Saturday, August 4, 2012

What It Truly Means to Be an Adult: A Reflection of It All

Hearing About the Ivy League Connection

Sophomore Year is what I like to call, if I could give it a title, “Trying Things Out Just to See What Will Happen Because It’s Better to Do Than to Not Do at All”. I know it’s a long title, but this is what sums up my 10th grade experience. I tried out for the basketball team, just to try it out. I joined Forensics Speech and Debate, just because it seemed like it would look good on college resumes and would improve my speaking abilities (which it did). I joined a whole lot of new clubs—(to name a few) WE Science Body, Chinese American Student Association, Junior Statesman of America--without any real dedication to any of them. Before this, I was only in two main clubs, Marching Band and Interact, which believe me, was enough workload on my plate already. However, because I was used to the high school academics by my second year in high school, I figured I might as well take that extra time to join sports, more clubs, and even tutor. I told myself from then on out that I was going to go “all out” in high school. And so when I was asked to check out the Information Session for the Ivy League Connection by a good friend of mine and ILC alumni, Dyana So, on a thought-to-be “typical” school day, I of course said “yes”.

I learned, after finally coming back from this trip, that whatever you do in life, you better put your heart into it. Joining all these clubs my Sophomore Year just to join them is fine, but if I’m not going to be dedicated to a club, because of all the other extracurricular activities I already have on my plate, what’s the point? Essentially, joining a club without dedication is like dead weight. Yes, it may look good on a college application, but somehow in the long-run, there are consequences and not any real success for doing something just to make you “look good”. I recently realized this.  

This is why during my Sophomore Year I’ve always felt that I was good but never “good enough”. This may seem selfish, but I was sick of never being the best at anything, only just being average in everything that I do. I never won a trophy in Forensics Speech and Debate last year, I didn’t make the basketball team, I didn’t get first part sheet music as an upperclassmen the following year, I didn’t hold any officer position the following year (except for treasurer of an ethnic alliance club called IndoPak), and I just didn’t feel like I was “good enough”. Don’t get me wrong, I sure did feel like an all-round person, which is still what I would like to be. I worked, and still do, harder than ever and did put commitment in everything that I did. However, throughout 10th grade, I couldn’t help but keep asking myself, “Do I have any real talent?” and “Do I just try things out and not be the best at it because I don’t spend enough time for it?”. I didn’t understand the full concept of what commitment really is.  

But the biggest blow to me for not “being good enough” was when I wasn’t accepted into the Ivy League Connection my Sophomore Year. I applied to the Yale Ivy Scholars Program and the Columbia Presidential Powers Program, but my essays weren’t even accepted in order for me to go on to the interview process. The first program that I applied for and had the opportunity to be interviewed by default, because there weren’t many applicants, was the Brown Macroeconomics Program. Math and economics are definitely not my favorite subjects in school, but I figured getting in to any program would be beneficial, and I would love it either way. Although I probably would have enjoyed that program, I didn’t put enough work into it still—especially since it wasn’t a favorable program for me. It also seemed that I was still trying to learn how to balance all my new extracurricular activities. I missed a crucial mock interview session before my interview, and I really wasn’t ready for this panel interview. I was nervous and the only sophomore in the interview. With more experience under the other interviewees’ belts and just more preparedness, I wasn’t able to get in. For a time, I felt that I wasn’t good enough, but of course, getting used to all my new extracurricular activities kept me busy enough. I thought to myself, “Well, I have another year; maybe the time just isn’t right.” And I don’t know why I didn’t apply to Vanderbilt, because looking back, this program and school were exactly right for me. No matter, it seems that I wasn’t ready for the Ivy League Connection either way.


Becoming a Part of the Program

But suddenly, I found what I was doing wrong, and fireworks shot up in my brain (July 4th in DC)
It was not until my Junior Year that I realized if I want to be the best at something, I have to not just do it; I have to put my all-out heart into it. I have to want it and know I can succeed but also not be afraid to fail. I have to be committed. What I just said is considered real commitment, not just spending time and following the expectations of others but exceeding their expectations—but not for them. And beginning my Junior Year until now, I learned to know the full extent of what commitment really means.

Junior Year had a lot more competition than my Sophomore Year when applying to the ILC.  However, I had the edge, because only one other person, Julia Chang (who is now in the Yale Ivy Scholars Program right now) had the chance to experience an interview like me. I knew what the interview was somewhat going to be like, and I knew that my public speaking abilities improved a lot after being in Forensics Speech and Debate for an entire year. I knew the preparation it took to get in, and so every chance I had to mock interview with ILC alums and teachers, I made sure I reserved time for those mocks. Other than that, I was simply just more mature than I was the previous year.

