It was my first day of college. I was sitting in a freshman seminar on tropical disease, focused more on the beautiful girl dressed in blue than the fact that a new chapter of my life was beginning. As the class began, the professor asked each of us why we came to Johns Hopkins. A public health enthusiast, I said that I came to learn how to save the world. That aroused some laughter, but the professor’s smile was singular, it said: “prove it.”
And those were the words I grew up by. When I was five, an ophthalmologist told my parents that I had a genetic eye disorder and was legally blind. School, sports, and careers, I was told, would all be shaped by my disability and the microscopic world inside my eyes.
So my early belief was in perfection. If I could prove to myself that I could be perfect, then it wouldn’t matter if I had trouble seeing. But perfection had a price. In second grade, I threw a tantrum when I scored 95 rather than 100 on a spelling test. In fifth grade, I broke down in tears from the stress of trying to do my homework without making any mistakes. I soon abandoned perfection. It wasn’t sustainable.
My beliefs wandered for the next 8 years, as did I.
When I got to college, everything changed. I was surrounded by faculty who believed in taking chances and making a difference. They saw possibility in me rather than disability. I began doing patient safety research with some of the world’s experts. Along the way, I published a few papers and traveled to several countries chasing after my interests. I began to see myself as a citizen of the world. When I was recently invited to give a talk in Mexico (my first real talk), a mentor of mind said to me, “Kurt, never give a talk unless you plan to change the world.”
I often feel that we look down at those who talk about changing the world. We brand them as “irrational,” “idealistic”, or just plain “silly.” But I believe in possibility — the possibility of changing the world; of making patient care safer; of empowering students to pursue their dreams; of letting go of everyday conventions and assumptions that limit creativity and innovation.
As a senior with premature nostalgia of my college years ending, I share this belief with my peers and fellow students at any stage in their academic journeys. Catch that spark that ignites your passion. Chase those ideas that keep you up at night. Find mentors and build bridges. Be inspired and inspire others. Believe in the possibility that you can make a difference in your life and in the lives of others. When the naysayers label you as idealistic or irrational, embrace it as a sign that you are challenging the status quo. The point is not that you will save the world.
It’s that you won’t stop trying.