Friday, September 11, 2015

“Leaping out of the Cave and into the Light” by Deanna Weber

For the longest time, I felt like a prisoner inside my own mind. My thoughts of how I wanted to live just did not seem to be as important as those of everyone around me. I was shy, confused and constantly contradicting myself. In order to morph into the ideal young adult, I felt that it was more of a priority for me to fit in, but getting so caught up in pleasing everyone else made me want to scream, then run away and hide. It was not until I broke the rules that I realized that who I am is who I choose to be. My identity, my decisions, and how I live my own life must be shaped by me.

Although it has helped me grow into the person that I am proud to be today, for most of my life I have been quite sheltered. South Amityville, New York, on Long Island’s southern shore, is a town of predominantly white people of Western European descent who all have one goal: to make their children seem successful. Everyone lives out the timeline the same way. For all the freedom of choice that is celebrated, there really is not much wiggle room not only this town, but also most of society. Although none of these regulations are written down anywhere, everyone knows they exist. One goes to the private elementary/middle school in the nearby area; one joins the local beach club in the summer to compete on the swim team; one takes sailing lessons; one attends one of the few Roman Catholic high schools on Long Island; then one applies and gets admitted to a $40,000-a-year, four-year college that is anywhere from a two hour car ride to a five hour plane ride away.

In my case, I was bound for New England where I thought I was entering a brave new world where I would break free from my Long Island roots and make the cliché of  “finding myself” a reality. I knew the main thing lacking in my education was an experience of diversity in regard to race, ethnicity, culture, homeland, economic status, outlook and values. En route to Cave College, my nickname a la Plato’s allegory for my chosen university and the darkest moment of my life, I had been itching to experience this variety. I remembered their pamphlet: four racially different students enjoying themselves on the campus. Although those four do attend the school, Cave students are about 75% Catholic-Caucasian and mostly from the surrounding area.

If Cave made an effort to gain diversity, it did not work so well. I knew a student there from California who told me she had an easier time getting admitted because of her West Coast address. I soon found out that her grades were not up to the caliber Cave apparently expected, so I was unsure why she was accepted. Diverse backgrounds are important to the school, but so should its academic integrity. Not being able to mesh the two was a turn-off for me. Although its mission statement supported diversity, I felt as if I had been lied to for this variety of people was not the case, which made my transition a lot more difficult than it might have been. I believed that most of my peers were leaving home and traveling to a brand new place. Knowing that everyone would feel the same uneasiness gave me comfort, but watching my roommate’s mom take her out to lunch every Friday because she lived ten minutes away not only made this homebody mama’s girl have a harder time adjusting, but it also changed my thoughts on the school. It was hard seeing her family members constantly around when I was in such a fragile homesick state. Not only did I long for students who did not look so much like me, but I also wanted to encounter people with more experience about different places and points of view.

Getting accepted into Hofstra University was my escape plan. During my winter break 2014-2015, I was not in a great place, and I needed a change. Originally, I thought the simple adjustment of living at home would be the major life-altering, happiness-lifting factor, but after a few weeks into the spring semester I saw there was much more to it. Simply put, Hofstra’s “almost urban” environ close to New York City was more suitable to me than the soccer mom town of Cave College. I am big on self-love and self-happiness, and diversity is something that can contribute to both of these things. For my whole life I have always blended in with everyone, doing what everyone does, dressing how everyone dresses, and being interested in the same things as others. However, the news I woke up to is that this had never been me. I never wanted to be like everyone else, and it took me nineteen years to realize that once I started to attend Hofstra.

When I walked into Writing 001, the only person I recognized was Amy Sassoon from the new student orientation; she is a Long Islander and transfer student from a big SUNY school. After talking with her, I realized her story was similar to mine, which was refreshing. I sat next to her which started my first real peer friendship at college and with a most remarkable person who was about to have her own big breakthrough. Nevertheless, I was no fan of writing. To me it has always been a chore, not something I enjoyed, let alone something I thought I was remotely good at. Over the years so many of my papers had been done the night before and submitted without revision. However, like my fears, my writing style was about to change. Professor Gordon walked in and asked us to set our desks in a circle. I had never done that in a class before, and it created such an open community feeling in the room. We each introduced ourselves and wrote the name we wanted to be called on a sheet of paper draped over the desk. Everyone got to see each other’s faces and share discussion. I noted the many Asian, African, Caribbean, South American, Middle Eastern and European heritages. It was inspiring to hear from the two students who had joined the Army, the Cornell transfer who only weeks before had been on death’s door, the Brazilian who mastered English in three month’s time. I had never been among so much difference in skin complexion, background and point of view. Instead of feeling conformist, inadequate or bored, it was refreshing to feel like a minority for once!

