That one speech that’s made me stray away

I noticed my high school graduation commencement speaker was joining the same webinar this morning. I was secretly hoping that we would somehow be put together in the same breakout room coincidentally because I was very awestruck by her. Just her presence alone already made today even better.

Let me take you back to the school hall. It was right after everybody walked on stage marching to Elgar’s “Pomps and Circumstances” and Verdi’s “Grand March”. I was sitting in the audience, daydreaming about my future in New York. At the time, the only thing I knew how to get there, was to get a decent white-collar job, stable income, and just climb up the ladder till you get promoted. Be the typical middle-class Chinese-Indonesian human being the way society had always stamped on. It was in April 2014 and I had already decided to pursue Accounting— I thought I’d better stick in the background and be one of those anime characters with scary shiny eyeglasses rather than being the business people in the front.

As usual, a speaker would boast about the accomplishment and struggle along the journey. Giving a piece of wisdom here and there. Something that our principals, teachers, or public figures have said before. She had probably once lived a life that I had pictured: a successful corporate job, an apartment in the city, with windows overlooking the skyscraper and the busy street. Raising kids with much better life aspects. All that with a struggle in school, campus, workplace, and starting a family.

She might have already lived a life I’d wanted, then she founded a social enterprise. Who knew such a thing in 2014? How could it possibly work? Why bother? We did not know about startup yet. We only knew how Facebook, Google, and Apple started from nothing and went massive in just a couple of decades. The word, “social” and “enterprise” was like an oxymoron. Making an impact on society? Well, it is up to the government, the United Nations, or international NGOs. Unless you are big-time philanthropy like Pitt-Jolie. Working at the grassroots level or becoming an activist did not have that appeal yet. And we knew where would we end up if we choose to work as government officials.

Through her enterprise, she was able to provide mechanic and tailoring training for the unemployed, especially the ones fresh off from middle or high school. She connected her foundation with corporates. And she had already done this for at least a decade. This obviously astounded me because I had never learned such ideas. Everything was never about the business or profit — it was for the people whom she had cared for. Therefore, it was only fitting that she delivered a speech about becoming an “Empathetic Citizens for a More Compassionate Society”. As she had empathized with those under unfortunate economic conditions. She also shared how she came to realize that it should take a community to raise a person — something that I was lucky to have in my school. Although I was never the smartest but instead a mediocre and socially-inept one, observing my peers and what had my teachers given to us was very impactful to this day. Coming from an international school, one must’ve thought that everybody in the school was so privileged — that they have been living in a bubble. Yes, they probably were, but some had already spoken up about so many issues, initiated so many different charities to build affordable houses, to do children outreach, even made school festivals revolved around recycled items and more —which were so empowering.

She then recalled a story of two brothers who were doctors (or physicians). One was not just an ordinary doctor. He became a missionary — yes, the imperialism one. Just as he wasn’t an ordinary doctor, he wasn’t an ordinary missionary either. He explored different parts of Africa where he did not focus to convert but to help others. He advocated for abolishing slaves and was considered to have suggested different trade routes. Look, my only introduction to Africa back then was the film “Invictus” and the novel “Things Fall Apart”. I am still very limited so I could not say much exactly about the impact of the David Livingstone (do correct me if I’m wrong and understand that I am not making what he’s done a big deal because it is still debatable) but the emphasis here was on him being in uncharted territory and doing what others would not do. When he died, he was known for so many different things. Physician. Explorer. Advocate. While the other one was just simply known as the “brother”.

She was able to find and stay with a reason. She then asked, “what would you have written on your tomb?” Obviously it made me choke for a bit. Growing up learning about so many influential people and surrounded by peers and teachers, I was intrigued to have my Wikipedia page someday to say what I was able to contribute. It was only a couple of years after Beyonce’s “I Was Here” came out. I wished I could be of use in this world after all that I had gone through, at the very least. My repulsion toward working in companies or managing a business probably had already started way before the speech but the speech just put things into perspective. Let’s give credit where credit’s due, shall we? Despite how horrifying exams and schoolwork were, I had never encountered anything that forced me to feel small — if anything, I was always the one who constructed that feeling. I would not have arrived at the key realization moment if it weren’t for my experience and the values I learned to be a little bit more empathetic and compassionate. Her speech was just a clue to how I could wrap up my school year in a single question and answer.

So I had already begun looking up for opportunities on campus — where should I begin to make up the time and opportunity losses back at school? I still wanted to do more as she had already given me an idea which I later embraced as a way of life or life aspiration. The first thing that signed up for, was AIESEC. I initially decided to be in the incoming internship for the non-corporate department because I might just be able to connect with her foundation. And later, I tried to do a summer project on the environment. All of which had been a valuable experience, both the good and bad things. Five years later, the idea still latches on. As of now, I have not looked back yet— a huge part of this is because I have the privilege to make that choice. I still want to have comfort that is just enough for me to take care of myself and others, nothing too extreme. I may sound cliche or naive — the only thing that is realistic is that I just want to help out with what I have learned and passionate about. I did not have a dream board anymore. Though I may have tried aiming for something higher, or how frustrating the current situation is, the very least I can do is to be of use to somebody, or a cause. That means I have got to be more strategic and entrepreneurial. I still have so much growing to do to keep up with my current line of work, in order for me to be able to not just survive but also thrive with all the contributions that I would be able to make.

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Straying. Pathfinding. Raison d’être. I hope stories can help.

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Owren

Straying. Pathfinding. Raison d’être. I hope stories can help.