2017, academia, activism, college, mentorship, undocumented citizens, validation

How A High Schooler Changed The Way I Lead My Life

Last June, I met one of the most courageous activists I’ve ever known. In the weeks and months that followed, we got together frequently and learned about one another on a deep level. Our conversations taught me about a world I knew nothing about and forced me to ask difficult, uncomfortable questions about myself and my surroundings. This person who rocked my world wasn’t a colleague, a partner, or a friend. She was a seventeen-year-old student, Sofia*, with whom I spent eight months preparing college applications. We specifically focused on her essays.

No matter how long ago you applied to college, if you applied to college, you remember your essay. Not because you hated writing it. Not because it was stressful to write. But because your essay was one of the first deeply personal pieces of writing you created and shared. It forced you to look deep within and to be vulnerable.

I remember mine.

And I remember sitting frozen in my chair, watching my college counselor read my essay for the first time. I saw her as the key to my future. I was desperate for her validation and could think only about catering my life—my story—to appease her. She finished reading and looked up at me. “It’s a meaningful story,” she said. She proceeded to provide me with a few suggestions. But is the essay good or bad? Will my story get me into my desired colleges? I needed to know. Her comments did not steer me one way or another.

Sofia, my student, was something else. In addition to juggling traditional high school experiences like a heavy workload and a new boyfriend, Sofia was a rare breed of female wrestler, tirelessly training to stay within her weight class; a responsible daughter, supporting her single mom by cleaning houses; and a community activist, leading peaceful resistances against social injustices toward ethnic minorities and undocumented citizens like herself.

As we brainstormed her essays and discussed drafts, I started to see that Sofia was a young woman very unlike my high school self. She never asked me whether her essays were good or bad. That didn’t matter to her. Instead, she told me about the points she wanted to highlight, the emotions she wanted to express, and the messages she wanted to deliver.

Put another way, getting my buy-in (or that of a college admissions counselor), was not crucial to Sofia. She was too busy continuing to live her story. She wasn’t doing this for me. This came with a price: Sofia and my meetings were inconsistent. We sprinted to the finish line with her essays, sometimes barely making a deadline.

Eventually, I stopped hearing from Sofia altogether. In one of her last communications with me in February, she told me nothing about her college or scholarship application statuses. Instead, she provided an update about an initiative she had been leading all year—a resolution promoting the support and safety of undocumented students, to be presented to and adopted by the Board of Education.

Btw yesterday the resolution was presented to committees. There was a big rally, about 100 people showed up to show support and it was very powerful.

Although I hadn’t heard from her in a while, she had been busy writing her story. I was impressed. Proud. Inspired.

During the months that followed, I occasionally wondered whether Sofia had been accepted to college, and more frequently wondered how her story was evolving.

Yesterday, I saw our mentorship coordinator, who pulled me aside. “I talked to Sofia today,” she said. Sofia had gotten into one of her top choice schools, one she and I had spent many hours focusing on. “She feels guilty she never reached out. She says you are the reason she got in.”

Walking home, I asked myself a question I hadn’t asked myself in a while.

“Why do I do all that I do?”

For validation? Did it matter that Sofia had not directly recognized me for my help? I admitted to myself that no, it didn’t matter. Not because I don’t care about Sofia, but because I, many years since graduating high school, no longer need that metaphorical nod from my college counselor. I am grateful to have been part of Sofia’s story. I am thankful that she found my help meaningful. My personal narrative is better because of her.

In life, it’s so easy to lose ourselves, consciously or subconsciously, to our need for validation. Validation from friends, a partner, family, a boss, or social networks. But Sofia taught me that my story—each of our stories—is so much bigger than that.

I have to write my story for me, and no one else.

Yesterday, the page turned again. I met my new student for this upcoming school year. And I can’t wait to see how our stories will intersect.

*Name changed to protect privacy

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change, choice, college, decisions, experiencing, friendship, real world, Uncategorized

Why My Post-College Life Is About To Get Schooled

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Me and my college room/soulmate

When the time came, I wasn’t ready to graduate college. Emotionally ready, I mean. Logistically, I had the requirements met and the classes passed. Emotionally, however, I wasn’t the person who, four years prior, I imagined graduating from college. I imagined someone glorious, defined by significant scientific discovery, large-scale philanthropic impact, employment at her dream job, and having found a future husband. If I could have chosen when I’d graduate from college, it would certainly not have been as soon as I did. Hell, I might still be there. Despite lowering myself to the floor sobbing the night before, graduation day arrived and pushed me out the door. It tore me away from impeccable relationships, meandering academic exploration, and that lovely barrier to rules and consequence.

