will determine whether your community shrinks or expands, whether you as an individual will open doors or erect walls. As for me, I have learned most from those times when I didn’t know what to say, wasn’t sure what to think, or wondered what to do. This uncertainty is as healthy as it is frustrating.

The good news is that the Lewis & Clark community allows you to face these moments—not alone, but with fellow travelers who will stand next to you, speak a kind word, and help you find your bearings. At Lewis & Clark, you can think big and think small, think globally and think locally.

There is also pleasure and joy in “dreaming with your eyes open,” as Antonio Gramsci once said. But remember, as he did, that there is also an incredible responsibility that comes with that. The way we lead our lives affects not only ourselves, but also people we will never meet. What we choose to change and what we choose to accept will shape the world in which we live.

You came to Lewis & Clark with the hopes of your families and of your friends from back home. Your families and friends may not understand exactly what it is that you do or care about, but like my grandmother, they will try to help you as best they can.

And now, you have collected yet another set of people who hope for you. The Lewis & Clark community hopes for you. And I hope for you.

I can honestly say that one of the things that give me hope in return is knowing that there are people like you who are not afraid of the discomfort, work, and sacrifice that can make a better world truly possible.

These remarks were excerpted from Professor DasGupta’s Keynote address at the March 30, 2005, Ethnic Student Services Banquet on campus.

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