Jump at the Sun
Tralance Addy '69
I had been in the United States for three weeks when freshman orientation at Swarthmore started in the fall of 1965. Almost everything around me was new, and I was excited about my new surroundings, which clearly were dramatically different from my home in Ghana. While I knew that leaving Ghana to come to Swarthmore would make an important difference in my life, I could not, in those early days, separate the specific role of Swarthmore from the general impact of the experiences I was having as a newcomer to the United States or, for that matter, the novelty of college life for a typical student on any campus. The distinctive influence of Swarthmore only started to get untangled from that general American experience long after I had left Swarthmore, and it has happened over the years in fits and bursts, as I reflect from time to time on the motivations and influences for what I have chosen to do with my life and how I have gone about it.
In sorting out the role of Swarthmore in my personal and professional growth, I have found it helpful to recall some important events and turning points-some exhilarating, and some painful. To begin with, Swarthmore is, after all, the place of my first real introduction to America, bringing the America I observed on campus into confrontation with my views of America shaped by years of Hollywood movies and propaganda from U.S. government publications exported to developing countries around the world. It is the place where, for the first time, I discovered, during an introductory philosophy course taught by Hans Oberdiek, that what I thought and had to say was not only distinctive but of interest to others, and worthy of serious consideration. It is the place where I made the liberating discovery that while I had a lot to learn, I also had something worthwhile to contribute to the community. It is the place where, through humanities courses I never would have had the chance to take in Ghana, I came to realize that simply pursuing my interests in science and engineering was not going to be sufficient for me.
It is also the place where I was assailed by feelings of guilt about not doing enough. When it was announced upon my graduation that I was the first in the College's history to graduate with two separate degrees within four years, my pride was mixed with guilt, because I knew I could have done better.
Swarthmore was also the place where I was first introduced to student political action, and the strong sense that the best academic training had very little meaning without social conscience. It was a place of unceasing intellectual discussion in pursuit of meaning, seemingly about everything! It was the place where, I can say now quite comfortably, I met some of the most principled people that I have encountered in my life, including both faculty and students. It was the place where I got to see up close a unique face of America, full of unapologetic idealism and passion about morality, integrity, and social justice that were to become important parts of the barometer for my own journey through life, often in environments where such concerns have seemed in short supply.
I entered Swarthmore as a somewhat idealistic student with an image of myself as someone who enjoyed marching to a different drummer. I was to learn very quickly that, in fact, Swarthmore was a breeding ground for nonconformists, and that students and faculty alike prided themselves on being driven by forces different from what motivated most of their counterparts in the country. While it robbed me of some of the pleasure of thinking myself a nonconformist, being in a place where everyone else seemed to be one paid me back by reinforcing the notion that standing on one's individual beliefs, regardless of popular or accepted norms, is something to be cherished and respected. Years later, my wife commented that she could often tell who were the likely Swarthmore alumni in any group by looking for the people with the most unusual personal and career involvements.
At the age of 14, I had joined a relatively small group of secondary school student volunteers of the Voluntary Work Camps Association of Ghana, through which we spent weekends and long vacations in villages and rural towns, building schools, roads, community centers, and sometimes public latrines. I immensely enjoyed my time in these villages, and I include among my proudest accomplishments in life the small contributions I made as an apprentice brick mason and enthusiastic volunteer, to help make a difference. Later, I was to discover that such involvement was, in fact, the norm for Swarthmore students and alumni.
Looking back, I have marveled at how so many impressive human beings could be in, or associated with, such a relatively small college. In my "space," for example, there was Betz Morrill, an engineering professor who showed uncommon interest, understanding, and support for me and other international students, and who helped me understand that engineering was a tool that could be used to achieve higher goals of service to society. Early in my life at Swarthmore, I also met Carl and Bunty Barus, two remarkable people whose example of dedication to building a better world, and principled opposition to injustice everywhere, I have held up as an ideal from my student days to the very present. Carl was also an engineering professor and, although I took only one course that he taught, I had the unusual opportunity to develop what for me was one of the most important and lasting friendships I have had in America, a friendship through which I examined many of my important choices and actions.
As I was to find out after I left Swarthmore, the intimate and passionate involvement of engineering faculty and students in social and political action was not the norm outside the campus. Clearly, Swarthmore engineers were "wired" differently.
In trying to understand Swarthmore's influence on how I am wired, I have often thought about one particular incident. I do not recall the exact details, but for the semester finals of one course we had been given a take-home three-hour exam. As I looked through the exam, I noticed that the last question stated, simply, "Ask yourself a question, and answer it." I badly needed to get a good grade on the exam, but for some reason I spent most of the allotted time in an effort to craft the most elegant and important question I could think of. Needless to say, the question was so elegant, I was not able to answer it. I have continued to wonder why I had not focused on the grade I needed, instead of on the importance of the question. I am still waiting for the answer, but as some would say, it was a very Swarthmore kind of act-perhaps a little short on pragmatism, but definitely long on idealism. I can now say, however, that the habit and sense of comfort I gained from posing important and difficult questions to myself have been instrumental to my personal and professional growth.
In retrospect, with some diversions here and there, my personal and professional paths seem to have been filled unconsciously with a string of unconventional choices, and fulfillment for me has been highest when trying to address important and unaddressed issues, often associated with a high risk of failure. Somehow, the fascination with the big questions, and the potential to make an important difference in tackling them, make the risks look a little smaller, or at least worth taking.
After Swarthmore I started graduate school in mechanical and aerospace engineering. However, it was 1969, and feeling a need for my work to be relevant to the issues of the time, I developed a strong interest in the problem of world hunger, and subsequently switched fields to food engineering, eventually writing a doctoral thesis on the direct conversion of protein from unconventional sources, as a way of addressing the protein deficiency suffered by much of the world's population. My first real paying job was as a research engineer at Scott Paper Co., where I joined a small group of engineers in an effort to produce paper through an unconventional and, at the time, novel technology that holds promise for relatively poor nations with limited resources to make certain types of paper products with minimal environmental impact. Although the project was largely successful, I gradually found some difficulty in relating the development of softer toilet tissue to the great social and economic issues that needed to be addressed.
I ended up switching careers to become involved in health care, accepting a position at Johnson & Johnson. During 20 years that I consider to be some of the most productive and fulfilling of my life, I had the good fortune to lead the development of important technologies, to start new ventures, and to build companies around the world. In fact, it was a career that went beyond my initial expectations. Nevertheless, there were still the nagging questions. Was I doing enough? Should my life have greater meaning outside corporate America? Was I too comfortable? My eventual decision was that I could do more of what was emotionally important to me, and two years ago I became the founder of Plebys International, a new company with a mission to develop technology-based enterprises that address critical needs among the 80 percent of the world's population with little access to most products and services found in the highly developed nations. It is a largely uncharted path, but the emotional benefits are high. As, I am told, the old African proverb goes: "Never hesitate to jump at the sun. It doesn't matter if you reach the sun, but at least your feet will have left the earth."
Would I have traveled this road without going through Swarthmore? It is possible. What I do know is that the experiences and influences I gained during those years have been excellent components of my personal compass, and, as a result, the choices and commitments have been easier to make.
Tralance Addy is the founder and president of Plebys International, a worldwide technology-based enterprise development company