I entered the real world wearing a cloak of denial. In fact, in the year after college, I made the 2000-mile trek back to campus more frequently than I did in the following four years combined. With every visit, college felt a little less right for me. I had new passions, intellectual pursuits, daily routines, and relationships (while still maintaining the best ones from college). Still, I resented the fact that I hadn’t gotten to leave college on my own terms.

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acceptance, changing others, college, friendship, Great Expectations, growing up, learning, social pressure

“Change everything except your loves.” -Voltaire

“The moment at which Magwitch like reveals himself to Pip demonstrates Dickens’ views on the relationship between society and man.”

“Why don’t you try that again?”

“The moment like at which Magwitch reveals himself –”

“Uh-uh-uh.” I still remember a particular exchange between my 8th grade English teacher and me during our unit on Great Expectations. I had raised my hand to answer a question about social commentary in the work, but teacher seemed uninterested in my response. After a few more attempts like the one above (all in front of my peers, of course), I finally recognized the issue. I had been inserting the filler word, “like” into each of my statements. This particular teacher had a zero-tolerance policy for many things, and using the word “like” as thinking time was one of them.

Four years later, my AP Psychology teacher also had a “banned words” list. At the top of hers were the words “retarded” and “gay” to mean anything other than “mentally challenged” or “homosexual” respectively.

What my peers and I found to be especially difficult with these rules was that the misused words had become habits so deeply entrenched in our speech that we didn’t even realize our utterances of them. Our teachers, so primed for them, were able to identify and reprimand us every time we slipped. So for at least 45 minutes everyday, we were able to change our unsophisticated and disrespectful speech patterns. Fast forward to today, I’m back to the “likes,” (I rarely say “retarded” or “gay,” but I have a degree in Psychology, so perhaps I’m an outlier) mostly when I’m talking a mile a minute (which is most of the time). It’s hard to make longstanding change, even when it is the right change to make.

About a year ago, someone who knew me relatively well told me that I was too loud. “You get really animated when you tell stories, which feels inappropriate in public places.” I remember sitting there silently as the words traveled through my auditory canals to my brain where I processed the information. I didn’t know what to do with the statement, mostly because my energy and animation is something that I am generally proud of, something that I consider to be uniquely me. Because I respected my friend and was sensitive to his discomfort, I took his statement as an edict for myself. At least around him, I decided to censor my energy, my quips, the intonations in my voice. This quickly became exhausting for me. Not surprisingly, this change made me feel awkward and insecure; I was trying to be someone that I simply am not. And so finally, while I respected my friend for having shared his gripes, I just stopped spending as much time with him. The outcome that was better for both of us given his preference and my nature.

While my teachers desired only to make me and my peers better citizens of the world, this particular friend was motivated by his own preferences and what made him socially comfortable.

At every phase of our lives, we are driven by a deep need for social acceptance, making it tempting to alter our behaviors and sometimes even our beliefs. What is most important and equally difficult, however, is to identify the intention of the social pressure — is it to make you a better person or to serve someone else? Evaluate criticism and new ideas to decide whether you are open to them, but maintain a sense of being true to yourself.

When I first arrived on my college campus as as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman, I felt extremely uncomfortable by the (underage) drinking component. I had grown up in my own bubble, and had no real interest in breaking the rules. For the first couple months, I spent my Friday and Saturday nights in my dorm room under the premise of fatigue or insurmountable schoolwork. In reality, I didn’t feel that the drinking culture was for me. It wasn’t something I was willing to change, and at the same time, I was too embarrassed to admit it. Finally, I realized that I could not change my party-goer friends (and there was nothing wrong with that; they just weren’t ideal company on Friday and Saturday nights.) Slowly but surely, I started to meet people who also didn’t drink at the time. We became good friends, and I surrounded myself with them more often. They helped me to feel comfortable and confident with my choices. (Fun, maybe irrelevant, fact: I am still good friends with all of them; we all drink, at least socially, now.) Sometimes, it’s about changing your surroundings, not yourself.

