It changed my life

Jeff Widener/Associated Press

Jeff Widener/Associated Press

June 4th 1989 is a date that will forever be remembered in infamy in history. It was the day that the Chinese government cracked down violently on the pro-democracy movement began by students, but eventually growing to include a broad cross-section of the population of the world’s most populous people. That day, tanks rolled in to the capital to (quite literally) crush what was, in effect, a peaceful social movement with legitimate grievances and legitimate demands.

On the same day, unbeknown to most of the world, this date had a profound impact on the short history of one seven-year-old living in Hong Kong at the time. Seven years is not a long time to have lived for, but it was plenty a long enough time to die for, and in that context I was able to understand what was happening – that people were dying. It was a powerful lesson in political realism – two groups of people disagreed, the group with tanks kills the other group and wins by default. The brutality and injustice of this event so traumatized me that I remember crying. Twenty years on, the memory of it still traumatizes me.

Obviously nobody likes injustice. No reasonable person would dream of saying that they would prefer to see thousands of innocent people killed over such an event not happening. Yet many people are content to go about their daily lives without contributing the slightest effort towards alleviating the unimaginable suffering of others. This particular case of the brutal and unjust slaughter of innocent people was one of many, and I understood that at the time, but for some unfathomable reason, after June 4th 1989, I was a very different person, and was now destined to choose a very different path.

When discussing complex events in world history, the lines of cause and effect are often blurred. After all, who is to say what the cause of any given event is? World War I is the oft-cited example as it illustrates the point very well. Simple-minded folk often point to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary as the cause for the war, but to see it this way is like saying that electricity causes computer viruses. Many different things contributed to the start of World War I, such as the unification of the German-speaking peoples into a single nation-state, the creation of the Von Schlieffen plan, even the formation of numerous alliances in balance-of-power politics can be cited as causes for the first world war.

The reason I bring this up is because I am often asked about how I got into Columbia. If I am at a party, I will often answer with “I don’t know”, or something similarly vague. (If I am being “hit-on” by someone in whom I have no interest, I will often reply with “I majored in mathematics” which will kill almost any conversation, but that is another story entirely). The truth of the matter is that my path to Columbia University was a meandering and complex one, and one that is difficult to explain in a short time. Until recently, I don’t even believe that I had a good answer to the question, but reflecting on my life, and in light of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, I now feel comfortable in finally giving the long form of the answer.

My path to Columbia was not a conventional one by any stretch of the imagination. I was not a distinguished student as an undergraduate. In fact, my academic record prior to graduation was very poor indeed. At the University of Melbourne, my alma mater, there is a body known as the “Unsatisfactory Progress Committee” or UPC for short. The role of this body is to interview and review underperforming students and determine a course of action which is in the best interest of everybody, supposedly. One’s first appearance before the UPC is ordinarily fairly tame, with a slap on the wrist and a “change your study habits or else” message of some kind. The second visit is far more serious, and it is not uncommon for enrolment to be suspended temporarily, altered in some way (full-time to part-time study), or in some cases terminated. A third appearance is a rare occurrence, and one which ordinarily results in expulsion from the university. I am one of the very rare students to have emerged from my third appearance with my enrolment intact. But to understand how I managed this magic trick, we must first reflect on my past.

Just prior to commencing my first year at university, I attended, somewhat reluctantly, a speaker’s night hosted by Amnesty International. Although fairly liberal in many aspects of thought, I would have considered myself a centrist at the time, and looking back, I had slightly conservative leanings in certain areas due to my schooling and upbringing. I didn’t pay much attention to what was said, thinking Amnesty as just another left-wing organization with good intentions but no real substance. If I joined, it would likely disqualify me from any kind of high-paying employment in the type of large corporation that left-wing organizations typically take issue with. One thing that was said, however, did stick in my mind – that Amnesty may be ineffective, but if it accomplishes even 10% of what it sets out to achieve, then doesn’t even that small amount of good amount to something significant. I toiled with this in my mind for weeks but could only ever answer it with “yes”.

This eventually spurred me to join the Amnesty club at Melbourne University, but that was not the only reason. New York Times writer James Traub was a guest speaker during my Contemporary Diplomacy class at Columbia and, when speaking of the role countries played in the United Nations system, articulated it well thus, “you should not always insist that people do the right things for the right reasons”, an invaluable lesson in international diplomacy. And so follows my confession of the second significant reason that I joined the Amnesty club – there were a lot more girls than there were guys. After many years of involvement with the Melboure University group, I should add another important life-lesson to be learned from my experiences – increasing your odds does not always guarantee success.

