Encouragement for the Non-Mainstream

My mom shared with me this excerpt from a speech given by Meredith Jung-En Woo, Dean of UVA’s Arts & Sciences, and now I shall share it with you! I love her candid yet composed style, perfect for conveying the ideas of sharing individualism and cultures:


When I was your age, I felt like I had just stepped off a spaceship, flying from my home planet of Seoul, Korea to a planet called Brunswick, Maine, with its Bowdoin College. I did not understand the country I landed in, let alone understand the zeitgeist, how it came to be, where it was going. I was an alien in a country where for people my age, popularity seemed more important than anything. When I wasn’t invited to join one of the ten fraternity houses on campus then, I spent most of my time in college shooting pool in the student union—or with the friends I found at the Afro-Am Center, listening to Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t really know who they were; I just knew they were cool.
Throughout my studies at Bowdoin and later at Columbia, I never thought of myself as part of the “mainstream.” But it never bothered me that I was on the outside looking in. By training and temperament I am a scholar—and by definition, a scholar is not a participant in the events as they occur—they are observers. There is a little-noticed advantage in not being in the mainstream—standing there, your nose pressed against the window, on the outside looking in. From that vantage point you can observe many things that active participants and mainstreamers do not see.
Eric Hobsbawm, in his autobiography, A Twentieth Century Life, spoke of the contributions that the Jewish people have made to the modern world, a contribution so disproportionate to their numbers. Part of the genius that they brought to Europe and later to the United States was that they were outsiders—essential outsiders—seeing things that insiders often cannot. Over the course of American history, outsiders have brought so much talent to this country.
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