Passing along an early green of summer trees, we reviewed our presentation one last time. Amherst College had invited us to present the QUESTion Project to a group of alumni interested in the holistic, human side of education. Three ambassadors agreed to join two of my co-workers and I to present at Amherst College, and we awaited our trip with growing trepidation. This would be the first time our ambassadors went out into the world beyond New York City to represent the QUESTion Project, and the first time they presented on a university campus. It was a significant event for me as well: it would be my first time back to Amherst since I graduated, and I was bringing with me a whole new lens through which to see the world.
On the day of the presentation, we walked into the empty lecture hall to set up before the audience arrived. Our first impression of the place heightened anxiety in those of us presenting, but after some extra run-throughs we eased into the discomfort with more acceptance. “Just be yourself,” my co-workers and I continually advised, “the audience will recognize your sincerity and appreciate what you have to say.” This was really the advice I desperately needed to hear myself, and as I spoke I felt myself grow calmer too.
When the time came, the students bulldozed through whatever wall of timid trepidation held them back before. They shared their experience of the class and their changed worldview in a way that brought a sense of community to the space of the room. Even those of us who had worked with and gotten to know them in the past academic year were impressed by the way they came together and recognized one another. That sense of community that the students built with one another expanded to include the audience in a way that made everyone feel invited to speak from his or her own experience. One student, Michael, described his efforts to become a better leader in the school by being more himself. Standing next to him, his classmate Yadhira acknowledged his story and shared how her friend had inspired her to be stronger throughout family troubles that she had to overcome. The third student, Emmanuel, complimented Michael’s and Yadhira’s humility and shared his appreciation for their friendship, which had helped him break out his comfort zone and open up more in class. Their expression of vulnerability and growth in front of those formidable strangers embodied their zeal for an education that recognizes them for who they are and supports them to question how they can grow. And the students’ spirit of openness permeated the audience in a way that seemed to make them feel like students all over again.
The Amherst alumni joined the community of the QUESTion Project and shared some of their biggest questions. And though many of the audience members were older and their questions related to retirement and aging, the three students were able to empathize. They commented that, at the core, these questions point to a longing for purpose. In a moment of collective revelation, everyone in the room experienced a liberation from the boundaries of age, class, ethnicity, and education that may otherwise have held them apart. The human desires for community, purpose, and fearlessness brought everyone together.
The students walked out of the room with an air of confidence because they recognized their power to shape a community around shared human experiences and vulnerability. Seeing how this work influenced others taught the students a value in their education that they hadn’t fully appreciated.
Right after the presentation, the students met with an Amherst professor. The intimate hours we spent in his office were devoted to discussing the importance of being oneself in order to create a more personal and meaningful education. This conversation served as a bridge between their presentation and the future of their education. What better place for this connection to be made than at the college where Gerard and I went? Looking out on the mountain range from memorial hill, I thought of the school motto that’s always echoing in the heads of students who pass through this school: Terras Irradient—let them give light to the world. By fueling their inner flame and reflecting others’ light, my students were beginning to make the world a brighter place.