But no matter how much more preparation and confidence I had this Junior Year, there was something that I taught myself. Any time I’m competing—in anything--I tell myself that it doesn’t matter how well others do. It doesn’t matter who will succeed and who will not. All that matters is that I do my best and I focus on doing my best—not to match anyone’s successfulness but to know by the end of the day, I put my best foot forward and tried my hardest. If I set my mind to this goal, then I can accomplish it. No matter how much I wanted to be in this program and no matter how much I told myself I would be, I made sure that my thoughts were overall not too much about my successfulness in getting in to the ILC but just knowing it was a great experience anyway. I learned that if you want something too much, you lose track of being yourself and start to question whether you did your best or not. This time, no matter how much I wanted to get into the ILC, I made sure to keep the mentality that no matter what--at the end of the day--I knew that I did my best.

And so in a daunting way to accept the four students into the Vandy cohort, all eight of the students were put in a line; the four accepted students’ names were said right up and front. When the third name that was called wasn’t my name, I, for a split second, thought I didn’t get in. But when the fourth and final name called was “Chris Han”, my soul jumped with so much excitement that I almost couldn’t control it physically. I kept “my cool” as Don gave us paperwork to fill out, but once I, Hannah, Yessenia, and Narges walked out of the library, we immediately jumped up and down and screamed with excitement. I’m not sure if I’ve ever felt more accomplished and happier with a task in my entire life than I was that day. It’s not just that I was successful in getting in to this program; it’s what it took for me to finally get in.

The ILC is a privilege and is a much more daunting process than many of the students, like me my Sophomore Year, think. The ILC was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, and if you can’t see how much it took me to get here, then I don’t know what to say.

I carried this mentality throughout my Junior Year, and I still will—as long as I live. I went from being a total novice in debate to a Varsity debater at the end of the year, and next year I’m going to be a debate captain. I obtained three speaker gavels at a Junior Statesmen of America Convention, and next year I’m going to be an officer in that club. I found my hidden passion (and I guess talent), poetry, and so I’m going to become president of my school’s SLAM club (poetry/self-expression club) next year. I guess you can say getting into the ILC made my head clearer. I can go on and on about how I kept this mentality, but let’s just say that getting into the ILC got me to find new passions and soar with them. And I couldn’t have been happier or more thankful. 
And after a great storm of difficulties, comes a great rewarding rainbow in its place (after a huge pouring of rain)


Pre-Departure Months

My commitment to this program was constantly being tested starting February all the way until my departure. Tasks after tasks were given to us, but through thick and thin, I made sure to keep reminding myself what Don Gosney constantly told us--that all these tasks were for a purpose: to prepare me for my trip and to initiate me into adulthood. It’s safe to say Don was right. From the tutorial session, to the San Francisco dinner with the alumni and donors, and to the board meetings, I learned that being on time is being at least 15 minutes early. I learned how to be professional but not forget that I could be myself. If I somehow got into the ILC last year, I don’t think I would’ve been my usual laughing and talkative self—of course in an appropriate and mature manner. I guess to sum up what I’ve learned from all of these experiences, being an adult doesn’t mean not being you, being an adult means being committed and staying positive. And if you’re catching the trend, you’ll see what the one big thing that I’ve taken away from this trip was.


College Discoveries and New Thoughts About College

Awed by Duke
After meeting a couple of admissions officers and experiencing Duke, Georgetown, UPenn, and Vanderbilt, I now know what I essentially want in a college.

Unlike perhaps some of the other ILCers, I’ve been planning to apply out of state, or at least far enough away from home that I experience something new in my life, ever since middle school. I was even inclined to apply out of country, but now that I know about all of the wonderful Study Abroad Programs offered at schools, I don’t need to.

After all that college searching, it's nice to stop and just breathe
I want a place where I can feel right at home but in a new home essentially. I want a school that can offer a few big lecture halls to classes fewer than 15. I don’t want too small of a school, but I don’t want too big of a school that I feel just invisible in the school community--although I don’t think I’d ever make myself invisible. I want to make sure that the school I’m attending has spirit and that I learn as much socially as I do academically.

I want liberal academics. I don’t know, and probably won’t in a few months for my college applications, what I want to major in. I want and need the opportunity to explore the widest range of academics my first and probably my second year of college. All four of these schools encourage cross-subject learning. Now I can perhaps narrow down my choices on what colleges I’m going to apply for.

