Stanford was an overachiever’s paradise. I was sure to flourish in the environment of excellence, intellectualism, learning, activism, clubs, dorms, and new friends. The campus was tranquil and conducive to dreaming.
At the same time, starting day one, an undercurrent of anxiety about my major began gnawing at my mind. When someone would ask, “So what are you going to major in?” I’d tentatively say “Biological Sciences” or respond apologetically that I wasn’t sure. The second day of school I found myself in the Career Center searching for answers. I had developed a weekly ritual of stopping by the center, flipping through internship and job binders; scanning through books about careers (this was pre-internet) and collecting flyers. Some days I was hopeful, other days painfully aware of just going through the motions of a desperate routine.
Fall quarter my schedule was packed with general requirements. My first pre-med course was not offered until winter. I took Chinese as an elective, and began exploring my nascent Asian-American identity.
Winter quarter I took my first Chemistry course. The seriousness and anticipation in the lecture hall among the future doctors ready to prove themselves was palpable. Although I had done well in high school chemistry and taken a community college course that previous summer, the course was difficult. The professor’s response to my request to explain a concept I had read but could not understand was “it’s in the book”. I went to every office hour and review session for help and earned my first B.
Spring quarter I took Organic Chemistry. Went to every review and office hour, got a tutor. Another B. I guessed and memorized my way through the class. I couldn’t understand why the answers on problem sets and tests were incorrect or correct. I disliked the subject matter. How could I tell my parents? How could I waste their money? If I wasn’t pre-med what would I study?
Summer was approaching and I needed to make the most of it. Do something that would contribute to my future. Get a job to alleviate the stress of college tuition. Figure out a Plan B. When discussing this issue with my roommate Julie I confessed that what I really wanted to do was go to Taiwan. I could learn about my family history. I could support myself teaching English and learn Chinese. But this wasn’t impossible. How could I line up a position overseas in a few short weeks? The following Sunday Julie shared my desire with the pastor of her Taiwanese church and within a couple of weeks I received a written offer for a well-paying job teaching English that summer from the pastor’s brother, Director of the Taipei YMCA.
I finished my freshman year confused and discouraged about academics and career, yet excited about my new adventure.
I knew my pre-med classes were not working out and that I couldn’t sustain an interest in the sciences. . The only class I fully enjoyed was Chinese, which I could take cheaply at a state or community college. Each class at Stanford translated to thousands of dollars. My parents were toiling away at the motel they had bought and managed and I was flushing their money down a toilet at a fancy private school. I felt anguished, stressed, guilty, terrible. Should I have gone to college without knowing what I would major in? Should I have gone to Stanford? Should I have taken some time off to refocus, work, or take transferable units at a community college in light of how expensive tuition was?
Looking back I can see how incredibly alone I was when it came to deciding on my major. I was ashamed that I didn’t know what I wanted. It was difficult to explain to my peers who seemed focused and prepared. I couldn’t ask my parents for help because the least I could do was tell them what I did want to do if I didn’t want to go to medical school. I had good friends I could talk to from home but nobody, no counselor, could give me the magical answer I desired.
I did not understand then that sometimes in life we can’t find the answers we are looking for, that sometimes direction is found step by step, and that some things take a long time, a lifetime to make sense. Sometimes we can’t see the wisdom in a circuitous path and what we we think we have to have is not really what we need most. We must often settle for imperfect plans. We all make mistakes, but there are second chances. I did not know then that even if I chose a “wrong” major that I had a lifetime to discover what I wanted to do.
I had implored God to speak to me, tell me what to major in and what career would be best for me. I prayed my entire freshman year and heard nothing. Yet I asked briefly for God to provide a way for me to go to Taiwan and that prayer was answered immediately. So I had to start learning to live with the dichotomy of a God who is close and miraculous but at the same time often silent. I would later learn that God was working out a plan completely different from the type I was pleading for.