Ode to an Era
I’ve been a student for as long as I remember. From snack time and nap time in kindergarten, to homework and tutoring in primary and secondary school, to large-scale projects and coursework in university, I have effectively spent two whole decades as a student in formal academics. That’s almost 91% of my life.
When, a few months ago, I was invited to speak at my university’s Academic Convocation and my college’s Commencement, I took some time to reflect. The following comprises some elements of my speeches, and much more.
Why am I writing this? I’ve been meaning to put a lot of my thoughts into words. Why am I putting this on the Internet? I like sharing what I’ve been through. It makes me anxious that this might seem egotistical, but my intention is not to fish for pity or attention, but rather to use this platform as an outlet. Who knows — this may start some good conversation (or it may not and that’s fine).
TL;DR: I’ve grown a lot from my first website to my incoming role at Google, but also psychologically. As I begin my post-graduate endeavours, I want to remind myself to stay foolish.
I want to feel dumb and to stay humble.
A Semi-formal Retrospective
Formal education is all I’ve known the past few years, but the years before that were just as valuable. I developed a curiosity for websites when I was five and my father taught me how to turn on the computer and log in to Yahoo! Mail. I wrote him emails in the style of letters, a collection he keeps to this day. I also found a love for tinkering in MS Paint and Photoshop Elements, making fan art for the many fan-sites that were cropping up at the time.
I was also fascinated with reading — classics, fiction and non-fiction, fantasy, you name it. I would never be seen without a book in my hand. I was a huge bookworm growing up, to the point where I was writing fantastical stories that were suspiciously similar to the plot of the Harry Potter books. Around the age of eight, I made the big girl decision that I was ready to put these stories up on the World Wide Web, on a webpage called Ethelia’s Book Club. Being as resourceful as one can be at that age, I found a tutorial that had copy and paste HTML, figured that any and all text must be put into Microsoft Word, pasted all the tags into a text box, and then pressed the “Web Layout” button. Needless to say, Ethelia’s Book Club never saw the light of day.
Nonetheless, my foray into website design and development didn’t end there. I went on to Xanga blog layouts, Neopets user lookups, and eventually my own personal graphics site, where I exhibited my own blog posts, MS Paint pixel art, Photoshop Elements doodles, and DeviantArt journal layouts. I was very intrigued by how much I could create and remix, from fansite banners to doll characters to blog layouts. I won’t lie, I was totally channelling the Steal Like An Artist mentality, imitating styles and trends, and frankensteining source code, building my own creations. I pulled from the likes of Lissa Explains, Dynamic Drive, and the classic W3Schools. By twelve years of age, I was well immersed in the world of personal websites.
By far my biggest inspiration was a friend I met online, Georgie Luhur. From Out-The-Window to Heartdrops to Hey Georgie, I’ve watched and been inspired by her journey as a designer, developer, and person. I was empowered in my decision to pursue design (with a dash of development) as a career and refused to let any notions of the typically male-dominated development classes and software engineering fields deter me. Being the only girl in my IBDP Computer Science classes gave me great pride, and performing well in my web development minor despite my hesitation with back-end programming taught me to be resilient. I followed a path that was born out of a desire to share and create meaningful work. All of that led me to New Media Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Alongside a great set of educators at school, I was incredibly lucky to find mentors in my intern managers. David took a chance on an inexperienced first-year university student and opened my eyes to agencies and a design culture much unlike what I was exposed to at school. Chris guided me through the product world and helped me build my confidence even further. I could not be more humbled to have gotten these opportunities to learn from people I admire. I’m so fortunate that I had the resources to get myself to this point.
I Learned How I Learn Best
I’ve noticed something about myself — I like feeling dumb. It sounds counterintuitive, but let me explain.
Have you ever sat in a presentation and thought “oh, that’s so well done. That’s… so smart. I would never have thought to consider that.” It’s in those moments that I would feel dumb. Like most people, I hate the feeling. At first, it sucks coming to terms with things I didn’t think of. The little voice inside my head bombards me with questions: Why didn’t I do an independent study with that professor, whose expertise is that thing I’ve always been interested in? Why didn’t I join this club earlier? Why didn’t I think of using this or that resource?
Once I get over all of that though, I realise how much I appreciate those emotions and how much they help me grow.
There’s a Chinese saying that I grew up with; it goes 三人行必有我師焉, which roughly translates to “When three people walk together, one of them must be my teacher”. Growing up in a competitive environment, 13-year-old Ethelia learned this begrudgingly. I tried to figure out how to copy the people who were getting As, so that I, too, would be an A student. It wasn’t easy, and still isn’t easy, to admit that I’m not always right and that I can learn from people I consider my competitors.
