Learning for the Sake of Un-Learning

by Tara Torabi '15
May 20, 2015

Tara is founder of the Brown University Brain Bee, co-founder of BruNotes, co-president of Brown Alzheimer’s Activists, and a volunteer for Partnerships for Adult Learning (PAL) and Home and Hospice Care of RI (HHCRI). She is also the recipient of this year's Yat K. Tow Prize at the Swearer Center for Public Service. She's been busy, but takes a moment in her final days at Brown to reflect on what it's all meant.

Four years ago, I came to Brown with the expectation of “learning for the sake of learning.” In my application essays, I had adamantly expressed how the Open Curriculum would allow me the freedom to study whatever I wanted and the autonomy to shape my own education.

But I couldn’t have known then that my education would not be found in sleepless nights trying to memorize the stereochemistry of organic chemistry reactions, nor in between the covers of books briefly skimmed for a paper due the next day. My education, rather, has been found in the stories I have heard, the homes and streets and schools I have entered, the people I have met. Perhaps, it would appear, I have never been, nor can be, the conductor of my own education. My education has been as much about discovering how much more I don’t know than I do know and the extent to which the opportunity to learn about myself and others has often appeared unexpectedly - unplanned and unpredicted.

As a freshman, I was so intent on asserting an identity, on carving a niche for myself that would serve as something to grasp onto in a sea of change. It was service that became the anchor I desperately sought. I have realized that it is in serving others – in losing the indifference, the prejudice, and the inhibition that so often separate us - that we can find ourselves, that is, who we are or who we strive to be.

I will never forget how shiny my hospice patient’s eighty-year-old eyes became as she described how she met her husband at the roller skating rink. Nor will I forget the time I was helping a refugee student complete a financial aid application and his mother, unable to communicate with me in English, instead prepared for me a cup of tea that sent a warm tingle through my belly full of gratitude and understanding.

The first song my piano student played with both hands; the whiteness of my adult student’s knuckles as she tightly gripped her pencil, struggling to write the alphabet: these moments, among many, will, too, form the pieces of self I carry.  

In just a few days, I will have graduated from Brown, but long after I leave this university, I can always return to the memories, the connections, the interactions – however brief or seemingly insignificant – that have bound me to the individuals I have come to appreciate and admire and understand. They have inspired, strengthened, and emboldened me, motivating me to effect change in my community such that their stories do not go unspoken. I now understand that learning cannot only be for the sake of learning. Learning cannot, and should not, only be selfish. It can also be selfless, and it is in this way that we uncover the connections - however mysterious and deep, mundane and meaningful – that, profoundly unite us, regardless of our differences.