Recently, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time thinking about the people and personalities that motivate, encourage, and inspire me. And on the flip side, the ones that don’t. I highly recommend the exercise once in a while, especially because both you and the people around you are constantly changing. At some point in this thought-exploration, I was struck by the reminder that I can’t change people and they can’t change me. Though it was at first a bit disappointing, I’ve decided that it’s not such a bad thing. It makes it easier for us to realize our place — where we belong and where we are appreciated and more importantly, where and with whom we want to spend each phase of our lives. One way or another, we will all eventually learn that going against what’s true in our hearts or spending energy trying in vain to change someone else is like, retarded simply the wrong way to live.

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breaks, college, exams, family, holidays, psychology, rest, yoga

“Simplicity and repose are the qualities that measure the true value of any work of art.” -Frank Lloyd Wright

Because I grew up in the generally warm Bay Area, it was rarely necessary for us to turn on the central heat in our home. When we did, it was typically during this time of year, the cold and rainy holiday season when my brother and I were on vacation from school. While most of the vents in our home are on the ceiling, three special ones can be found on the floor in our family, living, and dining rooms. In those young childhood days, my brother and my favorite pastime was reading while sitting directly on top of the floor vents. I’m not lying when I say that our pants got so hot they literally could have been on fire. Not wanting to lose even a second of warmth, I would often eat and drink while glued to the wooden grate.

At some point after my bum was nice and toasty, the air would suddenly become cold, then stop blowing altogether. This moment to me was most disappointing. As I quickly learned, nobody had turned off the heater. Instead, it was a response mechanism that forced off the heater when the house had achieved the desired temperature. When the house had become too hot. Whenever my brother and I would give her trouble, my mom would compare herself to this response mechanism. “Humans are just like machines. If I become overworked I’ll just shut down,” she would say. I hated that the machines (and people) on which I relied needed breaks. I wanted them to be there for me always.

Fast forwarding to my more recent past, this time of year also reminds me of studying for final exams (nostalgia is not a word I would employ here). Our school gave us two or three “Dead Days” to study, during which no exams took place. I saw the days as 24 hours of study time, though I’m sure that our school intended for students to get some sleep and decompose a bit from the semester as well. In one of my best friends I also had a best study buddy. She and I would wake up at the crack of dawn and haul our books and laptops six blocks south to a cozy Starbucks. We set up shop and worked until closing, taking breaks only to purchase food and scarf it down. We felt guilty even thinking about longer breaks. These study days only made me more exhausted before my exams. Prematurely burnt out, you could say.

Recent psychological findings suggest, ironically, that I was studying for my psychology exams (and all other exams) exactly the wrong way. These findings show that by taking breaks and diverting our attention from newly obtained information, we can better digest and retain it.

Earlier this year, a manager and I spent some time having a discussion about my performance. “You’re smart and passionate. That’s going to get you far. But I’m worried,” she admitted. Puzzled by the dichotomy of the sentence, I prompted her to continue. “I’m worried you’re going to get burnt out. You need to learn how to balance your work and personal life, because you have a long career ahead of you. Take breaks, and say no when you need to.” This was the first time in my entire life that someone, anyone, had told me to take a break or turn down opportunities. I wanted to ignore it. I told myself that I didn’t want to accidentally miss out.

A few weeks ago, after a long day at work and a family emergency the previous evening, I found myself at my writer’s MeetUp unable to write. I was engaged in an ever-frustrating pattern of type-type-type-delete-delete-delete. I had crafted an elaborate short story in my head, but was finding it impossible to translate thoughts into words. Two hours later, I packed up and went home with nothing but napkin doodles. I spent some time trying to distract myself by reading various short stories, but feeling guilty and frustrated the entire time. A few days later, I made my second attempt. Within 45 minutes, I had written a complete (and decent) draft. I later realized that the time away from writing had helped, and that reading the short stories had injected me with necessary inspiration.

This morning at my yoga class, my instructor took us through several intense standing poses. Towards the end of the class, she suggested, “If your legs are tired, rest them and stand on your head.” I found it kind of humorous that a headstand was supposed to be “rest.” It was in further thinking about her statement that I had a very important realization: Taking a break does not mean being lazy or wasting time. It’s simply about directing your energy and mind somewhere else. We should not feel guilty about it.