I just wish we had the chance to explore even more colleges because I learned and discovered so much in just a week. I feel like just checking out only four new colleges on the other side of the country isn’t enough for me to know what’s fully out there. Perhaps somehow I’ll be able to visit more colleges during Winter Break or President’s Week.
It really was an amazing first week

The Admissions Process

Most of the new things that I didn’t realize or didn’t know about the admissions process came from two admissions officers that the Vandy cohort met on different days. Northern California Admissions Officer Mr. Samuel Carpenter from our trip to Duke University and Alabama Admissions Officer Ms. Julianna Staples from our College Apps Seminar at VSA taught me a lot about this process that I thought I had more knowledge about. 

One crucial aspect of the admission process that I know students don’t realize enough is that the personal essays and letters of recommendations matter a lot. They’re so caught up in SAT and ACT scores, getting the highest GPA, and participating in all these extracurricular activities, that they failed to realize what truly sets a student apart from any other student. They forget that admissions officers don’t get to experience teaching us several hours a day and don’t get the opportunity to “hang out” with students—that the closest way to experience this is by reading students’ essays and letters. A student can be judged as a totally different person from whom they really are if the essays and letters aren’t thought of and looked over enough by students.

I also learned, and this was mostly from the seminar we had at VSA, that admitting a student in is much more difficult than it seems. Accepting one, wait listing two, and denying one is such a difficult and agitating decision process. It’s not as hard to accept someone as it is to deny or wait-list them. I also realized that officers will look for the littlest details in your application, even your email to see if it’s professional enough. It also surprised me to see how much there really is in an application; you really have to put yourself out there and get straight to the point that you’re worthy of that college. Although there seems to be enough time to look at a student’s application, officers will usually generate a general trait to describe a student, such as “The Come Back Kid”. For my sake, let’s hope my general trait is worthy of a prestigious college like Vanderbilt and the other colleges we visited.

I knew that I had to be an all-round person to get in to a prestigious school, but I was wrong to think that I knew everything about the college admissions process.

A New Social Experience

In college, the social experience is just as important as the academic experience. This is what Vanderbilt Summer Academy seemed to really stress and want its students to recognize. In college, you’ll have a lot more time on your hands, and you’ll have to make sure that that time is well spent for four years (at the least). They wanted to show us that part of growing up isn’t just in-taking academic knowledge; it is in-taking social knowledge too. And I think VSA did a fine job showing us this—giving us a good balance of a social life in college and an academic life in college.
Roaming Downtown on Broadway

I didn’t think that having a roommate and staying in a dorm would be very fun in college, but after having a roommate for three weeks, a roommate really enhances your experience socially. I never felt alone, and it really helps to teach students independence and cooperation with another person. After experiencing living with a roommate, I never wanted for that experience to end. Having so many floor mates and a proctor group--which seemed to almost resemble a fraternity--in general just made my experience at VSA that much more fun. Sharing bathrooms may not be likable for me still, but they actually get cleaned almost every day, so in a way, having public bathrooms for the halls can be better than having a private one.
Proctor Group Night Out
 I was never judged at VSA. I could’ve chosen to be any one of the stereotypes teenagers have of each other: a jerk, a geek, a slacker, etc. However, instead I decided to be what I felt the most comfortable being, myself—never having to think what others thought of me because they never met me and knew my past experiences. I think this is one thing, out of the many, that upcoming freshman in college need to remember. The beginning of college is a new chapter of a person’s life, and it could be for the best or for the worst. What students have to realize, however, is that they shouldn’t define themselves as a stereotype because they want to “fit in”. What they have to realize is that they should be totally and absolutely 100% themselves when beginning their first year in college. If a student tries to impress others, they start to become lost and distracted in what they’re not than who they really are. They’ll become confused about what they really want in their future. Just be yourself. And again, being you and only you is the first step to becoming an adult. Don’t worry if you’ll “fit in”, because one way or another, you will, especially if you just don’t think about it. That’s what I learned in the social aspects of VSA, and it seemed that I actually “fitted in” very well somehow without even thinking about it. 
Not caring if you performed a rendition of the song "I Want it That Way" by a  90s boy band with your proctor group
An amazing diverse group of students--and also some of the many friends I made at VSA
I always thought that a student going to these prestigious schools would be more of a (please don’t get offended) “book worm” and an “anti-social” person. Now, I only thought this before because I figured that the academics at these prestigious schools were so tough that there would be no real sense of a spirited and social community. I was absolutely wrong. I forgot why students were accepted to these prestigious schools. They weren’t just academically smart; they all had a huge involvement in their school and local communities. They have their name known, and they were—must I say this—“popular”. Students accepted to these prestigious colleges are the most gifted people in some way or more besides the common “Straight A’s”. They could be an athlete, a musician, a politician, a writer, a debater, a community service worker, and etc. Meeting most of the 150 students in this program, I couldn’t help but notice at least one of these extra talents that I named above that these students had. This hasn’t only made me realize that I have great competition in the admission process, but also that it’s safe to say that the world is in good hands.

