December 11, 2018

Holding Fast to a Dying Dream

My first days of college are beginning to fade into yesteryear. Cellphones were not the mainstay they are today. Certainly, there were no iPhones and Android devices. The Sidekick had yet to make it’s appearance. Trending were Blackberries and Nextel phones. Chat rooms were out. AIM was in. MySpace and Facebook… the EXCLUSIVE and uncluttered Facebook. But none of these events are intertwined with the embarkation of my college career as much as the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. News headlines depicted vivid images of victims sitting atop buildings longing to be rescued, and Kanye West famously remarked, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”

Yet as some memories fade, others have become more pronounced. “Hold fast to dreams.” A chorus of echoes ensue. “For if dreams die,” continues Dr. Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, “life is a broken bird that cannot fly.” The call grows louder. “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams go, life is a barren field frozen with snow.” And with his hands lifted towards the corners of his eyes, slightly curved in contour to the shape of his face in what one can only perceive to be a makeshift pair of horse blinders, he repeated these three words while gesturing his arms forward with each cadence, “Focus. Focus. Focus.”

It was a sound that would become quite familiar to me. Every semester, our Meyerhoff Scholars meeting would end in this cult-like manner. “Hold fast to dreams…”

“Focus. Focus. Focus.”

Long days and late nights. Summer internships and studies abroad. Office hours and tutoring sessions. Conference championships. Repeated classes. I experienced college’s highest highs and its lowest of lows.

Four and a half years later, I said my goodbyes to UMBC, and the following August I packed all of my worldly possessions and made my way to South Bend, Indiana with a bachelor degree in computer engineering in hand. I had been accepted to a doctoral program in computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame. Unlike the first days of high school or college, my educational experience commenced at the Notre Dame to little fanfare, though quickly became apparent Langston Hughes had envisioned South Bend when he penned the line, “life is a barren field frozen with snow.”

Year one, check. Year two. (Slightly fainter) Check. Year three. Master’s degree. Check. Relocation to Oregon. Three months at Intel. Check and check. First-Year Engineering Teaching Apprenticeship Program. Check.

Yet every step closer to the finish line became to more grueling, as if my feet were engulfed in mud. The sounds of “Hold fast to dreams” sang softer as another grew louder, “What happens to a dream deferred?”

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes – “Dream Deferred”

My health was failing. My research, too. Papers out. Rejections in. Barely  upright, I returned to Maryland, depleted physically and mentally. The steadiness of my dreams now seemed unfixed.

“Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

Weeks later I returned to school, in little to no better condition than when I left weeks prior. Research ensued. In time my strength returned. So did the voice. “Hold fast to dreams.”

Progress was slow. Yet I’ve come to learn slow progress is still progress. Applications were going out. Phone calls were coming in. Skype interviews. On campus interviews. Offers. Negotiations. I would be employed. The tide seemed to be turning, but my research was not where it needed to be.

Cap and gown picture from the University of Notre Dame.
A dream accomplished.

I packed all my accumulated wealth (and junk) into a moving truck and eight hundred miles across the country I went. Welcome to Vermont. New opportunities. Excited. Nervous. Disappointed.

The next nine months were spent teaching, writing, analyzing data, drafting, editing, reading, video-chatting, crying, praying, worrying. A breakthrough. One paper accepted. Another submitted. The time was nearing. My dissertation was submitted. Defended. Accepted.

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

It also belongs to those who believe in the dreams of others. And to those individuals I say, “Thank You.” 


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Jason Grant

Jason Grant is an Assistant Professor of Computer Science at Middlebury College. His research areas include computer vision and biometrics. Outside of the office you can find him at the gym, on a mountain or in the woods with his dog, or playing the piano.

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