Fast forward to my second (or sophomore, for you American folk) year, and I am now a regular member of the club. The annual general meeting had come around and it was time to elect the new committee. A new president was found quickly in Alice Pung (yes, the author of the book “Unpolished Gem” which I highly recommend) and it was now time to elect a secretary. I had no real intention of running but I decided that it couldn’t possibly be very difficult and that the experience would be educational. I seriously thought that! So a quick glance at Alice, and I got the nod, and with it the nomination. After joining the club partly for the favourable male-female ratio, all I could think about was the potential for self-improvement as a committee member.

The next year, I was elected president of the group. The election was a very close one involving a tied vote. In the end, I probably won out because I was the more charismatic of the candidates, and possessed a greater skill at public speaking. At the time, and because I was good friends with the person whom I defeated, I felt that these attributes had contributed to an unfair advantage. In retrospect, they were advantages, but they were not at all unfair. As president of a group, especially a volunteer-driven movement such as amnesty, it is very important to have a charismatic leader who is also a good speaker.

My tenure as president was something of a watershed period for the group, and I would only realize this years later. More out of laziness than anything else, I began having regular board meetings so that I could delegate tasks to people. We would have brainstorming sessions where all manner of audacious ideas would be dreamt up and planned out. Our membership grew, as did the number of regular attendees. Our presence on campus also expanded and I organized and MC’ed the first in a series of trivia nights which would eventually become annual fund raisers for our group. At the time, none of this seemed out of the ordinary to me, and it was only brought home to me years after I left when the group went through a particularly low period.

Of all the crazy things I envisioned, there was one whose significance was immediately apparent to me – “Stand Up For Your Rights”. The process of conception to fruition of this defining event is something of a microcosm of my life. It was an unquestionably audacious plan – fill a theater with a thousand people and have some stand up comedians perform for free as an amnesty fund raiser. I had gotten the idea from the DVDs to the Secret Policemen’s Balls (which I got for my 21st birthday a few months before), a series of similar events held in the UK, also for Amnesty International, and my ideas for the process had come together over the course of some very random meetings and telephone calls with complete strangers. At the time that I began organizing this, I was just naive enough not to know how difficult it was going to be. I’m not going to lie, it was very difficult. To cut costs, we would try to have volunteers run everything. Of course, if the plan is so ambitious that nobody believes that it can be done, nobody is going to volunteer for it. I’ll give you one guess as to who ended up doing most of these jobs.

The process of such a large event necessarily brought me into contact with the state, and eventually, national governing bodies of Amnesty International Australia, supposedly one of the younger, more dynamic country sections of Amnesty International, the global organization. The initial reception was cold, to say the least. I was literally laughed off – ironic. I continued to badger them, along with those in the comedy and theatre management industries. I don’t know what gave me the energy to do this. In three weeks of Melbourne International Comedy festival, I saw over 50 hours of stand up comedy. I made it policy to personally ask all the comedians and their managers to be part of my comedy gala.

After many months, people finally started to come around. My relentless passion seemed to be rubbing off. During this time, I learned many important lessons about politics, such as the importance of controlling the flow of information, and the art of diplomacy. Curiously, despite being 21, I suffered from a severe lack of credibility. Everybody seemed to doubt the one thing that I was actually confident about – my numbers. Did they really think that, just because I was 21, that I had somehow made a mistake? There were many heated arguments over this, but I was shrewd enough to keep my opinions on others’ negative attitudes to myself.

I asked myself, “why am I doing this”? I realized that amnesty may have been one of the only organizations that I would have done this for. Early in my tenure as secretary of the Melbourne University group I invited Saskia Hunter, at the time a board member of the state branch and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific campaign to speak. Instead of giving a boring, depressing, technical exposition of the human rights situation in the Asia-Pacific region, she gave a moving speech about the founder of Amnesty International – Peter Benenson. I’ll leave his story for the interested reader (and I encourage even the not-so-interested reader to look him up, the story is extraordinary), but the point she emphasized was never to lose the belief that one person could make a difference in the world, and the example of Peter Benenson founding Amnesty International was obviously a powerful one. The real answer was that I was doing this for me, because I had to convince myself that, even in this cynical world, one person can still make a difference.

The committees cancelled my comedy night over some cold feet. But I would not relent, and brought it back to life with some creative mathematics and an iron will. When the 25th of October came around, Stand Up For Your Rights became a reality, and a resounding success. I cried. It seemed so trivial, but it was also so significant in my mind. Wave after wave of applause punctuated by deafening roars of laughter filled the air while I briskly walked to and fro backstage. I could not believe it. I could not believe that it was happening, and I could not believe that I was almost solely responsible for making it happen. We ran substantially over time, but nobody seemed to mind. Right from the bump in, through my strange motivational poem for the volunteers, right to the final curtain, the air was electric because, for once, I wasn’t the only person who realized the significance of that night.

