Project: VISION

Chicago, Thoughts

Last week, I went to an open house hosted by Project: VISION, a local Chicago nonprofit that I began supporting this fall. PV provides after school programming to youth aged 12-18 in the Chinatown and Bridgeport neighborhoods; most of the students attend Chicago Public Schools and many are from first-generation immigrant families.

At the open house, I got to ask some of the students what they’d been up to over at the center. Some were receiving mentoring from Chicago professionals; others were being helped through college applications and FAFSA. A group of students told me about a recent exercise they’d completed that pushed them to think about their 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year plans.

“So what did you say was your 10-year plan?” I asked, curious to understand the mind of today’s 17-year-old.

“A stable job,” said one. “A doctor, lawyer, or a teacher,” replied another. “I want to be a father,” answered a third, as his friends laughed and elbowed him in the ribs. I noticed an easy camaraderie among them, three seniors in high school who were semi-anxiously awaiting the start of college admissions decisions. These didn’t seem like kids who just came to a center once a week to receive homework help; they seemed like friends, true friends.

“You guys said you go to different high schools, right? Would you say you’re better friends with your school friends or each other?” I wondered.

They smiled – somewhat bashfully – and all pointed at each other.

In that moment, I understood the power of a place like Project: VISION. It is a place full of resources to help middle and high school students navigate the next stage of life; it provides opportunities to learn, lead and serve – and yet it is so much more. Between the logistics of life that have to be completed, there is a space at PV – literally, and figuratively – that allows for relationships, for community, for belonging.

Some teenagers are able to find these friendships at school; others at places like Project: VISION. And still others are unable to find it at all. It could be due to a shyness that creates anxiety in social settings. It could be due to the lack of alternative opportunities like PV. It could be due to priorities like babysitting the family, priorities that take precedence because of the necessity to survive. It could be due to any number of different factors – but every young adult who wants the safety of community, who needs the comfort of belonging – they deserve a chance to have it.

I’m incredibly proud to support Project: VISION and all the work its staff does to provide students with the help and the skills they need to succeed. That the students I met at open house could point to each other as close friends is a beautiful testament to PV’s power in creating an alternative space for community. As these students begin their journeys to a stable job, a doctor / lawyer / teacher, and to becoming a father, I can’t help but smile knowing that they’ll have each other’s friendship through it all.

If you’d like to support the work at Project: VISION, click here to donate or message me to learn more! 

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On Downtime

Thoughts

This weekend was filled with downtime. A little play on words here, but I think of ‘downtime’ in two ways: the first is what we’d typically think of – time to just settle down and hang out; the second is somewhat more literal – a time when you’re feeling just a bit down. Interestingly enough, I’ve learned that too much of the former downtime inevitably leads to the latter for me – it’s a repeated pattern, and one that I’m not sure is ‘healthy’ (spoiler: probably not).

Those life quotes about wisdom (you know, old-school memes) often differentiate between being ‘busy’ and being ‘productive.’ Starting from my time in New York, I’ve gotten into an unfortunate habit of conflating the two. Being fresh out of college and living in one of the biggest cities in the world, I kept myself incredibly busy with a determination to make the most of my new home. I made plans with friends, I volunteered through three different organizations, I even joined a rock choir – all with the goal of staying busy. Being busy served a dual purpose: it provided a facade of seeming productive, and it also ensured that I would never feel lonely during my time in the city.

Unfortunately, neither of these purposes was a healthy way to live life. Both were distractions from tackling the underlying fears, which were rooted in an insecurity about the general direction my life was taking. I was worried that I wasn’t living New York City life to the fullest. I was worried that I wasn’t taking steps to move forward in my career. I was worried that I would drift from friends if I didn’t see them often enough. I was worried that I would be missing out. I was worried that I would be lonely. And I was worried that – God forbid – I would be sitting there with nothing to do.

So for the past few years, I’ve been in the habit of minimizing downtime. When weekends like this past one come around, where I find myself with swaths of untouched time, I make plans to do productive things: read a nonfiction book to learn something, write a meaningful blog post, work on my career goals, even organize the bookshelves in my apartment. This weekend, I had all intentions of using the time to make progress in my personal life.

Instead, I sat around and read a semi-trashy fiction book. I stalked people on Facebook. I clicked around Reddit aimlessly.

