When I first traveled to upstate New York to begin college at Bard, I took a cab ride from Poughkeepsie to Annandale. The taxi driver decided to give me some unsolicited advice along Route 9.
“You should transfer to Vassar College,” he said.
Unlike most of my freshman peers and classmates, Bard WAS one of my top choices of institutions to attend, and being told that I should have maybe gone to Vassar, was unsettling, hence.
Perhaps it was because I had long known that I wanted to write, and Bard, with its reputation as a mecca for writers and thinkers such as Hannah Arendt, Chinua Achebe or Mary Caponegro, is an unparalleled meeting point for avant-garde loving students to explore.
But while many teenagers searching for colleges look to live in a large city, I wanted to be close enough to NYC without being overwhelmed by the millions of unknown faces and distractions. The idea of the tiny classroom settings with a student teacher ratio of 4:1 sounded like heaven for my impressionable mind.
When I found out that the campus was set in manicured lawns, boasted a waterfall, the Hudson river was a stone’s throw away and I would be living in the Catskills, I was sold.
As we neared the eccentrically designed campus, I doubted what I was getting myself into by not going somewhere mainstream, or Ivy League, or both.
Certainly, I had the grades and the “exotic” background (rolling my eyes) to have done both quite easily. But years down the line, I am glad that I went to a small liberal arts college that was neither Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s alma mater, nor one that gave birth to the likes of George Bush Jr.
Little did I know that the quiet, shy high school geek I had been would go on to be sporting a Tarzan/Jane inspired leopard print excuse of a bikini outfit to a drag race that frequently ranked as Rolling Stones’ Top 100 College parties (until it was shut down due to its excessive hedonism); join the International Students Organization’s executive body, get elected into the student judiciary board, work such long hours in a Dean’s office, that the Dean’s assistant frequently made cookies for me, move on and off campus, double major in Anthropology and Literature while working 20 hours a week on on-campus jobs, take an eye-opening trip to work in an elementary school located in a slum in Bangladesh over one summer in a fully funded competitive fellowship, or that my research would win the best honors thesis in the Anthropology department during my senior year, and that my writing thesis would come a close second for the writing department.
The short end of it is that this little college campus located in upstate New York changed me in a way that almost all of us who take our college education seriously are compelled to report back about.
Before I went to college, I had been quietened by the experiences of witnessing several acts of violence and religious communalism, both in India and in Bangladesh during the fractured political regimes that frequently ruptured the possibility of peace for most of the days of my youth, and retreated into Gargantua and Pantaguel when met with the proximity of the “cool kids” who harass so many of us in our high school days.
Fellow Bardians, in a completely different manner to most of those I had encountered before, refused to let me take a back seat on my life, from the second I walked into my first classroom setting.
What Bard did for me is provide an unequivocal space to speak up against experienced political horrors without being ostracized.
Doing thus in a college which was the first one among all American liberal arts colleges to establish a human rights major, while analytically contextualizing these very traumas, allowed me to proactively engage and address the roots of injustice through a compendium of disciplines and extracurricular activities.
Speaking up in a school that is frequently called “elitist” and apparently fosters only such a student body, is perhaps giving privilege center stage to the already privileged. Guha screaming about the subaltern context in my mind when I say this, and Spivak shakes her head in horror about how conformist I am, or how arrogant to be denying my own circumstances.
I am not, however, belittling my own privilege by any means. I have long known that my life is exceptional, but that’s a different tale altogether.
What I’m saying is this: Bard engages the cutting edge. It consistently encourages and celebrates those who seek entrepreneurship and difference, and/or live among the margins. In doing thus, Bard actively recruits and trains those who push the boundaries of what acceptability are, or who question what normalcy can be.
The Bard alumni’s continual fear that the school is copping out in favor of the mainstream non-Birkenstock wearing, non-tree hugging wannabe hipster is enough to showcase how unique Bard is. The older Bardian horror at the lack of dreadlocks seen among each entering freshman class is another indication of this.
After having incurred enough student loans to possibly estrange myself from the supposed elitist status quo, even if perhaps inadequately to the quizzical mind, I can say with absolute conviction, that I wouldn’t have traded my college experience at Bard for anything else.