Two of the best people you'll ever meet, Eric and Alexa--for me at least
It is absolute torture what Vanderbilt Summer Academy does to its students. How can they help to encourage and create such close bonds and friendships with one another and know that we’re all going to have to go our separate ways in the next three weeks? I met some amazing people that I could’ve only dreamed of. I never became someone’s “Best Bud” in less than two weeks, and I never made such close friendships with so many people so rapidly before. I’m very curious to see if friendships grow this fast and this strong in college like it has at VSA. I hope and pray that the friends I made here will last a lifetime, because I can’t just forget them that easily. At least I know who I can meet up with if I ever stop by some of the states on the other side of the country (or even different countries, France or Brazil)!






A New Learning Environment

Lived Religion: Abrahamic Faiths class (before heading to the mosque site visit)
I was so caught up before coming to Vanderbilt about the amazing new things that I would learn in my class that I practically forgot about the new learning environment I would experience in class.

Being in a class with just twelve students (including myself), a professor, and a TA really was a brand-new learning experience for me. Some classes can get really big at Pinole Valley High School; I remember I had a class with 38 students my Junior Year. There was no place to hide in a class of this size—especially when we had a lot of discussion circles. We not only had the opportunity to have our voices heard and ask questions, but we all had the chance to get to know each other much deeper on a personal level. The last few days of class we had these written descriptions for everybody in the class called “affirmations”. They were pretty much to show what we see in our peers and what really makes them stand out as a talented person. Let’s just say we all (for the most part) knew each of our classmates very well, and this goes to show how a smaller class can raise the personal level bar much higher. 

I also felt different in an environment where everyone wanted to learn for the sake of learning. You see, because VSA didn’t give us actual college credit or grades in our classes, we all knew that everyone was in Lived Religion because they wanted to be. A lot of times, I feel students at my school just want the bare minimum in order to succeed in high school—that they could care less about the subject that they’re learning as long as they get the grade they want. It was just nice to finally be in a learning environment where everyone tried their hardest not for a grade but for their own understanding.

Learning New Ways to Learn  

Learning new information about religious practice in the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) through reading, lecturing, and discussions weren’t the only ways to learn about religious practice anthropologically and sociologically. Fully immersing oneself into the religious community is much more significant than reading about or trying to visualize the practices. It’s also much easier to in-take knowledge much faster. As they say, a picture really is worth a thousand words, and when you immerse yourself into a religious community, you’re creating thousands of words by the millisecond.
Fully immersing ourselves and loving it (at the mosque with charismatic Imam Mohamed in the middle)
I also learned that in learning, you should always ask before you assume. Don’t be afraid to take academic risks. I heard the term “academic risk” before, but VSA has just reminded me of it, because my teachers in high school never seemed to have encouraged that because they probably assumed we were already doing that.

I learned that there are other forms of learning that are essential to a well-rounded adult but also just to have fun; you need extracurricular classes. These would be the two Arete classes that I had the first two weeks of the program: Improvisation and Stage Combat.

 Exploring My Faith and Other Faiths

I came into this class as a Christian with an open mind to the other faiths out there. I’m glad to say that I came out the same as I came in, but strangely in a different way. I’m now ever more curious about my own faith and want to research more and more about it. I have also become very fond of the other two monotheistic faiths—Judaism and Islam--and wish to find out more about them too. I can tell you how much I’ve learned in those three weeks, but I think you already know from my daily blog posts.

As the days of learning progressed, I couldn’t help but find myself increasingly doubtful of some of my Christian beliefs. I couldn’t understand why the Trinity was so important if it was so vaguely mentioned in the Bible—especially if Scripture is important to Christians. I thought to myself, “Was the Trinity just a way to get more followers so that people can be fearful about going to Hell when they die and remain controlled by political/religious leaders?” I couldn’t understand why Christians wish to evangelize others, while Muslims and Jews don’t. For a time, I was slowly losing respect for the people of my own faith.

