BRISTOL, R.I. -- Sitting at a corner table in the Lower Commons sipping an iced coffee just ahead of final exams, Clare Harmon ’13 looks at ease – a college senior in her element, confident and comfortable on the campus she has come to call home. A face-splitting smile is awarded anyone who greets her or stops to say hello.
It wasn’t always this way. Harmon is quick to share how shy she was as a freshman – “I was so awkward!” she exclaims with a roll of her eyes and a clipped giggle. Self-admittedly, Harmon would do everything she could to hide herself among hordes of other students, trying her hardest to be unseen. Not an easy feat when you are 5-foot-10 with bright eyes and a cascade of chestnut hair.
Now about to graduate with a major in marine biology, Harmon will be front and center at Commencement on May 18 when she takes the stage as the student commencement speaker for the Class of 2013. The irony is not lost on her, but Harmon says putting herself in the spotlight to thank everyone who contributed to her journey is just the way she wants to culminate her transformative four years at Roger Williams.
“I’ve never been the girl that was expected to shine – ever. I was always the girl who had to work really hard but never shined,” says Harmon, adding that she never would have applied and auditioned for the honor in her first years at RWU. “So it’s nice to have that moment, but it’s also nice to know that if you work hard, eventually it does pay off. Being chosen from a field of really great applicants is validating – it feels good to be believed in.”
It’s a journey that almost never began. Unlike many of her peers, college was not always in the cards for Harmon. As a young child, Harmon was in and out of hospitals with a seizure disorder that doctors said would inhibit her learning; she would never achieve at the level of her peers, they told her family. Subsequent learning challenges – as well as months of missed school – led to a literacy deficit that dogged her throughout her early education.
Still, with the support of her parents and eight siblings, as well as dedicated group of tutors, Clare taught herself to read when she was 13 and enrolled in a marine biology high school in New Haven – a perfect fit for this fish fanatic.
“Growing up, I was that little kid who would just shove her head in tide pools,” Harmon says. “My parents have always said, ‘just do what you love.’ I always wanted to be a marine biologist, so to overcome reading challenges, my parents always provided books about what I was interested in reading.”
Still, despite her love of marine life, Harmon felt burned out in high school. With so much of her time devoted to studying, learning the cello, competing in track and swimming, she felt at a social disadvantage.
“I didn’t know how to socialize with people very well,” Harmon says. “So I socialized through service. That kind of became my coping mechanism. I found my passion in service and helping people. That helped me get through the struggles I had in school.”
Through her church – and following in her older sister’s footsteps – Harmon went on service missions to Haiti and worked in her local community giving back to those in need. When it came time to apply for college, she told her parents that she wanted to be a missionary. While they supported her wholeheartedly, Harmon’s parents asked her to get a degree first.
“I’m so glad I did,” she says now. “I never really realized how important expanding your knowledge is, especially when it comes to helping people.”
At Roger Williams, Harmon found ways to continue her service efforts – including working on what she estimates to be 50 houses across the country with Habitat for Humanity, a cause that has become close to her heart.
“Sometimes when you’re helping people you don’t necessarily see your impact, whereas with Habitat, when you take a student and teach them how to use a hammer and you’re there for a week you can literally see the walls that you’re putting up,” she says, noting that the organization also requires the eventual homeowner to participate in the build. “Seeing students witness that connection and seeing what they do after is completely priceless.”
And while she’s already planning her next great adventure – law school, which will start in fall 2013 – Harmon says she will always carry with her the spirit of Roger Williams University and the lessons her peers taught her. The most important one, she says, was how to be comfortable as herself and be engaged with the world.
“I think I’ve always compared myself to my overachieving siblings,” Harmon says. “It’s easy to get down on yourself. I’ve learned to be satisfied with my efforts. I’m a lot more confident and I realize looking back that I couldn’t have tried harder. I’ve always been the girl a step behind, but I accept who I am now.”
No longer as shy, but exceedingly humble, Harmon credits nearly every single person she has encountered on campus for her success at Roger Williams.
“I don’t think people really know how their interactions can affect someone positively or negatively. For me, it’s been mostly good – I’m graduating, I’m doing really well! But you have a larger impact than you think. You’re not just one person on a campus. You can set a ripple. While we’re about to cross the stage and things are scary, it’s okay. You’ve done a good job. Keep pushing forward, because if you continue to work hard, no matter what it’ll be okay. You can’t underestimate somebody who works hard.”