It was the single largest expenditure in the Australian section’s history. I have always felt that that said more about the Australian section’s spending habits than it did about the cost of my night. It made almost ten thousand dollars in profit, but more importantly it changed the organisation. It made people believe that it was worthwhile to dream big, and to be ambitious. An organization like amnesty should not be afraid of organizing big events. It deserves to and, if it has any plans to continue to be relevant and keep its reputation, it really has to. I organized two more occurrences of Stand Up For Your Rights, and it has since become an annual event. I also joined the state’s governance committee and enjoyed being active in policy formulation and in continually stirring the pot by challenging accepted norms and ways of thinking.

Halfway through 2005, during the 6th year of what is normally a 5 year degree, I got the call. I was required to appear before the unsatisfactory progress committee for the third time. Shit. As I sat outside the room, waiting, I thought about what I might say to justify my lack of progress. The girl who exited the room immediately before I went in was sobbing uncontrollably as she came out. I went in and sat in the now-familiar intimidation/interrogation room. There are four large desks set in a roughly semicircular fashion with a single chair with no arms in the middle. Behind these four large desks sit three senior academics and one student. I wanted to stay standing in the middle, but was instructed to sit.

What happened? I explained. Why has it happened? I explained further. They didn’t seem very sympathetic to my cause. They told me that they had good reason to terminate my enrollment. At this stage, I had already accumulated enough credit to obtain a Bachelor of Arts, so to quit would simply forfeit my Bachelor of Science degree which I was one semester away from obtaining. In my daydreaming, I briefly considered this option until something that one of the academics said caught my attention and jolted my back to reality in a very uncomfortable way. “We cannot allow you to continue as it would damage the reputation of this university”. This made me very angry and I made a point to ensure that those to whom I was speaking knew that this made me angry.

Are you out of your mind!? I am at this university, taking on some of the hardest subjects that it has to offer, and sure, I fail a few every now and that, but you have the audacity to tell me that I would be bringing this university into disrepute!? (at this stage, one of the academics tried to say something, but I cut him off) There are drop-kick idiots out there who come here and do bullshit degrees in commerce, leech off their friends in group project subjects, learn useless managerial double-speak, and then leave with very decent academic records but having not learned a thing, and you’re trying to tell me that I am bringing this institution into disrepute (I think I was shouting by this stage). Now listen to me (at this point, one of the academics made a very concerted effort to interrupt me, he may have even stood up, but I stared at him, and he was quiet again, so I could continue), I am going to finish my degrees. I am going to take these four subjects next semester and I’m going to pass all of them, then I’m going to do honours in mathematics (one of the academics chuckled at that one, but I stared at him, then he looked away sheepishly), after which I’m going to graduate school. You can worry all you want about the reputation of this university, but there are better things you can do with your time, than try to intimidate me in this room, and kick me out. (my memory is strangely vague on the details, but throughout this paragraph, I may have used stronger language than this)

I was allowed to stay and finish my degree, and I did. The next year I went on to do honours in mathematics.

In early 2006, the Law Society of Victoria (the state of Australia where I live) opened the “Human Rights Law Resrouce Center” with a fancy gala dinner to which amnesty’s National Executive Committee was invited. As the youngest member of the state committee at the time, and having gained notoriety within the national governance bodies of Amnesty Australia, when word of a few extra invites surfaced, quite to my surprise, I was one of those who was picked. Perhaps it was out of convenience because I was a student with a lot of free time, or perhaps someone thought it would be amusing to see how out-of-place I would look at a law society dinner, nevertheless, I accepted with enthusiasm having been to boarding school and having quite an overinflated appreciation for free meals.

The dinner itself was good, as one expects from the well-heeled law society. The guest speaker was even better. Tim Costello, a baptist minister, brother of the then-treasurer Peter Costello, lawyer (of course), and CEO of world vision in Australia, gave a stirring speech about the need and neglect for economic, social, and cultural rights in favour of civil and political rights. Ordinarily, I am a very shy and introverted person (can’t you tell?) but the experience of years of approaching comedians after stand up gigs emboldened me to approach the night’s keynote speaker for a chat. I told him a bit about my background and that I was in the business of saving the world, and asked him if there was anything I could do. He asked me what I studied. I replied that I was a mathematician completing my honours year. He seemed genuinely excited, and he told me about a book I should read called “The End of Poverty” by the whiz kid Jeffrey Sachs. I did.