There are ten things I’ve learned at Bard, which I’m certain I couldn’t have picked up elsewhere, given the college’s settings.
1. Embrace your public personality, because it is your responsibility to the person you’re meant to become.
During the Class of 2006’s graduation dinner, the college’s president Leon Botstein– fondly referred to by students as Leon- gave an eloquent speech (as he is known to do). He said that the worst disservice we can do to our minds and ourselves is to shy away from speaking up in the face of injustice. That there is nothing worse than becoming a private individual.
“You belong to the world,” Leon said. “Don’t be afraid to be a part of it.”
Whenever I’ve lost focus and wanted to shrink, I remember that one must embrace themselves.
2. People are always happy to help a stranger in need.
When hunting for a job in NYC after graduating, I often cursed Bard for not having an adequate career development office (I was asked to google jobs I wanted to apply for!), or a suitable network.
I was wrong.
Bardians helped me meet some folks who have altered the fabric of my endeavors in human rights and the arts.
I began to listen, to go to alumni events, to call up different alumni and ask for tea or coffee or even five minutes of their busy schedules (the short end of networking is that people love talking about themselves, and if you get them started, chances are you’re not going to have to pay for that coffee).
Obviously, going to NYC may have helped too. Many people in the publishing and arts world know Bard in New York, and they respect the vision fostered by the school’s ventures into adolescent education, and providing a space for the two nation theory through the establishment of the ONLY American university to have a presence in Gaza.
Bardians always helped me out when I got myself into a pickle (if you know anything about midget me, it’s that I always manage to find myself in the most ludicrous situations), and they introduced me to others who were experts in whatever I was seeking, even when they themselves did not hold answers.
3. It’s okay not to know what you want to do in life, as long as you stay productive.
I’ve often switched careers- from the arts world to human rights to international relations. From law to writing and development to events management, Bard has taught me that with the right mindset, flexibility is possible, and versatility allows you to remain calm under pressure, while staying focused on getting what needs to be done, and honing in on your managing and directorial skills in the process.
I worked my way through college, but in between writing papers while folks lifted weights in the gym and I monitored them, and planning weekend parties for the student body, I came to gather skills that later on became the essential selling points in scoring jobs.
Even in the few months of unemployment straight after college when I received 16 job offers at publishing houses and law firms, only to have the majority of them rescinded because employers were unkeen to take on the exorbitant prices of keeping me in as a “skilled” native English speaker when others were available at a less cost consuming price, I stayed proactive.
Whether it was in increasing my cultural acumen through museum visits, or taking photographs, or volunteering for the River to River Festival in Manhattan, or working on the quarterly special issues of US News and World Report, I partook in educating myself constantly through activities which later helped me score my first “real” job at the Asia Society and stay on in New York for five and a half exceptional years.
4. Don’t be afraid to edit.
A man who had attended Harvard about the time I was born, Ben LaFarge is one of Bard’s most incredible Literature professors, and I’m honored to have worked very closely with him. At once engaging and nonchalant, LaFarge is quite the force to contend with, and he’s told more than two generations of us lost wanderlust-ridden “writers” to take control of our fates and futures, in his beautifully typewritten letters.
On my first proper meeting with Ben over my thesis, he circled ONE sentence out of the thirty pages I turned in, and said, “I think you’ve got a great start here; scrap the rest.”
And I’m eternally grateful I did so.
Being able to edit without holding onto each word you’ve written as though they’re so glorious that they showcase the epitome of perfection is akin to growing up.
When the time to edit my Anthropology thesis came around, I was able to scrap 70 pages of work done over the course of a semester into a single footnote, having realized that my work lacked the direction I wanted to push it into.
Doing thus helped sharpen my articulations, and also made me realize that there is a space and time for certain words, and letting go is what controls these variables.
5. Walk away from mediocrity, and shy away from “mainstream.”
Before Bard, if you asked me to tell you my name, I would have turned the deepest shade of crimson that my brown skin would have allowed me to take on.
Additionally, I would have possibly allowed you to trample all over me regarding my taste in music or books or anything.
In short, I was a jittery adolescent, and afraid that because I wasn’t always in fashion, that I had no style.
