Freshman Year at Stanford

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.

Author’s Reflections:

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.

Lostness at the Top

Declaring my major for the newspaper is a disturbing memory. What if I had written undeclared? Would I have been better off exploring my interests in high school than stacking up achievements? If not afraid to disappoint my parents, what major would I have written down? My interests then were languages, travel, psychology, and activism. I wanted to help people. But I could not connect my interests with careers, majors, or potential “jobs out there.” What types of a careers were out there? What could I possibly be or do? I wish I had more insight back then.  Could someone have helped me? I don’t know. I didn’t have the resources within myself to figure these things out.
It is not that I hadn’t put any previous thought into it. I remember coming upon a brochure about an Asian American mental health/counseling clinic. (Rare at that time.) I could feel my heart beat faster as I picked it up. It resonated with me. I could picture myself working in that field. I showed it to my parents in a courageous moment of vulnerability. They responded  something along the lines of “you don’t want to go into psychology or you will go crazy.” After that conversation I folded up the brochure and tucked it away. Looked at it once or twice and then never again.
There was another moment in high school when I thought I had moved closer to finding direction. I had taken a personality/skills inventory which was supposed to match students’ personalities and talents with potential future careers. I remember the hopeful suspense of waiting for test results and the disappointing reveal: Iron Welder. Iron welder? A door opening to a brick wall.
So as a graduating senior I had four pieces of information when it came to deciding on a major and  a future career:
  1. My parents want me to be a doctor and I needed to be obedient.
  2. Counseling or mental health was not an option.
  3. What I am interested in does not translate into jobs.
  4. Interest and personality inventories are seriously flawed.

Questions for Parents: What information do your teens have when it comes to deciding on a major or contemplating a future career?

Haunting Newspaper Clipping

The Los Angeles used to print a special supplement each June that featured high school Valedictorians for that year’s graduating class.  We were asked to submit a photograph, college plans, description of achievements, and our intended major and career aspirations. The first three items were easy, but the other two were not.
I stated Human Biology and Spanish as my intended majors then dreaded reading my
profile when it came out. I didn’t want to see what I submitted in print because I knew my major was false.  I stated Human Biology because my parents wanted to me to go to medical school. But I could not see myself as I doctor. I disliked science and hospitals made my knees weak. As for Spanish, I had taken four years in high school and was seriously involved in the Spanish Club, but didn’t have a knack for the language and was ready to move on.
My career goals were printed as follows:  “to become an active environmentalist, to travel, and to help people of all nations, healing, counseling, and just making friends.”

Reading that statement also made me cringe. Although I had been honest, I was embarrassed I had written those things. They were childish dreams in an idealistic world of which I knew I would never belong. I had no idea what I wanted to major in, not to mention what type of ‘“real job” I could see myself doing. Within a few short weeks the joy of my hard-earned accomplishments had begun to unravel and I was about to enter some very dark places.

Questions for Reflection:
Parents:  I thought my goals were childish. Were they really? Does your child or teen have space in his his or her schedule to explore interests or future careers?  Did you know what you wanted to major in college? How did you come about that decision? What do you know now that you wish you had known in high school?
Teens: Have you thought about what you want to study in college?  Please share any ideas about you might want to study and why, even if it seems unrealistic to you.


Fast Track to Success

My parents immigrated to the US from Taiwan in the late sixties and eventually settled in Southern California.  My dad was an engineer and my mom was a nurse. They worked hard and saved money to invest in a small multi-family property that over time they would trade for more units. My parents also bought and flipped the homes we lived in which dictated where we lived and went to school.  By the time I was in junior high we had settled into a permanent home and my sisters and I into the Garden Grove Unified School District.

Freshman year of high school l I became ambitious. Nobody pushed me, it just happened. After a childhood of not fitting in and prejudiced taunting (Hey Chink, Jap, Slanty-Eyes, etc.), I finally found my groove in academics.  It was like a button was pressed and I just started to Go. I chose the hardest classes, piled on a wide-range of extra-curricular activities, furiously practiced the piano, and pushed myself to acquire leadership positions to assemble the strongest college application possible for admittance into a prestigious university.  Since my high school was not particularly competitive and my relentless effort not the norm, I was rewarded with straight A’s. And so I pushed myself more. I excelled academically and earned numerous department awards. I took the maximum number of A.P units. I placed in piano competitions and studied abroad. I lead community service projects and participated in academic competitions. I joined numerous clubs (many of which I had no interest in or talent for)  knowing it would look impressive on my college application. All my hard work culminated at the end of my senior year with one particularly thick envelope in the mailbox: I got into Stanford.

What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

What do you want to be when you grow up? As I child I remember hearing this question and never knowing what to say. I could never wrap my mind around it. Was I supposed to know and why didn’t I? Was something wrong with me?  I remember once being excited about becoming an archeologist. My heart started beating quickly, when I thought I might have found an answer to the question. I could discover artifacts and learn about history of long ago and ancient things. Discover something, maybe. How mysterious and cool! But that little fire was quickly put out by the adults around me: “That is a terrible idea, you don’t want to do that.” I remember thinking I might want to be an astronaut. I could travel to distant planets, go up in a rocket, be really brave. I was not afraid. Then I read a book from the library about the discomforts of space travel, namely motion sickness and toileting. That interest, too, fizzled fast. But deep down in I knew the answer to the question.  I wanted to be a writer. But I didn’t think that was something I could do. It was not a job, like being an artist. And I wasn’t talented or famous. So I never shared that idea with anybody. It wasn’t worth sharing but at that same time it was a treasure so precious I didn’t want to risk losing it. Funny thing is, I hid it so long, like the Halloween and Valentine’s Day candy I never ate so as to not waste, that I had forgotten about it. Without realizing it, that desire had disappeared and would take years, decades to dig back up.


Questions for Parents:
How does your child respond when asked this question? Does it excite your child or stress him or her out? What is your child interested in? Is there something he or she is excited about? Have you ever unwittingly thrown water on that interest? Are your kids comfortable sharing their dreams with you?
Reflect and/or Discuss:
Sometimes after a season of unsatisfying work, lostness, or boredom we go back to this same question. No matter what your age is, it is not too late to answer this question. Had you once known but have now forgotten? Are you ready for a new dream?