Sometimes cultural accidents end up serving a purpose. Coincidentally, two former presidents of his two different Ivy League universities have written coming-of-age memoirs that were published within the past four weeks. At a time when admission to America’s most elite academic institutions is more difficult than ever.
So, two women, Ruth Simmons, who served as president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012, and Drew Gilpin Faust, who served as president of Harvard University from 2007 to 2018, both Born into a world where little was expected of him, how did he rise to the top of his university? What can the Ivy League, and today’s students, learn from that experience?
The answer is surprisingly similar in both cases, despite the vastly different backgrounds of the authors. Both women refused to let family or social circumstances get in their way, developed a strong sense of purpose, and believed in the importance of failure. Both were irrevocably shaped by their backgrounds, yet determined not to let their pasts dictate their futures.
Importantly, both women were born in a time when no one imagined their careers would be possible. Simmons calls this tipping point “the unpredictability of opportunity.” In her book, Up Home: One Girl’s Journey, she recalled that her colleagues told her, “There would be no place for me in this profession that I so passionately pursued.” ing. In her book Necessary Trouble: Growing Up Mid-Century, Faust talks about unexpected “doors that open.” As Faust told me, “If someone had said to me when I was young, ‘One day you’re going to be president of Harvard University,’ I would have said, ‘Don’t be crazy.’ ” When she became president of Smith Co. in 1995, she initially thought it was a mistake.
Simmons and Faust’s pasts are similar in some ways. Born just two years apart in the post-war 1940s and raised in the segregated South, both had mothers with long-term illnesses. Simmons was close to her mother, and Faust clashed with her mother, but neither wanted anything similar to their mother’s life. Both studied foreign languages, lived abroad for the first time as students, studied humanities at Ivy League graduate schools, and entered university.
But there were also significant differences. The youngest of 12 children born to black sharecroppers in rural Texas, Simmons spent his childhood in a two-bedroom cabin while his parents slept in the common room. There was no running water. Going to university was a pipe dream, and he had to pay for his tuition by himself. Honest, intimate, and deeply moving, her book echoes Anne Moody’s classic memoir, Growing Up in Mississippi, not only in its obvious biographical similarities but also in its potential influence. Reminds me. This is a book you’ll want to hand out to every young person in your life, regardless of their background. So that she could keep some of Simmons’ wise voice in her head. I would encourage all educators to assign “Up Home” to their high school students and college freshmen. That’s very good.
“So many people hear growth stories and bootstrapping stories and think they understand it,” Simmons told me. “But because of the weight of the issues I faced — the deep racism, the presence of sharecropping — people were doubly perplexed.” Students in particular wondered how Ms. Simmons I kept asking him if he had gotten into an elite educational institution. Simmons wrote the book for students who believe they “cannot be part of the world they see through a store window,” she said.
For years, in fact, until a profile was published in the New York Times in 1995, Simmons kept his personal story private. “I was kind of embarrassed about my background,” she told me. “That’s what poverty does, especially when you’re in it. How do you talk about living in a rat- and cockroach-infested dwelling when you’re living in a friend’s fancy house? It’s awkward.”
But by writing about what it’s really like to be poor, Simmons said she hopes to show people that poverty doesn’t mean “without values or benefits.” Not having strong beliefs or goals. “Very often, people believe that if you are a victim of deprivation, you can somehow escape it,” she lamented. all you want ”
For Drew Gilpin Faust, the escape she desired was from a position of public privilege and closed expectations, a combination that haunted and stifled her. Her memoir is also a story from the other side of the segregated South. Raised on a farm in Virginia by a waningly wealthy white family that included several military veterans, Faust was told by her mother, “This is a man’s world, and you should get used to it.” .Title named after civil rights leader John Lewis famous explanation Faust’s book on civil disobedience was less a revelatory memoir than a historian’s personal reflection on her time and her own participation in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. It is a memoir.
“I felt that the people I met didn’t understand how restrictive that era was for women and African Americans,” Faust told me. “I wanted to be a voice that spoke about that time.” Like Simmons, she wrote the book with young people in mind, and specifically how people like her navigate these upheaval times. The purpose was to help them understand.
We live in pessimistic times. For Simmons and Faust, opportunities are still not open to women, especially unconnected and poor black women, and many young people today feel like their windows of opportunity have closed once again. As a result, Simmons and Faust’s childhood experiences take on new meaning 50 years later.
Their stories teach us that the circumstances into which we are born do not limit us. How we allow or refuse to allow them to define us determines who we are. For students who feel bogged down by overwhelming climate, economic, technological, and social circumstances, that message is both comforting and challenging.