“…We were like they that dream.”
In many ways, January 4, 2012 feels like the first in my frame of memories for this year. A backpacked, trolley-pulling me had just arrived in New Delhi, India around 11pm. Looking nothing near certain, I make my way to the arrival lounge of the Indira Gandhi International Airport. A delayed flight in Dubai pushed an early arrival about three hours more into this wintry night. Any communication between the host and the guest got lost in transit. No chance of being picked from the airport to my destination, I’ll tell myself many times. Cold and shivery, I call out my address to a cab driver. “Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), Aruna Asaf Ali Marg”, it was.
By midnight, I remember the clanging gates, a security guard opening it and dogs barking at the moving car. The hostel manager was around to welcome me. He gave me keys to my room.
It would be five unforgettable months, living with 23 other journalists from 21 different countries. We were collectively known as the 58th Group of participants for IIMC’s post-Graduate Development Journalism course. But each member had a uniqueness that I experienced throughout our stay.
From class interactions, study tours across India and working as Editor of the Class magazine, I would experience many things beyond history and friendship. I would truly appreciate and understand the interconnectedness of humanity. I would develop a heightened appreciation for the world and its diversity, reconsider my thoughts on religion and culture. It was with the way my colleagues connected with each other. It was the uneasy but well executed way they set aside prejudices and worked without spite. I saw it in the dining rooms, the treks on mountains where the only one who could cheer you was someone from a culture you never knew some weeks before. India would provide answers to questions I never dared to ask.
In March, while on a class trip to Mount Abu, I would receive my admission letter from Columbia University. Filled with nothing but surprise, hope and disquiet, I would rush into the room of a colleague and share the news. In the absence of immediate family, I learnt to share my joys with those I had come to know. We are sojourners, as were all our fathers, the ancient words say. But not strangers to these, I’ll decide. It was this spontaneous ability to connect that made my stay in India amazing.
Living for five months was not enough to bury all prejudice, but was worth subduing it and dancing in the sweeping currents of hope for humanity. From that night in January’s winter till May when the course ended, I saw new beginnings, had a taste of many worlds and became better in very moving ways. Apart from the shared views and new bonds, I’ll meet and connect with others on my personal travels across the country.
As the Valedictorian for my class, I’d recount the past and inspire my colleagues for the years:
“Worlds coalesced as we all sought common ground for creating a better place for others to live in… No matter how fleeting our experiences may be, there is an overriding recognition that we are not powerless in effecting change… whether we are destined for Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America or the Middle East, IIMC has given us the toolbox with which we can collectively work in creating another tag. We can each become agents of development.”
For the last few days in May, I lived in three worlds. My present state was Ghana. The memories of India were too moving to ignore. I also had my eyes on New York, where I would be moving to in a few weeks for my Graduate studies in Columbia University. Against all I knew and had to do, I could not focus entirely on the present at this time.
In June, I focused on work in Ghana, finalizing a documentary I was co-directing while in India.
I leave home and arrive in New York on July 28. The city welcomes me with an Indian taxi driver, a Ghanaian security guard at my dorm and a Rwandan suite-mate. How generous of this city to try to make me feel at home, I would think to myself. I would soon theorize that it was the city’s way of compensating me for a small room with no reception for me cellphone.
On the same day, I would learn the difference between 362 and 632 by walking several blocks to the two apartments with those numbers just to figure out which one was mine. Yes, I lost my way after I decided to go take a walk around the University on my first day.
“This school would make you feel like an idiot”, a recent graduate of the school told me in preparation for semester. “Just take it easy”, he added.
“Learning by doing is the teaching method of choice. The city is our classroom; our classroom is your newsroom, and your work, our textbook… If you can cover what matters in Mott Haven with grace and acumen, you can cover just about anything your world will throw at you”, said my Reporting and Writing Professor in part of her introductory email to the class.
That email would become a guide. It will bring me close to what an Ivy League education is: speed, excellence, mistakes and inspiration. It’ll push every boundary I have known to hover around my potential.
August came with the heady days. I silently cried, cringed at my own progress and walked the early days of the month without a clear sense of how I’ll be making it.
The thing about Columbia is that we have this bunch of high-achievers who for the first time in their lives, are being told they suck. Not that we are not good, we are just being pushed to be better.
That’s my faint recollection of something a course mate once posted online. I wasn’t alone, I thought. It’s the next level indeed.
I’m alone in an editing suite on the Journalism School’s 5th floor. It’s winter break and many of my course mates have gone home. It’s the first time I have had the chance to look back on the first semester: the fastest and most action-packed four months of my life.
From the silent tears in August, I would later gain my grounds; turn in some of my best works ever. I would be brought to tears once more in November, when I receive an email that I’ve been chosen for Honors in one of my main classes. That same week in November, I’d lie in bed rereading my final evaluation from my main professor. He has grown by the miles. He would do very well here.
In many ways, my admission to the Columbia Journalism School maxes the high points of my life. It was a dream I had and shared with my close friends since I was a kid. I knew it was going to happen someday, but not in 2012. Not in 2012 because I had not even turned in my thesis for undergraduate studies. Not when my mates in College would be graduating in December 2012. Yet I applied after the first semester of my final year, thinking if I start applying early enough, I’d get in after two or more tries. In retrospect, I knew I could get in, but just didn’t expect it too soon. Even when my GPA and work experience seemed good enough, my hope wasn’t bubbly.
On the morning I received my admission, I would shiver with joy and be moved to tears. For the first time, I would keep repeating part of T. S. Eliot’s Ode, which I now consider as a related theme to my life:
“Yet for all of these years that to-morrow has lost
We are still the less able to grieve…
And only the years that efface and destroy,
Give us also the vision to see
What we owe for the future, the present, and past”.
For the past five years, I have seen great loss and quicker growth in many areas of my life. I can only embrace grief or joy with gratitude.
It’s December 28, 2012. I had come on a day trip to Philadelphia to unwind. Sitting at the Rittenhouse Square garden with a friend, I slip into time. I look at the past, present and the future. I feel a healthy dose of anticipation, hope and anxiety as I try to find what lies ahead. A spring semester. A graduation. That’s how far I can see in the crystal ball for 2013. It’s not for the lack of dreams or visions that I see only these two. I know I want to be close to the people I love and continue doing the things I love to do. The passing year has however taught me that life can also hand us stuff we can never dream of. Friends. Memories. Opportunities. Just like things beyond living in India and America and meeting wonderful people in a year.
For that much, I have only one resolve: To seize all my opportunities and lead a good life. I hope to be ashamed to die until I have done something memorable for mankind. I’m open to the possibilities of the universe.