Saturday, January 11, 2014

Dyana So - University of Pennsylvania

It has been exactly one year since I’ve reflected on my whole college experience for the ILC. It’s been just as long since I’ve been home in the Bay Area. To say that there’s been a lot of changes is an understatement. Truly, I am having trouble starting sentences because just thinking through all I want to talk about (and don’t) feels overwhelming, let alone challenging to organize into a neat narrative. At least, that is how I feel about my college experience thus far.

For inspiration, I decided to read through my last ILC reflection from one year ago. Given that there was rarely a dull moment in-between then and now, I was excited to reintroduce myself to someone I had more or less forgotten under layers and layers of new memories. By the end of reading my post however, I found it both eerie to realize how much dissonance now stood between me and, well, me, but also – and more personally striking – what it was that we still shared that prevents me from feeling completely detached from her. It is difficult to keep track of all the episodes that contributed to this ‘transformation’ but that’s probably the best way I can describe the college experience so far – my own at the very least – when you expose your mind and heart to all it has and can offer you. As a result, I feel that the best way to ease into this reflection is to assess who I was one year ago.

Back in 2012, Dyana was at what she called “an epic liminal” space at the University of Pennsylvania. Making the most of her time was a leading concern and subsequent catalyst for much of her spontaneous actions. Even though she couldn’t help but view herself wedged in Penn’s undergraduate culture of inseparable pre-professionalism, she remained optimistic about being in an environment that always gave her inspiration for constructing her “complicated blueprint” of “her place on campus”. Though the optimism she expressed was genuine, it was also the default-by-habit way she knew how to address anything that was unfamiliar and unresolved. However, unlike not knowing something she read in a book, or not knowing where she would go to college, the ‘magnitude of importance’ that seemed to come with – and she also let manifest into – thoughts about her place in the future after college, gradually became so frighteningly paralyzing that it was also easy to forget that it was supposed to be exciting as well.

Perhaps this was a typical phase of many freshmen’s experiences. I had just returned home after 5 months of being away on my own for the first time and the greater difference of time remaining of the semesters I had left at Penn, juxtaposed to the time I had used up so far was large enough that any ‘mistakes’ made in my first semester could still be comfortably redefined as ‘fine opportunities for growth’. Ironically, however, it was my desire to be mature about college in such a black-and-white way that made me most naïve. In actuality, the time I always felt I was racing to beat was largely self-imposed and only further blinded me from realizing that constantly thinking about the future meant I was missing out on appreciating the present.

Since my middle school days to now, I’ve been told that college is the place to find oneself but I realized that I did not know what I was looking for. Decidedly taking a liberal arts approach to my undergraduate Penn education also made me realize this sooner, for I found myself entering phases of deep criticism and skepticisms about such reoccurring motifs as fidelity, morality, objectivity, truth, etc., that it was impossible for me to keep such thoughts only within the confines of classrooms. Before I knew it, I became as much of a reflector of the content I was learning as the topics I would write papers about, and when you start to find it hard to resist thinking about additional aspects of problems that were not explicitly stated, daily life stubbornly slows, demanding a thorough double-take.

Thus, the choices one makes during college, and how, are so important. Not – and I really stress this – because everything you do in college suddenly has this magical weight of importance relative to any other time of your life, or that every decision you make is from here-on-out trajectory to your post-college career(s), but because the unique environment that you are in gives you an opportunity to explore something that isn’t supposed to be defined yet. One of the most limiting outlooks you could impose on yourself is the assumption that you already know what you’re looking for, that you let your confidence run its course instead of inviting doubt in to challenge. Even for those who pursue a pre-professional path in undergraduate school, should be more open to the wide range of possibilities that comes with their desired careers. And though I periodically envy those who are perfectly content with the plans they are pursuing in college (the pre-meds, the engineers, the nurses, the Whartonites, etc.), I have come to accept that I cannot expect myself to move any faster towards a lifestyle that I only want immediately out of haste. I’ve decided that understanding who I am and what my affinities are will be my leading priorities of my undergraduate education. Perhaps I will be lucky and find my ‘true calling’ – if it exists – but before I throw another graduation tassel in the air, I will be content if I can come closer to understanding selflessness through selfishness.