But then, as I began to research more and more about the Trinity for my mini research project, something suddenly just clicked with me. I realized that everything didn’t have to make sense—that sometimes you just have to believe before seeing because Faith is an ongoing mystery. As I dug further and further into researching my faith, I found more faults and contradictions in the writings and beliefs of Christians. However, as I found more contradictions, I found more facts and ways to reassure my faith. I learned that there’s always going to be doubts and faults that I will find in any religion, but sometimes, you just need to not listen to your brain but your heart—not matter what.

I knew that this course reassured my Christian faith and actually made it stronger, when I went to church the following morning after my arrival back home. Two days in a row I was in a church, and I can’t explain how powerful and transcendent it felt. I never have been so passionate about my faith. Seeing the ways the other monotheistic faiths expressed their passion for their faith has influenced me to try the same thing as them. For example, when Muslims pray, they do different movements and bow with their head all the way down. When it was worship time at my church, I tried this, and I felt something that I never felt before.

I also came to know about inter-faith and how many religious communities are trying to form bonds with other religious communities. It’s to decrease the stereotypes and to increase a sense of equality between each other. I would like to see more of that in my community and in the world in general, and I am happy people of different faiths are deciding to try inter-faith activities.

I knew there was a reason why I decided to take this class, and I’m so glad I did.

Life isn't About Finding Yourself; It's About Creating Yourself

One mistake I made in high school was not thinking enough about college. Yes I had some idea of what college I wanted to go to, but after going on this trip, I realized I had no idea before. I highly encourage students to look into colleges now and make actual visits. Trust me, a student’s mind will change or open up instantly to the college once they make an actual visit to the campus. Again, going back to learning in ways I never thought possible, experiencing a place first hand is much more significant than reading about or trying to visualize the place.
An award for being just myself from my favorite and only proctor at VSA, Trevor
In these entire four weeks, anyone who saw or was with me found out who, for the most part, the “real” Chris is. I was rapidly changing and creating myself as these four weeks zoomed by. I really just let myself go and hoped to find myself. However, what I didn’t realize is that I wasn’t finding myself during these four weeks, I was creating myself. It’s because if you’re so caught up in the future, you’ll forget about the present, and you’ll forget what you’re doing and why you are doing it. People have to realize that the future is decided by the present, and if we want to live a better life, it’s better to just stay “in the now”.  Yes, I thought about my future plenty of times on the trip, but I came to the realization that my future is already here—that the next chapter of my life starts right now. I’m going to college, whether I like it or not. It’s time to stop dreaming and start doing. Still, many times at VSA I almost forgot that this was all for the “future”. I forgot that in just a few weeks this great experience would end, that VSA wasn’t my life. It would only feel like a very long dream until I had to jump back into reality.
I'll never forget, and I'm glad the VSA staff won't either


Yes, and it took after all three years of high school and this amazing trip for me to finally realize the key to success and happiness, that I have to be something so simple yet more difficult than it seems—genuinely and wholeheartedly committed. I have to live in the now, and stop dreaming, but most importantly I just have to be myself. And this is what it truly means to be an adult. I believe that this is what students, or maybe just everybody in this entire world, really need to know.

I take everything that this program has given me as a gift from God and as an absolute privilege, and I am so thankful. The surprises and the good things never seemed to stop, and I don’t think they’ll ever stop. I’d just like to thank Mr. Ramsey, Ms. Kronenberg, Don, and of course the sponsors, for keeping this program going and still growing for years to come. Without all of you, not only would I not have had the opportunity to be in this wonderful program, but the students in the future wouldn’t either. And thank you, Mr. Mannix, for being such a wonderful chaperone and a “single father” for his “four diverse orphans”. Thanks Narges, Yessenia, and Hannah for being the sisters I never had. We truly became a little family on this trip. Thank you, Mother and Grandma, for never losing doubt that I would try my hardest and always being happy for me no matter what. And thank you readers. I know you didn’t get to experience with me first-hand how much experience I’ve gained on this trip, but I hope that these blog posts sufficed.
A visit from Ms. Kronenberg and Mr. Mannix; we were still growing at the time
I guess you don’t realize how much you’ve grown and how much you’ve learned until it’s all over. Still, this isn’t the end of my adventure. I have a lot to share with the community. My future is starting now, and the time is ticking.