Senior Oration: Walking on the Tightrope

By Tan Nguyen ’10 / July/August 2010
June 4th, 2010

It was one morning in our freshman year, not too long ago, as I was dashing through the Main Green to get to class, someone caught my attention: the Ropewalker! For those of you who don’t know him, he is a fine gentleman, who moves gracefully on a slim rope connecting two trees on the Main Green. He has a friendly smile and welcomes anyone who has the guts to try.

tannguyen.jpgView of a video of Nguyen delivering his senior oration here.
Walking on the tightrope was harder than I thought. In theory, we need to keep looking ahead and open our arms wide. However, when we are on the rope, our body overreacts to the unstable condition. Worried about falling, our eyes turn down; our hands pull in. If not for the ropewalker constantly grabbing my arms when I was about to fall, the experience could have been painful.

Twenty minutes with the ropewalker was not enough to master the art of the tightrope, but it was enough to make me late for class. And I learnt a few lessons, which have shaped my life at Brown. First, when facing a new situation, our instant response of fear is natural — do not be deterred by it. Second, learning is risk-taking. And lastly, at Brown, learning continues outside of the classroom.

Growing up at home, I was taught that if I followed directions and studied hard, I would succeed. Schooling was about asking the question “how to do something,” but hardly about “why am I doing it,” let alone “what should I do instead?” I came to Brown as excited about our unique curriculum as one could get, but as unprepared for it as one can be. When I read the philosophy of the New Curriculum — every student might study what he or she chooses, all that he or she chooses, and nothing but what he or she chooses — when I read that, I was shaken. If I don’t know how to choose, does that mean I am taking nothing? I almost lost my balance. A fall was imminent.

Luckily, my Meiklejohn mentor was a friendly and experienced ropewalker, who helped me regain my balance. When I mentioned to him I was thinking of doing engineering, he said, “Great to hear that you know what to do. I think you are going in the right direction.” Well, after one semester of hard work, I came back to him, trembling inside, telling him that I wanted to switch majors. He grabbed my arms, looked me in the eyes and said, “Great to hear that you know what to do. I still think you are going in the right direction.”

Looking back, I realize that half of his response is what a mentor is supposed to say and the other half is what he really meant. Clearly, I had no idea what I was doing. However, the comfort of having an experienced mentor support my decision emboldened me to continue trying, to continue walking on the flimsy rope of exploration and learning. All that mattered was that I overcame the initial fear and anxiety, and constructed my own education. All that mattered was that I learnt to embrace uncertainty as opportunity, to embrace choices as the most fulfilling and sensible way to grow. And that was what my Meiklejohn meant by "going in the right direction."

Growing up, we are all trained to play it safe. Better safe than sorry, they say. The yearning to be safe and secure forces us to stay in our comfort zones. Stepping out of it is too risky. The pain of failing, of falling seems too much to bear.

However, as some of you know, falling is not uncommon in ropewalking. In fact, beginners are often encouraged first to learn how to fall to improve physical agility and increase confidence. It is almost counterintuitive to believe that one needs to fall to stand up strong. That same spirit of risk-taking, to me, epitomizes the Brown education.

Where else can we see a university, which has let a handful of students define the philosophy of its curriculum? Where else can we see students sit side by side with the administrators to work on issues ranging from the meal plan, to admission, to the University’s annual budgeting?

And these same students are also known for partying late at Fishco every Wednesday night and waking up just in time to rush to early morning classes. These same students are also known for the notorious Donut runs, SciLi challenges, and let us applaud those who were still standing strong at the Dave Binder concert on the third day of Spring Weekend. On this campus, tradition is questioned and convention uprooted. If slavery was a wrong of the past, it is never too late to be addressed. If Columbus Day is an inappropriate designation, we can give it another name. On this campus, nothing is settled. We question, challenge, and change. Getting out of the comfort zone is not a problem; we don’t have one here.

Standing here today, my friends, I want to say that we have all succeeded.

We have made it.

We have challenged our limits to know that we have none.

We have burst out of our comfort bubble to breathe the new air of exploration and learning.

We have tamed fear and calmed anxiety to confidently lay the first bricks of foundation for our daunting future.

Today you enter the wider world to walk on the tightrope beyond College Hill. The rope might be longer, even flimsier. If you fall, the ground will not be the soft grass of the Main Green.

But my friends ... Look ahead ... Arms open wide ... Knowing that you have it all in you ... Knowing that we, your fellow Brunonians, will be on the sidelines supporting your every step.

And no matter what happens, you are still going — in the right direction.


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Related Issue
July/August 2010