This week we welcome Dr. Rafael L. Bras, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, to the blog. Welcome, Dr. Bras!
Over the past few months, I have worked harder than ever and certainly worried more than ever. I have been worrying about family, friends, colleagues, Georgia Tech, the nation, the world. But the isolation and the long hours have afforded me some time to think. One recurring subject is my life. Although I have seen my share of failures and disappointments, like most people, I can unquestionably say that I have been successful by almost any metric. I am satisfied and happy — most of the time. So, I have been trying to distill the ingredients that made it so. I can talk about hard work, and about focus and dedication. But, while necessary, those alone are not sufficient conditions for success and happiness. In my opinion, the three ingredients for success in my life are family, education, and dreaming.
I was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, to a lower middle-class family — not an obvious launching pad for a career and life that has taken me to all seven continents. But my luck was being born to educated parents that had a dream for their children — a dream that could only be achieved through education. I fear that reliance on education as the most important instrument of social mobility may have weakened over time. I am sure experts will chime in, either in agreement or disagreement, with valid evidence and explanations.
I believe that my generation benefited from being the children of individuals shaped, early on, by the Great Depression, and later, by a World War that threatened their very existence. It was a time when the dream of every American was to own their home, have a family, and, for many, to study under the GI bill. The creation of the middle class was fast and dramatic, and correlated to education and hard work. I fear that those of us who made it to that cherished middle class or higher have become complacent, and more self-centered and less family oriented than our parents.
The education of our children is an expensive investment. And, while many truly struggle to educate their children, they try their best. But it is not uncommon to meet individuals who are unwilling to give up vacations, or other luxuries, in order to give their children the best education possible. I can say that my parents spared no effort or expense to offer my sister and me the best education possible at significant personal and financial sacrifice. This sacrifice was evident early on. They made sure I attended the best private school available, a reach for them and for me. That put me in a competitive position that led me to MIT.
I might as well have gone to the moon (which was, indeed, happening at the time). MIT was that far-fetched for all in my family. My parents not only lacked the resources to support me in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but I was truly ill-prepared academically and socially. But their dream became my dream, and I was not about to wake up to a different reality.
At MIT, I was surrounded by very bright people to whom the phrase “changing the world” was not hypothetical. It rubbed off on me. All of a sudden, I was not a young man from a small far away island, but I had joined the network of movers and shakers of the world. My parents’ investment literally opened the whole world for me. The investment bought me a very good education but, equally important, it bought me access, visibility, and a sense of self-confidence derived from the realization that maybe I was not any different than my Nobel-prize winner professor or my wildly successful entrepreneurial friend.
Georgia Tech provides that same opportunity to our students. The environment, the peers, the culture all say “You can do that.” If not alone, you can do it with your friend, your roommate, your classmate, your professor, or with one of the thousands of alumni who will welcome you to the network. That network is linked by dreams of those who have been empowered, urged, to dream.
Let’s now talk about dreams. Many have studied and written about what makes us dream when we sleep. A few things are clear. Our dreams, when we sleep, are very much influenced by the experiences of our environment, and they are stimuli to our brains, occurring during the period of most brain activity while asleep. Dreams and aspirations also reflect our environments and are the essence of a successful, fulfilling life. We must encourage our children to dream — not doing so stifles their creativity. The role of top universities like Georgia Tech must be to facilitate dreaming by providing the stimuli, the challenges, the skills, and the network to make dreams reality.
I have had a lot of dreams in life. Many have become reality, and to that I attribute my success. My biggest disappointments in life have been the result of failing to dream or failing to live a dream. We want all our Georgia Tech students to live as many of their dreams as possible and we will do everything possible to help them become reality.
Life without dreams is not worth living. In fact, a successful life may be nothing but a dream and the dream is the life. That duality of life and dreams have been explored for centuries. Pedro Calderon de la Barca, one of the most prolific and extraordinary playwrights of all time (17th century) wrote a piece entitled: La Vida es Sueño (Life is a Dream). In the most famous soliloquy of the play, the main character, Segismundo, muses (one of many available translations):
“What’s life? A frenzied, blurry haze.
What’s life? Not anything it seems.
A shadow. Fiction filling reams.
All we possess on earth means nil,
For life’s a dream, think what you will,
And even all our dreams are dreams.”
For Segismundo, his nightmare (his life) ultimately became a fairy-tale dream. We must let our children dream, within the family, in the schools and in the universities so they can live the good life.
Dr. Rafael L. Bras is the provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Bras is a professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering and the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. He is the first Tech faculty member to hold the K. Harrison Brown Family Chair.