By Grant Olcott
Kicking off the CSE’s fifth annual January Symposium, Charles MacCormack ’63 was interviewed by President Laurie Patton about ‘social engagement and a life of meaning’. Charlie shared his wisdom while chronicling his path from a schoolboy who never traveled to a college graduate with a passion for international activism. Following the discussion, Charlie was awarded the CSE’s Vision Award.
As a member of the audience pointed out, college students face a dilemma in 2016: do they approach their futures as pragmatists, looking for a lucrative profession to ensure great opportunities for their future selves and families, or as idealists, venturing in the world with a degree and a desire to make change. While no one has a satisfying answer to such an individual question, Charles chose the latter. He jumped ship from his pre-med track, plunged into an unknown sea, and discovered a life of success for himself and others. As his story shows, social entrepreneurship allows one to bypass this career catch-22 altogether. It offers a life where skills and interests align with the needs of the world — what Middlebury students filled the Mead Chapel pews to learn how to do. Indeed, Charles mentioned he was, quite literally, preaching to the choir.
The discussion gave the audience an appreciation for the journey from Middlebury to social entrepreneurship — a phrase that, following the college’s recent media attention, has become immediately recognizable as a campus buzzword. Attending the symposium gave the idea of social entrepreneurship more meaning. What at first sounded like a trendy career choice for only the most ambitious, became more a manifestation of courage and character than anything else. Charles captured the experience eloquently: finding value in the world and connecting it to one’s inner passion.
Of all the experiences Charles shared, the career change story hit home the most. He called it his moment of obligation. Graduating in the midst of the Cold War, the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the early years of Vietnam, Charles graduated in an incredibly uncertain world. With plans to finish his degree in biochemistry and become a doctor, Charles dropped everything when a representative from the Mozambique Liberation Fund spoke at Middlebury. He had always valued global consciousness, but, after learning that Africans lived without basic necessities, he felt he had no other choice than to dedicate his life to improving their condition. “Life is short. Why would you not want to engage with the big issues?” he said. Crazy how just one speaker made such a change in his life; as Professor Peter Matthews explains at freshman orientation, the serendipitous classes and experiences affect us the most.
One hopes to approach the world like Charles, who fashioned a positive career out of the injustices he saw. He found a personal catalyst in the chaotic uncertainty of the 60’s. With economic turmoil and inequality as rampant as conflict in the Middle East, there is as much anxiety about the world today as in Charles’s college years; social entrepreneurship, however, says to be inspired, not fazed, by it. In order to live a life of meaning and purpose, one must turn the pressures of the outside world around, seeing them as opportunities and reasons to excel rather than untouchable obstacles. In doing so, one leaves behind all fears of not pursuing marketable enough majors while also helping to solve big problems. It’s also about self-exploration: finding what about studying and working makes one happy and applying it to what about the world makes one sad. The benefits extend beyond personal satisfaction and into those one helps.
For students inching closer towards choosing a major and finding a summer job, Charles’s conversation with Laurie Patton eased the anxiety about moving forward. Students dread the narrowing and specializing of their studies. Fewer options mean less flexibility if industry disaster strikes. However, there’s no space to worry about that in a life dedicated to making the world a better place. Social entrepreneurs don’t chase their dreams to reach a certain end; they do so, simply because, as Charlie asked, “How could you not?”