By Sunday night, I was hit by the other kind of ‘downtime’ – that is, a time when I just felt a bit down. I felt upset that I hadn’t been productive, I felt upset that I hadn’t ‘accomplished’ anything (although, in my own defense, I cooked three giant batches of meals for the week, so I guess that’s better than nothing). What surprised me was how negative I felt after the weekend: rather than feeling relaxed, I was disappointed in myself and regretful at the ‘wasted’ time.

One of my goals this year is to be intentional about my downtime. Movements like Ariana Huffington’s Thrive are modeling that it’s okay to rest, that it’s imperative to avoid burnout; I don’t disagree. However, I do think that being intentional about downtime will be helpful in making the time more meaningful and actually restful. The next time I have a weekend of untouched time, I hope to go into it with some ideas on how to spend it so that it doesn’t just disappear into the dark abyss of the internet. It seems contradictory to have ‘planned’ downtime, but I believe that by planning it out, I’ll be setting myself up for greater productivity with the rest of my hours.

Here’s to actually enjoying future downtimes – the good kind – and for continued productivity!

On Confidence

Thoughts

Preface: This summer, I’ve been participating in Education Pioneers workshops as a Visiting Fellow. We were asked to share our leadership stories with our teams, so I cleaned mine up a bit and am sharing in this blog post. 

The very first time I remember feeling confident was as an emcee. I’d planned the entire program, from the exciting opening speech to the closing cake-cutting ceremony. My “captivated” audience – which consisted of my parents and my sister – laughed and clapped and participated at all the appropriate moments, filling my six-year-old self with pride at my success. My confidence extended to the classroom, where I won a sky-blue ribbon as the 1st grade calligraphy champion. I remember dashing along the streets near my home in Yokohama, excitedly showing the neighbors my proudest accomplishment to date. Then, my world changed.

For the next three years, my confidence waned as I struggled to learn English first in Canada, then in the United States. I failed to understand the directions for my ESL homework. I asked my 3rd grade teacher what “f***” meant in front of the class, who found it hysterical (I thought it was a bird, because it rhymed with duck). It wasn’t until I wrote an essay about flamingoes that things started to change.

My 5th grade teacher was the one who gave us the assignment to write an expository essay. When I received my flamingo paper back to see a “105% A+” on it, I was ecstatic. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I’d done something not only right but well – and in an English writing assignment at that. In fact, that entire year, my teacher made me feel like I could do anything; that I was smart; that I was skilled: a seed was planted because he had confidence in me. For that, to Mr. Gowler (who has since passed away), I will be forever grateful.

As I continued on through junior high and high school, I continued to receive external validation. I was now on the accelerated learning paths, which showed that my teachers thought I was smart (or at least good at testing).  I held leadership positions in different school clubs, which showed that my coaches thought I was somehow leadership-worthy. I was even voted Homecoming Queen my senior year (the ultimate “validation” for my 17-year-old self), which showed that my schoolmates thought I was kind of cool (let’s just assume that they counted the votes correctly).

By the time I graduated high school, I knew that I had a strong community that had confidence in me. I joke about high school being my glory days, and I hope that I didn’t peak in high school. However, it’s worth noting that those years will be the only time in my life where such a strong support system – my parents, my friends, my teachers, and other peers – were there for me daily in such close proximity (literally in a one-mile radius, because that’s how close I lived to school).

But talk about a big fish in a small pond: everything changed when I got to college. On the first day, freshmen were gathered in an auditorium and asked to raise our hands if we had been valedictorians at our high schools. Uncomfortable laughter bubbled through the room as we looked at one-another and realized that over half the audience had hands raised. And so at college, I found myself a mere B-average student; I got rejected from club tryouts and didn’t even bother running for leadership positions. Many other kids had that “it factor” that I once thought I had; seeing theirs only caused me to doubt myself. Moreover, there was the added social factor: what group did I fit in with, and who was my core community? I continued to sift through these questions as I graduated and moved to New York; in my two years there, I found that the city only made me feel smaller.

I appreciate how those years humbled me, serving to socialize me with the ‘real world,’ so to speak. But I can’t say I was too bummed to move past them when I found myself in Shanghai and having the absolute time of my life. I won’t get into it too much since I’ve already written about it, but that year in China helped me rediscover the essence of me – and be proud of it. I was in totally my element for many different reasons: culturally, socially, professionally, I felt so confident. And looking back, it was my time in Asia that helped me to put together the final piece of the confidence puzzle: in order for it to be complete, I had to believe in myself. I had to have confidence in me. 

