“Leave this place better than how we found it.”
That’s how Navjeet K. Bal ’84 summed up her guiding philosophy—over the course of a life spanning several continents and careers—during a presentation with fellow Williams Bicentennial Medalists on campus in September. When she learned that the college had selected her for the honor, which celebrates distinguished achievement in “any field of endeavor,” Bal, a public finance lawyer who spent three years as Massachusetts’ commissioner of revenue, said she initially struggled to define what her chosen field is.
My favorite reaction when I told Williams alums about this [award] came from my brother … Teji ’86, now a successful physician at the Cleveland Clinic. His reaction was, “Congratulations, Sis. That’s great. What exactly is your chosen field of endeavor?” Which I thought was a very valid question.
I started out life in Nakuru, Kenya … and we moved to England, where my brother was born. We lived in Ethiopia for a couple of years and then Zambia. I moved to this country right before I started high school, to Syracuse, N.Y. So I started Williams at the age of 16 … and I was really just beginning to figure out what it meant to be an American. I’d been in this country for about five years. I actually became a U.S. citizen after my freshman year in college. For the first time in my life, my citizenship was aligned with the country I was living in. Williams’ liberal arts education was a great, great luxury. My parents, who grew up in post-colonial India and Kenya—for them education was really the means to an end in both medicine and teaching. They entered those colleges when they were still teenagers.
The great luxury of my Williams education … is that it was a fouryear period of intellectual growth and personal development. I learned how to think, how to ask questions and how to engage in public discourse. And on a more visceral level, the college’s intellectual and educational history has become a part of my sense of self. Having the imprimatur of a Williams education and all that it implies has been my passport … to becoming a part of American society, to being accepted and welcomed into a particular slice of American culture, and it really is the foundation on which I have constructed a sense of place, a sense of belonging and a sense of home. Truly the greatest gift that my parents ever gave me was my Williams education.
My fellow Williams students and professors, in particular Professor Stephen Fix, were never content to take me at my word. I learned how to defend my positions, change my way of thinking, understand historical trends, appreciate political philosophies and really become a citizen of this country and of the world. This kind of learning took place in the classroom, obviously, but also in the library, the Log, the snack bar, late at night over a grilled honey bun. … And it also took place in our dorm rooms, in particular in our hallway in our Mission Park suite.
Learning also took place in the many, many activist groups that I gravitated toward in my junior and senior years. … I learned leadership skills, the art of conciliation and the importance of taking a stand for one’s principles. In the early 1980s … the campus issue was divestment from South Africa, and I joined the Williams anti-apartheid club. Between meetings and educating myself about South African politics and history, I fell in love with my best friend and husband-to-be, Eric Fernald ’83.
I graduated from Williams with a B.A. in philosophy and a minor in African studies. I went to law school and started working at a large law firm in Boston (Mintz Levin), stayed there for 17 years working as a bond lawyer, which I loved because it gave me a chance to work with public sector and nonprofit clients including Williams. … It was a great career. At Mintz Levin, I co-founded the firm’s domestic violence project as a first year attorney. We trained lawyers and paralegals to provide legal representation to indigent women who were trying to obtain restraining orders against their abusers. We worked closely with Greater Boston Legal Services and other law firms in town to put that program together. That was back in 1989. That program is still the signature pro bono effort of Mintz Levin, and it’s still going strong today. … I’m on the board of LARC (the Legal Advocacy Resource Center), a legal services hotline, as a point of entry for poor people trying to access legal services in Greater Boston. I was appointed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to the Access to Justice Commission, tasked with assessing the delivery of legal services in Massachusetts. I was on the Gaudino Fund here at Williams. I’m on the South Asian Bar Association Board in Boston and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, and I’m now on the Boston Bar Association Council.
So what does that all mean? What is my chosen field of endeavor? How does it all fit together? It came to me earlier this week as I was obsessing about this presentation. I was at a meeting with Governor Patrick, and in response to a question, he said, “You know, at the end of the day, we just want to leave this place better than how we found it.” Now that doesn’t seem like a terribly complicated goal, but I think in this case, simplicity really helps. Just leave this place better than how you found it. That’s really an excellent summary of what my liberal arts education has been for me. It’s given me the tools and the hunger to leave this world a better place than it was before. So perhaps, Teji, that’s my chosen field of endeavor. Watch video of all the medalists.