Towards the end of 2006, I was in a bind – I was applying for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. The scholarship was started by Cecil Rhodes in order to educate future world leaders (at Oxford, of course) and required the recipients to be particularly well-rounded. Part of the application process involves composing a “personal statement” of about 1500 words detailing why you wish to pursue whatever it is you are studying. I couldn’t get my statement to click. I was applying for the D.Phill in mathematics and every time I tried to write a statement, I couldn’t make my area of study gel with my life goals (if you’re wondering about those, maybe you shouldn’t be reading this, or my website for that matter). Then I had an epiphany – I wasn’t very passionate about mathematics. I mean, I really like it and all, but as far as passion was concerned – real passion, the passion that you suffer for – it was for saving the world. So I, instead, applied for the scholarship in international relations.

Needless to say, I didn’t get it. I still maintain that it is their loss (no, really, that isn’t just something I tell myself to make myself feel better). As an afterthought, I thought about applying to a few institutions in the United States, but where? I checked the inside cover of Jeff Sachs’ book – Columbia University. Ok, I’ll apply there. Where else? Harvard and Yale sound nice, ok done. In a very strange way, I never expected to get into any of these places.

Taking advantage of the 9-month gap in academic years between the northern and southern hemisphere, me and a friend who had completed honours in the same year, Nick Sheridan, went on a 5-month odyssey through Latin America backpacker-style. Nick had also applied to several institutions in the US and, along with me, would be eagerly watching our inboxes for acceptance/rejection letters. Unsurprisingly, I was rejected from Columbia, Yale, and Harvard. What was I thinking? Three appearances before the unsatisfactory progress committee probably isn’t part of your typical ivy leaguer’s life experience. We eventually went through the US so that Nick could visit all the places he had gotten into (which further drove home the significance of what I had missed out on). Curiously, when I visited New York City for the first time, of all the items on my “list of things to see in New York”, the only one that I didn’t get around to seeing was Columbia University – it would have been too painful.

Then a very strange thing happened. Just as I was about to leave Boston for Quito, Ecuador, I received an email from someone at the Earth Institute at Columbia saying that they had seen my application, was sorry that I wasn’t accepted, but wanted to know if I wished to be considered for a similar masters degree program which was also run by the earth institute. Initially hesitant about going through the whole emotional roller coaster of waiting with hope, only to be rejected, I reluctanty informed them that I would like to be considered for the program.

By the time we were about to leave Peru, I had lost hope. It was past the date that they said they would inform me of a decision, and I had received no news. I even began discussing options with Nick’s dad (who is an academic) about possible courses of action, people I could talk to about other graduate schools etc. Nick and I split briefly because we wanted to do slightly different things while traveling, so I kept traveling through Bolivia and Paraguay, and it was in Paraguay where I heard the momentous news – I GOT IN. (the experience is described briefly here)

Those who know me very well, know that I suffer from low self-esteem, and have issues with self-worth. One of the reasons I believe this to be the case is because I routinely get rejected from things. It is a little-known fact that, on finishing high school, I applied to Cambridge University only to be rejected. Even my comedy night was rejected many, many times… that is, until it actually happened, and when it did, it gave a small part of me hope that perhaps I was worth something to the world. Rejection from Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, while devastating, wasn’t surprising at all, I had come to expect it. When I was finally accepted into Columbia, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Being rejected so many times made me truly appreciate how significant this was, and how fortunate I was.

So that is who I am… what I am. While it seems impossible that the admissions office at Columbia could have extrapolated that from my academic record (which I maintain went missing at some stage in the process), CV, and 500-word personal statement, I feel sure that the events I have described contributed significantly to my admission. I am the guy who’s out there trying to save the world. Willing to endure failure after failure after failure. If history teaches us anything about success, real success – the kind of success that is significant, it is that it comes not to the most talented, or well-connected, or anyone like that, but that it comes to the most persistent, and it comes to those who are willing to put it all on the line. Twenty years ago, in Tianenmen Square, thousands stood in front of tanks and were crushed, or shot. But one man stopped a column of tanks in front of Jeff Widener’s telephoto lens, and that image is the one that endures in the collective consciousness. That image reminds me to this day that it is still possible for one man to make a difference in the world. That image, and everything that surrounds it, changed my life.

Maybe someday I’ll change the world.

2 Comments on It changed my life

  1. Well, then. How have you resolved your passions and current occupation as a speed skater?

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