My 5th grade teacher first gave me confidence, and my community helped to confirm it. But similar to motivation, confidence isn’t sustainable unless it comes from within. Luckily, I was given the incredible opportunity to be in a place that encouraged me to be the best me that I could be, which bestowed on me a sense of confidence that was not only deep but also sustainable. I work in education because everyone should have access to the three pieces of this puzzle:

  • Every child should have access to a teacher, a mentor, a someone – just one at the very least – who plants that seed of confidence, who believes in that student more than the student himself.
  • Every child should have access to a community, whether it be comprised of parents, teachers, friends, mentors. And despite the gaps – absent parents, lack of friends – the community will rally together to give a student confidence, stronger together.
  • Every child should have access to opportunities that helps him develop confidence in himself, so that even when the world knocks him down, he believes in himself enough to get right back up again.

In my day-to-day, it’s easy to forget the reason I work where I do as I get bogged down by Powerpoints and spreadsheets. But in taking the time to reflect on my why, I remember my personal North Star: it’s not enough to blab on about how blessed I am because blessings are nothing if not shared with others. I have the confidence now to pursue what I believe matters – to set our students up in systems where they can find their own confidence, so that one day they can pursue what they believe matter.

On Feeling Restless

Thoughts

Around a year ago this time, I started mentally preparing myself for “repatriating” back to the United States – that is, coming back home for good after being abroad for two years. I Googled and read articles talking about the dark side of repatriation (I’m not sure how I read this article anymore seeing as how I’ve never subscribed to WSJ) and I worried about how difficult it would be for me and my nostalgic self to ever stop missing my life in Asia.

Turns out it was a lot easier than expected – at first. I bounced around on couches and Airbnbs for two months in New York while I figured out whether or not to quit my job. I moved home to Chicago to hang out with my grandparents. I networked and job-searched, blogged and soul-searched. Found a job (not sure about the soul, though), and moved down to Chicago. And so here we are.

Through that period, feelings of nostalgia ebbed and flowed – but things were changing frequently enough that I was constantly distracted. Now that I’m settled in downtown, it’s suddenly hit me that maybe, missing Asia isn’t what I should have feared (although honestly, that still does hurt quite deeply some days).

I wish I’d been prepared for what it would be like to feel restless amidst stability.

For all those times in Asia that I’d wished I had a home I could decorate, friends I wouldn’t leave, a club I might join for good – for all those times I’d wished for stability and longevity and business as usual-ty, I find myself now constantly wondering these two dangerous words: “What’s next?”

Dangerous because they take away from gratitude for the present, from appreciation for my current state. And it’s not about about my new job, which is fun, or about Chicago, which I adore. It’s not even about being back in America – and it’s definitely not the travel bug (if you know me well, you’d know that I actually hate the word ‘wanderlust’ with a passion).

No, it’s because, for the first time in my life, there is no clear “next” – I could be in Chicago for two years or twenty, and I have literally no idea right now what that means. It’s not the not knowing itself that terrifies me; that in itself is, I think, liberating. But this restless feeling IS worrisome: I’ve been in Chicago all of four months and already worrying about my “What’s Next.” What if I can never actually feel 100% settled because I’ll always be wondering what comes after? What if I’m one of those people who complain that they can’t find The One (city, not soulmates) because I’m too busy looking for something…different?

I’ve written before that I – humans, really – have a tendency to always want more. I always thought it would be in relation to what I wanted, not to where I lived. This is the dark side of repatriation that I never considered: I got so used to having an expiration date for my location that I don’t quite know what to do without it. I feel lost and somewhat anxious; I’m disappointed at myself that I’m so easily entranced by all the “What if’s” rather than that “What is’s.”

Here’s to accepting that it’s okay to not know, that it’s okay to stay somewhere a while – or not. Here’s to facing the “dark side” of repatriation with the “bright side” of being thankful to even know what that word means. Here’s to not living in the past, not even living in the future – but living as hard as I can for the present.

On Education

Thoughts

I did not cry when Donald Trump won the presidency.