One year ago, I would have hoped that I could, at the very least, share what my intended major was by now. Though I’ve personally come a long way from being someone that gets too caught up with regrets, the one advice I would give anyone about declaring a major is this: choose something you really like. I will not deny that planning very far ahead has great value but the greatest value you can be to others, as I’ve come to accept, is when you do something you love. Passion goes a long way. It is what will motivate you to explore new perspectives others will not think about; it is what will naturally convert your setbacks to enticing challenges to overcome; it is what makes what makes work not feel like work; and it is what is most contagious to inspire in others to do the same for them. There was a point shortly after winter break last year that I heavily considered joining the Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (NROTC) at Penn because the discomfort of not knowing what I was to make of myself in college was strong enough to make me willing to substitute a lifetime’s guarantee of stability over a chance to find something I truly love. Very people in the world can honestly say they love what they do, and for many, it’s because they were never given that chance to explore what it is that they like. College will not give you the answer but its environment, its resources, and most importantly, what you choose to do with what it offers you, can bring you closer.

This optimism, while different, not only assures me that there are some aspects of my character that will likely ever change, but it also helps me measure just how much one grows according to the environment you are in. Before, I used to think that any college experience would suffice for me if I make the most of what they have to offer, but by embodying this mentality, I’ve also presupposed I knew a part of me well enough to be assured of this (the one outlook I’ve advised one not to take). This notion might feel applicable during freshman year, but choosing a school that will challenge your current personality most will start taking affect after you get start getting comfortable in your new environment. My writing seminar professor this semester, who is also a graduate student at Penn, is from Spain and she told me how surprised she was to discover how fast everything was at Penn. “Pushing people at the deeper end of the pool to teach them how to swim well does not work for everyone,” she reminds me. “Some people may drown.”

I have doubted whether Penn was the right place for me, often at times when things were most challenging and when making oneself vulnerable to comparisons to others was so natural and easy. Three semesters later however, especially in reflecting who I would miss out on becoming without the unique experiences I’ve had as a result of being at Penn and living in Philadelphia (a city I’ve really come to love), I am honestly very content to be a Quaker. I’ve made some very genuine friendships and found really wise mentors here. Sometimes there are too many adventures and ‘coffee chats’ to plan in a week. This past semester was the most challenging for me – academically, mentally, physically, and spiritually – but it has been the best so far.

Over winter break this year, I will be deeply assessing the two leading options for my major: a visual studies and cinema studies double major or an individualized major concentrating in adaptation studies. Because I don’t believe my major will be trajectory to any specific career, my decision will ultimately depend on what I think challenges my character and fuels my passions best. Academically speaking, an interdisciplinary approach to interpreting visual content is what I find myself gravitating towards most, with reoccurring side interests in east-west comparative philosophy, minority studies, and communications. Within the Penn community, I am a peer counselor for PennCAP (College Achievement Program) freshman students and a CWiC (Communication within the Curriculum) advisor currently helping Vagelos biochemistry students with their science presentation oral/visual delivery and organization. I recently finished working with a student group planning a weeklong celebration of Asian American heritage celebration at Penn, contributing predominantly in design and marketing. For this upcoming semester, I’m looking forward to cutting back on extracurricular activities with heavy commitments so I can focus more on school, getting back into kendo, and my personal exploration of the arts.

There is always more I could share but I don’t want to be too prolix. If after reading this you would like to learn more or share your own thoughts about what I’ve written, I really encourage you to contact me personally. Learning is always reciprocated, never one-sided and engaging with those who come from our school district really holds a special place in my heart. You can contact me at and I look forward to getting to know you.

All the best,
Dyana W. T. So

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