While heaters are unlike humans in their inability to feel guilt, man can learn from machine in forcing himself to occasionally take a break to cool down. As we all enter some necessary vacation time, be it even a few days, force yourself to blow some (cold) steam. You owe it to yourself and to those around you. Because if you don’t, there’s no telling what you might do in the heat of a moment.

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basketball, college, friendship, home, house, memories

“I long, as does every human being, to be at home wherever I find myself.” -Maya Angelou

It was a few months before I was to leave for college and I was already getting the jitters. When they found out I would be going to school over 2000 miles away from home, most of my friends’ parents would ask me how I planned to deal with the cold. Though at the time I found this question to be rather inane, I am now thankful that we directed our conversation to the weather. Much better than discussing whether I was going to miss home. Who doesn’t, at some level, miss home? And honestly, missing home was what scared me the most. After having lived in the same house for sixteen years, and sixteen/eighteenths of your life, it’s hard to imagine being any place else, especially when almost every single one of your friends lives within a 50 mile radius.

There were few people to whom I expressed this sentiment. I thought it would make me look weak. Of those that were privy to this raw emotion, one provided the most confidence-inspiring (though at the time, unbelievable) comment yet. He was a few years older than I and had made a similar cross-country trek in pursuit of higher education. It’s really uncomfortable at first. You want to feel invincible because you’re finally leaving the nest but you really do miss home. Then suddenly there’s an inflection point. For me it was at the end of winter vacation my freshman year. I realized that I was leaving home…and felt like I was going home. It’s the most liberating feeling. When college becomes your new home. I just stared at him in disbelief. No way. I’ll always think of this place as home.

In the NBA (and sports in general, I would think), playing at home is considered advantageous. In fact, it is also a reward of sorts. Teams are often unfavored to win if they are not playing “at home” and in the playoffs, home court advantage goes to the team with the better record. At some level, it feels a bit ridiculous. Is it really true that professional basketball players, people who make their living off playing this game, actually perform better in their natural habitat? But when you step back and realize that the players are just normal human beings like you and me, it makes sense. There is a certain level of comfort being at home. The people in the crowd are mostly rooting for you; you can trust they won’t be waving some germy foam finger in your face when you are attempting a critical free throw. You got to sleep in your own bed rather than some rickety old hotel mattress. There’s something soothing about being at home.

Growing up, I used to go on a family vacation almost every year. Sometimes it was with just my family. Sometimes it was with friends as well. Sometimes more than once a year. But no matter what, I always hated that moment when it was time to come home. Being away from home was a beautiful escape from the “hardships” of my life — practicing piano and dance, doing homework, going to the dentist (I lived in fear of getting a cavity and it going on some sort of permanent record).

Once I went to college, however, home became the escape. Not-so-coincidentally my most common holiday destination, home was the place where I could get away from the stresses of my college life (surprisingly similar to those of my eight-year-old life, though twice a year, my escape included a visit to the dentist).

Almost exactly a year ago this time, on the way to a family Memorial Day barbecue (don’t worry, it was vegetarian) I completely broke down in front of my parents. A rare occasion during which my entire family and family friends were in the same place at the same time, and I felt alone and lost. It had been a year since I had graduated college and I felt distanced from all too many people I had grown to love. I felt that my heart and mind had frequently been “on vacation” in other geographical locations. In realizing that this place that I had called home now felt incomplete, I only began to cry more. In an odd full-circle type deal, I was being a child in this place that had defined my childhood.

Of late, I’m finding myself more and more frustrated that I can’t pinpoint home. A house, yes, but not home. As our lives take us down different paths and to diverse geographical locations, we, even if just for a moment, make our homes there. And when we leave, a piece of us is left behind. It’s hugely discomforting. On the flip side, one could argue that it’s comforting knowing that more and more of the world is yours.

There’s probably a balance to achieve between feeling grounded at home in your day-to-day while still maintaining the remote pieces of your life. Unfortunately, I can’t say I’ve mastered it. Unlike the almost two-hundred posts that precede, this one has no conclusion. Quite unsettling. How’s that for a metaphor?

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