Not because I agree with the insane things he says. Not because I believe that he is a good man (not even close). Not because I had any optimism about his presidency. But because, as irresponsible and as selfish as this is, I simply didn’t feel like whether or not he was president would directly impact my day-to-day life. As an Asian female, I’ve already accepted the racism and sexism around me as a fact of life: it was bound to happen from time to time, but I could deal with it. I’d already dealt with it.

I did cry, though, when these things happened:

  • In 3rd grade, I cried when I heard that my bus driver had been fired, because as an English-Language Learner, I did not understand what “fired” actually meant. Instead, I imagined my kindly bus driver tied to a stake and literally being lit on fire, and the thought of this awful cruelty was too much for my 8-year-old self to bear.
  • In 8th grade, I cried when a classmate threw a book at my head for daring to say that David Beckham was ugly. I cried because it was embarrassing. I also cried because my teacher failed to reprimand the book-thrower, who was one of his favorite students. My faith that I could unequivocally trust all my teachers was broken.
  • In 11th grade, I cried when my coach, whom I deeply respected and admired, yelled at me for skipping swim practice. I knew I’d messed up. I knew I deserved it. I cried because I cared so much about what my coach thought of me, and it devastated me to disappoint him.
  • In my senior year of college, I cried when I nearly failed the last finance course I needed to complete my major. I was terrified because failing meant one of two things: 1) that I’d wasted my previous three years’ worth of financial aid and tuition by failing to get my finance degree, or 2) I’d have to somehow pay for another semester to actually complete that degree.

The above events serve to describe the moments that made me as a person. These were the years – my K-12 years, my college years – these were the years that were formative in my development. These were the teachers and educators – for better or for worse (luckily, mostly for the better) – who have irrevocably impacted me.

These were the times when I prided myself on performing well on state and national assessments, unaware of the difference between growth and proficiency. These were the times when I confided in a compassionate counselor about my fear of school shootings, unaware of the bipartisan debate on guns in society. These were the times when I carefully filled out FAFSA, unaware of how crippling student loans could become in a jobless economy.

I’m aware now of these things, and much more – but I’m thankful I didn’t have to be. I was lucky because the system did not fail me: I trusted my family, my teachers, my schools, to seamlessly guide me through my educational journey, and they did. And so even though I was so unaware, it worked out for me: I just concentrated on being a kid, a student, growing up. Because I trusted the system not to fail me.

I am one of the lucky ones, and that is an awful fact.

The gaffes from the DeVos confirmation hearing make me think twice about what it means to trust the system. Sure, it all turned out fine for me – but every single child, every student, should have the opportunity to go through a system that’s built to maximize the probability of their success. With DeVos’s appointment as the Secretary of Ed, this probability is not being maximized: on the contrary, the system will be built against the only users who matter.

How many more will have to worry about progressing in their education because lawmakers are measuring them by metrics they’re destined to fail? How many more will have to worry about a peer bringing a gun to school because lawmakers are unwilling to make the claim that guns have no place in schools? How many more will think twice before taking out student loans because lawmakers have no idea how to structure a service they’ve never had to use, implement consequences they’ve never had to face?

How many more students – the ones who aren’t so lucky – how many more of them will be negatively impacted in these formative years? Because their needs are being ignored? Because they can’t trust the system not to fail them?

Maybe I should have cried when Donald Trump won the presidency.

On My 2016

Thoughts

Happy New Year, guys! Another 365 days have come and gone, and I’m thankful that my family, friends and I have enjoyed another year of being healthy and happy. While I saw many statuses and headlines along the lines of “Is 2016 over yet?”, I can’t help but look back on my own 2016 and feel like it was actually one of my best years ever.

When I was sad about leaving Hong Kong this April, one of my HK teammates said, “Susan, don’t look back – look forward!” While I consider that to be good advice and recognize my tendency to dwell on the nostalgic past, I also think it’s essential to reflect and appreciate yet another year that has shaped me into who I am. A friend shared a reflection guide with me a couple of New Years back, and I dug it up to do again for 2016.

