Soon after Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi finished her stirring speech about the challenges of democratization in Burma at the Harvard Institute of Politics, she spoke about her decision to fight for Burma’s freedom despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “You’re more likely to lose confidence in yourself when you concentrate on yourself,” she said. “I think you have to focus on others. If you want to keep up your strength when you are working toward something, you have to learn not to think of yourself as the center of the world… you are just one working towards a goal with others.” Out of her one-hour public address, this idea was the one that resonated with me the most: Think about the big picture. Think about others. I am not at the center of the world.
As I listened to these words, I did start thinking about others. I thought about my parents and their immigration to this country from Burma, in hopes of giving me a better education and a better life, free from corruption, power outages, and rationed gasoline. They had to make so many personal and financial sacrifices to send me to piano and tennis lessons, drive me to my meetings, and position me for a bright future. I thought about the community members, teachers, and friends who encouragingly told me that I could and would make a great doctor one day. I thought about the elderly patients I saw while I was shadowing in a hospital, turned away because they could not afford their medical treatment. As I collected my thoughts and internalized Daw Suu’s advice, I realized that I should be and am empowered by the people around me. I hope one day to make them proud, to make them happy, and, as a doctor, to make them healthier.
At Harvard, through all the stress of papers, problem sets, and parties, it is easy to lose sight of our goals, and our vision for ourselves and the world we live in. While drinking coffee at 4 a.m. and tiredly re-doing our homework, it is also easy to begin doubting ourselves, to get bitter and impatient at the slow progress of our success. But Daw Suu’s speech made me reconsider what it actually means to be successful. One might argue that due to her house arrest, Daw Suu was not as “successful” as she could have been, in that she was unable to make sweeping legislative changes in Burma. Although her presence and tireless efforts to reach out to her supporters gave hope to Burmese citizens, without the ability to actively campaign, the scope of impact she could have had was constrained.
However, because of her dedication, conviction, and commitment to doing the “right thing,” her messages regarding democratization, human rights, and freedom earned her adoration and respect from the international and Burmese community. Daw Suu did succeed. She succeeded in mobilizing individuals all around the country and world to join her cause of transforming Burma into a freer, fairer nation. Most importantly, Daw Suu’s commitment arose from her genuine love for her country and the sincere hope to help bring about positive change.
At the end of the day, it is not the number of accolades one collects or the amount of recognition one garners that exclusively defines success. No, true accomplishment lies in one’s character, actions, and intentions. Listening to Daw Suu’s address was inspiring, invigorating and a much needed gentle reminder of the incredible power of passion and sincerity—for these can truly lead to concrete, actionable, and productive results. Her determined demeanor, peaceful platform, and self-discipline to continue fighting even in the bleakest of times made me evaluate my reactions to setbacks, and think about how I can improve myself.
We Harvard students are going to be an integral part of the future and I know, judging by the wonderful fellow students I have encountered over the past couple of years, that we will continue making a significant impact wherever we go. As global citizens and leaders of tomorrow, we bear great responsibility to give back to our communities, our nation, and possibly even our world. In this role, we may face many challenges that lead us to question the purpose of our work, and our desire to carry it through. During these times, following in Daw Suu’s footsteps, I hope that we can remember who we are, what we represent, and who we want to be. I hope we persevere by considering the greater community, and our role in the big picture. I hope that even when the challenges seem too great and the barriers to success too high, that we never lose faith in ourselves and lose sight of what inspired us in the first place.
When I tell people that I was born in Burma, I often hear, “I’m so sorry. I heard that was a war-torn country.” I am not sorry. As a Burmese-American student, I am proud to be Burmese and proud to see my home country taking steps towards democracy. Even more, I am proud to see such a strong, intelligent woman lead our country step-by-step to help its citizens obtain the freedoms they deserve. I am encouraged and inspired by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and will remember the important lesson she imparted on me. Think about the big picture. Think about others. We are not at the center of the world.
Khin-Kyemon Aung ’14 is a human evolutionary biology and global health and health policy concentrator in Quincy House.