Going into student politics helped me cut down on my public speaking fears, and gave me the confidence to walk away from situations that are built on nostalgia, while learning to juggle several commitments and foster a sense of ownership over the projects I took on, which included helping to fundraise for victims of the Shri Lankan tsunami.
These activities also allowed me to say no to being a shopgirl in Grand Central station, say for instance, even though for a fraction of a momentary hiccup, I did not have the funds to buy a bottle of milk within the first eight weeks of graduating. I stuck it out until I found a suitable job, because I knew I deserved more, deserved better, than becoming a face in the New York crowd.
6. There is great power in sitting out under the stars and just staring up.
Being stuck in the middle of nowhere with a school motto that states simply that Bard’s “A Place to Think” can be flustering when it gets in the way of letting out your stress.
We all need breaks, but given that I was working all the time, I often found that sitting out at the bleachers behind the soccer field at night, at a time when no one else was there, or out in Blithewood’s gorgeous gardens, provided an unparalleled space to just relax, look up, and wonder about my own significance in the cosmos.
It was precisely being surrounded by the Catskills and being in the middle of the Hudson Valley that has always helped me seek out greenery, and find those calming locations in the world which are only possible upon stepping away into the wilderness and staring into the night sky.
7. The questions are more important than the answers.
One of the first things that my favorite Anthropology professor told our Language and Mass Media class was that you can’t just say something is problematic. Doing so is passing a judgment which, if unsupported, is a dangerous premise into a narrow-minded stereotyping outlook and worldview that is not conducive to knowledge, and is in fact, completely alien to knowledge itself.
This little tidbit of information stuck with me. Whenever I’ve been put in a problem solving context, I’ve found that always being questioned by my peers helped me to speak up myself, and ask more questions, and question myself and others in a manner that is much more productive than if I had come into situations acting as though I already had the solution.
Which brings me to the next observation:
8. Always surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.
I’m serious about this. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m kind of average, but I’ve been lucky enough to have known great minds.
People who are intelligent tend to have intelligent conversations.
When you find that you’re surrounded by folks who are out to scapegoat you for their personal interests, as is wont to happen frequently in the “real” world of social climbers and sugarcoated hypocrites, it’s important to remain grounded by seeking out those who know more than you, whether it is academically or through their professional experience, or even through the world experience of traveling.
You won’t be disappointed.
Bigger questions are posed by those who think carefully about their surroundings, and I often found this as I made my way into different conversations over my Bard years: everyone’s got something to teach you, and they usually are smarter than you are, in one way or another.
9. Don’t be afraid to do it on your own.
As opposed to my high school click-centric experience, I found several Bardians frequently eating alone at Kline, our dining hall.
They never seemed to be bothered by their solitude. As someone who comes from a large family and went to boarding school, this was naturally different to my familial and familiar surroundings, but over the course of my four years of college, I began to embrace and indeed, savor those moments of being alone.
As soon as I did, the world opened up for me, because I was also able to take time off on soul searching missions across foreign terrain by myself.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my friends and I love traveling with others as much as I do by myself, but I’m so incredibly glad that there were others who were like me- not waiting for someone else to act but by doing, proving that it’s okay to have some alone time for yourself.
10. If you read, you can achieve almost anything.
Really. I can’t emphasize this more if I had it blinking in tacky red flashing colors for you on your computer screen.
You are a smart and intelligent human being. We all are, and we may have not all been brought up in environments where we felt unique, but keeping my mind open to a flow of new ideas, or improved concepts, means that I’m constantly educating myself and constantly remaining abreast of the challenges that will indubitably cross my path.
Furthermore, I realized I already have the skill sets necessary to combat whatever falls into my line of vision.
I used to wonder about the 800+ pages of reading per week during senior year, but in retrospect, the sheer pain of having to endure such lengthy pieces of writing helped me remain focused on gleaning the important ideas, summarizing, rehashing, and in short, articulating and formulating ideologies that were constantly shifting to make space for new knowledge.
It’s been seven years since college, but there’s not one day which goes by when I’m not thankful for Bard. It’s made me everything I am today, and then more.
About the author: Raad Rahman graduated from Bard College in 2006. She has worked at the Asia Society, International Center for Transitional Justice, and the United Nations Children’s Fund. She currently resides in Bangladesh. As Bardians love to do, she’ s intent on following the white rabbit.