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