Brushing the shoulders of giants

^^I mean that title literally. Yesterday, I was standing less than an arm’s length from Barbara Walters as she got into her big black SUV following a conversation with Professor David Gergen at Harvard’s Institute of Politics (IOP). The fan girl in me had already swollen to epic proportions and, as they say in the twitterverse, I was feeling absolutely #noshame. She is legend, and to both hear what she had to say to a room full of students and stand that close made me feel as though I was breathing in at least a small portion of what made her great.

But of course, you wake up the next morning and quickly realize that you are still the 20-something, struggling, wondering, infinitely blessed and yet infinitely worrying college student who still views greatness as something that steps into black SUVs and walks past on Harvard sidewalks as opposed to something actually achievable. It is the cruel irony of this place that it inspires as much as it grounds you in the hopes that you will remember just how far you have to go. But as Barbara Walters said to a crowded room at Harvard’s Institute of Politics, in order to get there, you really can’t shy away from the hard questions.

It’s a philosophy that I think many of the “greats” (however you choose to define that term) would agree with.

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Last week also marked Oprah’s arrival to take the stage at the W.E.B. DuBois Medal Ceremony, along with Harry Belafonte, architect David Adjaye, and co-founder of Miramax Films Harvey Weinstein, among others. As I was sitting in Sanders Theatre, I heard a student sitting behind me say, “oh, well it’s just Oprah…she’s already been here twice before….but Shonda Rhimes!” (For those of us who weren’t initially aware, Shonda Rhimes is the famed creator and executive producer of shows such as Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal).

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And nope, I’m not joking. I actually heard that comment spoken aloud. But strangely enough, the statement was true, Oprah had already been to campus a few times. On the one hand, the nonchalance with which the student said it gave me pause, a moment to think about how crazy and wonderful and just downright bizarre our Harvard world is.

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It makes greatness seem ordinary because it is put before us students all the time. It is as if the alumni who visit us and the professors who stand at their lecterns in class are saying, “look, you could be like them one day. Go out and reach greatness.” This feeling of being pushed, compelled, and more than anything, believed in, is among the greatest gifts I think any student can ask for. Our greatest responsibility in the face of it all is to stay humble and remember that not all greatness is something to aspire to, and sometimes the things that are most worth reaching for are not considered “great” by conventional standards at all. Ultimately, that is up to us to decide.

I haven’t figured that particular puzzle out—that is, what “greatness” means to me and whether, in fact, I need label my career aspirations with that term at all,  but I can say that hearing Barbara Walters’ legendary voice fill the room I was sitting in yesterday evening was enough to make this worried and stressed and, yes, often slightly frazzled senior feel at least a bit of calm again.

“I’ve interviewed more murderers than Presidents…and I’ve stayed in touch with some of them. I don’t aim to be sympathetic so much as I aim to understand.”–Barbara Walters

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Ms. Walters shared with us her biggest inspiration (her sister), the fact that she regards Egyptian President Anwar Sadat as a “true leader…who changed the course of history” and the likes of whom she does not see in the world today, and her love for Nancy Reagan whose relationship with the former President is one she regards as one among “the great marriages of all time.” She particularly enjoyed interviewing President Obama and the First Lady together because his answers are often philosophical while her’s are straight to the point. And they’re both funny. “This is a man (Obama) who spent his childhood having to please people…and I think we have to recognize the mark that left on him,” she said. And, finally, on Clint Eastwood: apparently that conversation was the most flirtatious interview she’s ever done.

“Clint Eastwood asked me to dinner after our interview but I turned him down because I said that I never mix business and pleasure…but ever since, I’ve wondered, I could have been Mrs. Clint Eastwood!” :)

And with that, Happy Fall, sweet readers! It’s that time of year when we don’t just put pumpkin in our lattes, muffins, and perfumes (?!)…but in our flower arrangements as well :) This one’s for the dorm room!

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