The Highs:  What I’m proud of 
The Lows: What didn’t go so well
  • Continuing to miss Asia and struggling to get over the nostalgia
  • Feeling unhealthy and gaining weight
  • Failing to be productive with my free time, especially during unemployment
The Wishes:  What I wish I did differently
  • That I’d been more productive with my free time
  • That I’d built better health habits, especially during funemployment, when I had a lot of time I could’ve spent working out
The Worries that Weren’t: What I was worried about that ended up being fine
  • I was discouraged about job searching but tried to stay resilient – and it paid off when I finally received two job offers in November!
Big Life Events
  • May – Moved back to the U.S. after nearly two years in Asia
  • July – Quit my job and moved home to Chicago
  • November – Started my new job in Chicago

2016 was a transformative year for me in many ways. The two years I’d spent in Asia were the perfect way for me to grow personally (also physically, which was a negative side-effect) and to cement the core values that make me who I am. I lived out those values in 2016, and I’m really proud of having done so:

I remembered that I love my family above all, and so I quit my job in New York so that I could come home to Chicago while my grandparents were still visiting. I remembered that I am outgoing and sociable (even though I hate happy hours and small talk), and so I shamelessly cold-emailed alumni to ask for career advice. I remembered that I have the skills and experiences that got me to where I am today, and so I bounced back from job rejections knowing that eventually, one would come through. I remembered that I care about making a difference and not as much about lending money (farewell, commercial banking), and so I ventured into a role at an education startup to try and do some good.

I’m so excited for 2017. If 2016 was a year for me to cement my core values, 2017 will be the year I see what I can really do with it. I’m starting a new chapter of my life right here in Chicago, and I can’t wait to see what it’s going to bring!

On My Roarin’ Twenties

Thoughts

I saw the musical Cats on Broadway a couple of weeks ago with my mom and my sister in New York City. I’d seen a version of the musical before when my high school put on a production and was pretty familiar with the songs, but when I watched Cats this time – a show I had previously thought of as a series of fun dancing cats in cool (but also kind of creepy) costumes – I felt pretty moved and even got goosebumps (and maybe shed some tears).

The musical’s most well-known song is a piece called “Memory,” sung by a sad old has-been reject cat. I’m usually one to listen to melodies of songs more than the lyrics, but I actually paid attention to the words this time and realized how incredibly haunting and beautiful they were. In fact, “Memory” was one of several acts in the show when older cats reminisced about their younger days – glory days, if you will – and it really made me think about my own life.

I often fail to remember this, but I know that as a mid-twenties young professional, I’m currently living some of the best years of my life. My responsibilities are minimal: I have only myself to support, and I don’t even have home or car payments to worry about. I’m working (yes, I’m working now – update on that later!) in an incredible city that I wanted to be in, with my earnings free to be used for food, travel, and all the other pleasures life has to offer (after paying taxes and rent, of course). My long-term boyfriend and I are looking for our first apartment together, ready to start the next chapter of our lives as we finally end the long-distance portion of our relationship.

Best of all, I’m young enough in my career and my life where I have some experience – but I have so much more ahead of me. This means that the opportunities are still endless; there’s so much I can and want to learn; I can try, and fail, because I have the flexibility right now to do so. I love this about being in my mid-twenties: I love having that chance to work for what I want to achieve later on. I know that I may not have this luxury of time later on; I may not have the room for failure when I have a family to support; I may not have the freedom to take spontaneous travel breaks when I want them. I know that I’m in my personal Roaring Twenties right now, but I also know that it doesn’t stay this way forever.

There was something tragic about the way those cats on Broadway sang about their young selves: the pride with which they sang of their glory days were marred by hints of bitterness at realizing those days were over. It’s terrifying to wonder what it’s going to be like when we’re old: if we’ll feel anything like those cats, whether we’ll be badly wishing to relive those glory days again. We’ve all heard it from our grandmas and grandpas: “When I was your age…” But what we often forget is that someday, that will be us.

I know I can’t fight getting old: it’s just how life goes, and I also know that with age come other experiences that are amazing in their own ways. While watching the cats reminisce did make me fearful of getting older, it also spurred me to put in a greater effort to treasure each life chapter as it is. I will only get to live my twenties once, and so I want to make the most of this time. I want to work my brain to build greater skill sets and to learn new things from people who are better than me. I want to work my body to be in good shape while I still have the metabolism of a relative youth on my side. I want to work my heart to spend time with those I love most, and to contribute meaningfully to society.

I’m excited to wrap up this year with these thoughts in mind. I will only get to live my twenties once – and I’m going to make damn sure that I live them to the fullest.