Moreover, the “text” for the first third of the semester was each other, and our first assignment was to interview a fellow student and demonstrate in our essay why he or she was an asset to us. I interviewed Jiahe Wang (see “The Three Tools Universities Forgot to Give Us,” July 12, 2015 at Taking Giant Steps Blog), a transfer student from Beijing. I never thought a student-to-student interview could mean so much, but it did. Though we’re from totally different backgrounds, it was incredible how similar we were. Each of us was so shy yet so open to share the answers and ease each other throughout the initial lack of comfort or when something just did not make sense.  After my experience at Cave, I was left with this dark cloud over me, making me believe that I was going to be surrounded by the same type of person for the rest of my young adult existence. Jiahe challenged that. She modeled excellence, and I was taken by her dedication, intelligence and experiences. When I read what she wrote about me, I had never believed anyone (besides maybe my mom and dad, of course!) could see me in such flattering terms. Authentic compliment after compliment flowed, and I know my heart started to open up to not only this new Hofstra beginning, but more importantly, my ability to accept this path that I have chosen. Not only did Jiahe’s essay on me stand out, but my essay on her sparked a new self-confidence. It was the first time I ever felt so good about something I had written. It made me realize that my mind was capable of thinking critically and reading below the surface. For a perfectionist who sometimes lacks esteem, my ability to compliment myself meant the world. I was on the road to gain what I had always wanted: self-expression that would lead to self-discovery.

Our next assignment was to experience a service that Hofstra provides students and persuade the class to value the service. Because of my interest in psychology, I chose the “shrink.” At first I was quite nervous to interview a complete stranger. I thought it might get weird or awkward, but it was the total opposite. He was so clear and well grounded (even just over the phone) and his information so useful. My biggest take-away was that I wrote very personal things about an anxiety disorder I deal with everyday. I knew it could be embarrassing, but actually, now when I look back on it, it seemed more like strength and a continuation of becoming more comfortable in my own skin. Around this time, Amy and I got nicknames. For her elegant writing style as well as her engaged demeanor in class she became Grace, and for my soul-searching grit and candor I became Courage.

We broke into groups to edit each other’s essays; we read them aloud and took feedback; we shared our final drafts via email. I also made use of the Writing Center and most importantly, the office hour with the professor. By the time of the third essay assignment, critiquing the university industry, I was sure that my writing abilities were getting sharper. As luck would have it, I shared the office hour with Ria Shah, an Ohioan of South Asian heritage on a varsity tennis scholarship, whose writing style, a unique blend of expert presentation and personal witness, I much admired. She read her draft to us, and I saw for the first time the value of multiple revisions. That was how she was able to deliver such powerful and thoughtful persuasion. However, when I shared my first draft, my thoughts were all over the place and the anxiety started to flood in. Although she and the professor said positive things and tried to keep my spirits up, I left the session discouraged. On my drive home I was trying to get my thoughts together, and when I sat at my desk I began to write. I did not make an outline; the words started to flow and flow until I found myself getting emotional over the realizations I was experiencing. Yes, diversity was what I needed, but it took writing the essay to make the discovery that being open to diversity was the cure for my cave condition and the secret code to my serenity. It may be corny, but at this moment I realized how therapeutic writing has become for me. Now I knew I no longer could be in a place where I constantly felt compared to everyone else. I no longer felt like I could not do what I wanted because it might not have been what everyone else did in fear of judgment. Nevertheless, I had this thought growing inside of me that I was pathetic and cowardly for bailing on Cave and coming back home to mommy and daddy. That is not the norm these days, and sometimes I was ashamed of myself and second-guessed the decision constantly.  

Writing this third essay caused me to see that courage, not cowardice, motivated my leap out of Cave. Staying some place that was so familiar and deadening was the real problem. Breaking out of the restraints of Cave has been my own personal education, and the fulfillment I now felt in myself was well worth the apprehension. Moreover, this false version of me pleasing others and not paying attention to my inner voice had worn me down, and the class revealed to me that my real self has an empathetic heart, a mind that is highly organized and a wild tongue that won’t be tamed. I learned how to learn and I finally caught on that what other people think about me is really not my problem.

One day, I hope to become a teacher. I love kids, and I know education is my true passion. New York City and Long Island gain more immigrants every year, and that means that there are more immigrants in the classroom. In my education classes, my professors spend a lot of time discussing how to cope with English-Language-Learners, students from different economic backgrounds and with different disabilities and needs. These are all forms of diversity, and for me to be exposed to it at my age is really helping me to expand my human knowledge base. I want to educate the whole person by going beyond reading, writing and ‘rithmatic and teaching the value of being your own person. So many think that kids do not have minds of their own, but when I go to my observation at a pre-school, I am blown away every single time with how intelligent are these four-year-olds. I want my students to know that I will be there to listen and encourage them to be themselves, because I think it is vital to embed that in children from the youngest age. As much as I loved growing up in the schools that I attended, I do not think I was told this often enough.

Lawrence Kohlberg’s “Stages of Moral Development” examines the ways people progress and mature ethically. In stages 3 and 4, people are conventional. Their “behavior is what pleases or helps others and is approved by them.” That had been me for too long! Now I am at 4.5, a transitional phase faced by college-aged students “who come to see conventional morality as socially constructed, thus, relative and arbitrary.” The young adult realizes that some of the norms she used to believe were as absolute as the Ten Commandments are not actually that vital, and she starts to grow into her own person. That is what happened to me. First came the neediness which begat the conformity; next came the crisis which begat the clarity.  

If high school students going through the college admissions process ever ask me for advice, I would tell them to avoid going some place that they’re familiar with, to strike out and explore something new, and most important, do what they feel in their heart will make them happiest. At the end of the day, college is four years of our lives. Yes, to some it may be the “best years of your life,” but to others, it is just four years. When I look back on my college experience, I just want to know that I was the happiest I could be at that time, and that is what I am now doing. Who would have thought my search for self-discovery would be only twenty minutes away from my Long Island sheltered home? 

No comments:

Post a Comment