When I first went to RIT, I had a sinking realisation that maybe I wasn’t as outlandishly creative, maybe I wasn’t as confident a leader, and maybe I wasn’t as receptive a friend as the people I’d surrounded myself with. But, I figured that if I tried to imitate the people I admired, or took note of and made an effort to consider things that other people were more apt to consider, then perhaps I could fake it ’til I made it. I learned to learn from both the successes and the mistakes of my peers and my friends, beyond just academics. A wise individual learns from their mistakes, but a wiser individual learns from the mistakes of others. I actively surrounded myself with people who were better than me, so that I could learn to work better, to think better.
It’s a fine line to stride psychologically, I’ll admit; but in letting my self-esteem take a few small hits, I’ve been able to build it up to be stronger.
Self-esteem. Confidence. Strength.
Words that carry weight in meaning, but were so difficult to realise. I was cheeky as a young child, but came to be quiet and reserved through primary and secondary school. Whether that was a result from being bullied, from the rigorous school system, or from the secret second life I was leading online (I made my personal website under a pseudonym. Remember when we were all so paranoid about our true identities online?), I can’t pinpoint or qualify. Perhaps it was all of the above.
I struggled to find self-worth. I knew that I could study and that I was hardworking, but I was attempting to learn in a culture of pressure where I doubted my intelligence and abilities, constantly compared myself to others, and developed a toxic, self-deprecating mindset.
I struggled to find self-confidence. I didn’t believe that I could make an impact, so I settled for playing the supporting character. I was fine being in the background, being a part of the chorus. I wasn’t good enough to be the main character in this play called Life. Quite literally, I found myself falling short of stellar in my academic pursuits, my athletic pursuits, and my choral and theatrical pursuits. I held standards for myself that were ridiculous, and focused on my weaknesses instead of giving attention to my strengths. On top of that, I’d had body image issues since I was very young, and sincerely believed that I was overweight, that I was unattractive.
I never realised how far I’d managed to push myself down. I truly was my own worst critic, and it was debilitating.
The weight of it all came down hard during my sophomore year at RIT — not at all because of university itself, but because the root causes of what had been haunting me for so long finally reared their ugly heads. Without the distractions of the insane pace of work and environment of high school, and without the fresh new experiences of a new college student, I was left to the mercy of my own thoughts. Come February of 2016, I had just been diagnosed with Graves disease and hyperthyroidism. I was way past the excitement of freshman year, and I had fallen back into the self-loathing. One Sunday evening, I sat in a lab and wept. The stress of having to prove myself and my choices crushed me. I spilled my thoughts onto paper, the last section of it reads:
It felt good to let it out. I forced myself to look at how badly I was beating myself up, and how much I let superficiality become an identifier of what would make me my ideal self. Good riddance.
I never realised how far I’d managed to push myself down. I truly was my own worst critic, and it was debilitating.
Throughout my first three years, I went through the ups and downs of one relationship, then another, the effects of which I’ll decline to detail here, but rest assured they made a lasting impact on me. I found out what I wanted and didn’t want in a relationship. I found out how to protect myself from getting hurt. I found out what I was and wasn’t doing right.
It was only in my fourth year at university that I truly felt empowered. I felt loved, I felt strong, and I felt important. I found my place as a mentor, a leader, a friend, a lover. I felt empowered, and better yet, motivated to empower others. The awards that I won and the recognition that I got: yes, they’re gratifying and validating, and I couldn’t be prouder of myself for going from Quiet Book Award Girl to Undergraduate Convocation and Commencement Speaker. Realistically, though, the awards I received this year only mark my achievements at this current milestone. To hang onto them as a method of validation as I continue into the next chapter of my life means nothing. To put it frankly, no-one will care. I’m happy that I’m at a point in my self-growth where I can acknowledge that I excelled, but to put it in the past and set my sights on excelling in the future too.
I’m still not completely happy in my skin, but I’m no longer shy in admitting that I still need so much work as a person, and more importantly, that I can make those changes for myself. I’m working towards a healthier me, physically and mentally.
As I think about the past year and about my graduation from RIT, I can’t help but feel wistful. The shy and quiet background character from just four years ago is no more.
Now that I’m staring in the face of a new chapter of my life, I want to embody my mottos:
- To take things as they come, but no longer in the passive and resigned fashion of my youth.
- To learn from the people around me, and hold no shame in not knowing.
I want to feel dumb and to stay humble. I want to keep learning and growing. Here’s to being a student of life, for many more years to come.
There’s a lot more that I could address, about how I was fortunate to have grown up with the resources and the drive to get to where I am, and how supportive my parents are, but that’s a whole other blog post in itself (as are some of the things I touched on in this one).