A call for Ephs to take more risks

Kai Cash

Williams College just made history by making its financial aid packages all grants — no loans, work study, summer jobs, etc. I was fortunate enough to attend Williams on a very generous financial aid package that was as close to no loans as possible. I still did work study, and I was happy to do so as it consisted of working in the maker space, design thinking studio, and the machine shop. The generous aid afforded me the opportunity to focus on learning and experimentation. 

This change by Williams is a prompt for current and future students, particularly first-generation students, to dive deeper into themselves, their community, and the world around them. This op-ed is a call for current and future students to take more risks with their education, career, and life. 

Before I graduated from Williams in 2019, I had the privilege to speak to prospective students during Previews weekend about my experience at the College. I still encounter many students and families today who talk about how my story drove them to attend Williams. I want to share briefly what I said there in the hopes that it inspires someone to make a change today. 

When I arrived at Williams, I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon or an endocrinologist. There was no room for discussion on that objective, and anyone who told me that they had changed their mind on becoming a physician I assumed was jaded and not determined enough. I — fortunately, I thought — was determined and hard-working enough to accomplish that objective. I felt this way because it wasn’t about me — it was about the financial security that this goal afforded my family who sacrificed so much for me to be where I was. 

Reflecting on this now, I wonder why I felt so compelled to pay my parents back for the sacrifices they had never considered as debts and why I didn’t realize sooner that I had the greatest privileges of all: time and opportunity. 

Fast forward, I am not a physician. Never say never, but for many reasons I don’t anticipate pivoting to become one either. The truth is that it was and is about me and what my contribution to the world can and should be. 

With the burden of becoming a physician off my back, I started to pursue a truly liberal arts education inside and outside the classroom. I stopped taking solely hard sciences and began to explore other disciplines like economics, philosophy, dance, and theatre. Before I graduated, Williams enabled me to work in the Dominican Republic to set up health clinics in rural villages; conduct tuberculosis field work and policy research with J-Pal (an antipoverty research organization) in rural India; build ventures and clubs; design virtual and augmented reality programs to further educational equity by making reactions in chemistry more accessible to first-generation students; and work at CapitalG (formerly known as Google Capital), Alphabet’s late-stage growth equity firm, as a growth intern. 

Through these diverse and immersive experiences, I learned so much about myself and what I care about. However, it only happened because I refused to choose the safe option. I realized that on the other side of resistance and fear was a world that needed to be seen. No one ever knows they enjoy something unless they do it. 

There is absolutely no shame in making a mistake while exploring. If you are interested in a life built on integrity and one that feels warm and fulfilling, you will have to make decisions that seem foreign to you and unpopular with everyone around you. 

Since graduating from Williams, I have worked across many organizations in roles people dream of, tackled seemingly intractable problems, built my own organizations, communities, and initiatives, lived in many other countries, learned new languages, and met people I wouldn’t trade for the world. If you ask me what I am doing, I’d append to your question the word “now.” What am I doing right now and why? Your life and career are a series of choices and experiences. Choose to take more risks and connect more dots. The privilege of financial aid is the security to explore. 

There is no one way that life is supposed to unfold, so make of it what you may. Start a company, run for office, travel to lands unseen, take pictures, dance, and do whatever it takes to make it happen. 

My Williams education equipped me with the most valuable tool that anyone can have in life: an ability to embrace ambiguity with a smile. I hope my words encourage you to do the same. 

Kai Cash ’19 is from the Bronx, N.Y., and is currently working as an investor in nature-based carbon removal and startups.