Indian summer

This July as I watched the sun rise on northern Tamil Nadu, India from the top of a lone water tower, I found myself – as I often did during the summer – reflecting on the first year I had passed at Williams, a year that while full of new and exciting experiences had seen a less-than-stellar academic performance on my part. Looking out over the slowly brightening sky with another full day ahead of me, I realized just how glad I was to be there – to be making a difference – but moreover I realized just how crucial an inspiration my freshman year, while marked with its fair share of difficulties, had been in getting me there.

Most of us come to Williams no strangers to high achievement and used to meeting its demanding standards. It was with a similar mindset that, come last September, I found myself in rural Massachusetts in a state of expectation that was mildly overwhelming to say the least. Fearing social rejection, I threw myself into an absurd number of extracurriculars, heaping generous servings of ‘hanging out’ and ‘meeting new people’ on without a second thought. Life was busy, but taking that as a sign that I was getting the most out of my college career, I hung tough for a while, figuring I could make up for the missed readings and sleep the way I had in high school. Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and before long I found myself unable to pull off the same combination of sports, music, work, world-saving and academics that I had in high school, the same superhuman workload that many of my peers seemed to handle with ease.

In such a state, where even my greatest efforts didn’t seem to accomplish as much as they once had, it was easy to feel insignificant, discouraged or even resentful of those who were doing it all. I’d often wondered – usually amidst a mountain of reading and a pending paper or two – what it was about Williams that could possibly make it worth all the difficulties.

Watching that sunrise, I flashed once again through the typical admissions viewbook answers: the “gorgeous campus” and the “close personal attention” and the “impressive U.S. News & World Report ranking” but settled on a somewhat unexpected answer. It was the knowledge that I was at Williams, living and competing and challenging myself alongside the very best, that made it worth it for me.

This summer I had the opportunity to volunteer at Shanti Bhavan, a school for low-caste and low-income children in Tamil Nadu, India. Founded with a view to destroy the persisting caste system and take a serious stride in the fight against poverty, Shanti Bhavan is a school and a home for 200-odd children from the most socially and economically depressed communities in India. For seven weeks, I had the time of my life playing, teaching and working with kids who, at the end of my stay, I came to love as my brothers and sisters.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime, one that changed my perspectives on a lot of things and one that, looking back, I realize I would never even have considered had I not been here at Williams, listening to budding plans late last semester to apply for this Department of State grant, that international internship and the other intensive summer theatre camp. It was this willingness of my peers – my friends – to pursue things I would otherwise have considered impossibly ambitious that spurred me to apply for my term as a volunteer at Shanti Bhavan and to pursue an experience unlike any other I’ve ever had.

Out in rural India, 45 minutes from the nearest city and without the slightest chance of a stray cell phone signal or Internet connection to distract me, I was afforded a unique opportunity for introspection and reflection on the year that had passed. Watching sunrises from the top of the lone water tower and lying on the bare dirt field where I played soccer with the kids every morning, I discovered things about myself that I had never known. Spending my summer teaching kids, who spent their time worrying not about fashion or fitting in, but about uplifting their families, and who embraced life with an energy and vitality that awed me, I learned about the things I am truly thankful for and what’s really important in life.

Back on campus, unpacked and ready to take on a new year, I look around today and find myself more willing than ever to try new things and take on challenges. I look around, and I find myself not bitter, but bettered by those around me, aware that I’m among them and that I too am capable of making a difference.

So next time you find yourself drowning in work, discouraged and turning inward to tough it out alone, don’t. Take a look around, Williams College, and allow yourself to be inspired.

Tom Kuriakose ’12 is from Paramus, N.J. He lives in Morgan.

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