I felt a sudden jolt. Claiming a window seat, I glanced over my shoulder to look outside. Despite flying at least once a month, I always find myself wondering if it’s normal for the wings to shake uncontrollably during takeoff. In under two hours, I’ll be traveling exactly 789 miles to New York City. It’s been two years since I’ve walked the streets of Manhattan; I impulsively booked a one way ticket to NYC the month before graduation. When I first came to NYC, I remember arriving a couple hours earlier than my then-boyfriend, so I decided to explore SoHo on my own – to say the city felt overwhelming would be an understatement. The Metra system was a figurative mammoth, there was trash everywhere, and unlike Chicago, some of the streets curved in illogical directions.
So there was something oddly satisfying about eventually being able to navigate the neighborhood on my own.
Flying back to NYC two years later felt nostalgic. And not surprisingly, that’s the theme for this blog post.
As I sit here waiting for the plane to descend, I started to reflect about my recent graduation from UIC– thus finally ending my chapter as a university student and intern. Somewhere I’m sure my dad is crying tears of joy. When I was approaching graduation, I received countless advice (mostly unsolicited) about what to do next.
“Post-grad life is hard, don’t overestimate yourself.”
“You’re going to miss being a student. Maybe you should consider grad school.”
“Don’t expect to like your first official job off the bat.”
I’m not dismissing that any of the above could be true. However instead of writing about my future anxieties (and if I’m being honest, I haven’t really felt any so far… is that being overconfident?), I thought it’d be a better idea to use this space as a time of reflection. Because exactly 10 years ago, I was a 14-year-old entering high school. And now, 10 long years later, I’m a recent college graduate. And I’ve learned an incredible amount along the way. So, 14-year-old Ann, here is a very public letter to myself: advice I wished I had gotten at that age.
1. Give yourself permission to be selfish. I used to think selfishness was a terrible trait; years of cultural conditioning and a strong Catholic background engrained in me that we should put other people’s needs above our own. I neglected myself for friends I thought needed it (whether or not they actually asked for it), creating cycle after cycle of codependency.
As an adult, I think that’s the farthest from the truth. You are the protagonist of your own story, just like your family and friends are protagonists in theirs. We all have novels to write and pages that need to be filled with ink. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing to forgo consideration altogether; but a little bit of selfishness can maximize your happiness – because you and you alone are ultimately responsible for your own happiness. Otherwise, you’re placing responsibility on another human being or set of circumstances to make you happy – where’s the sense of personal responsibility with that?
Besides, you can be a better support system for someone else if you fulfill your own needs first.
2. Everyone’s feelings are valid, even if they’re not the same sentiments you share. This is a concept I’ve been struggling with over the years. Everyone comes from slightly different circumstances and has slightly different boundaries. Their way of understanding and imposing meaning on things could be drastically different than yours. And that’s completely normal. It’s not fair to impose your moral compass on the ones around you. We all make our own choices, and we have to deal with the consequences of those choices. No one needs to ask you for permission on how to feel. And alternatively, you don’t need someone else’s approval to feel the way you do. The more you accept differences in others, the happier you’ll tend to be.’
3. We can’t control the terrible things that happen to us, but we can control our response to them. We all have agency to make our own choices – we’re rarely a slave to circumstance. My adviser during undergrad once told me, “People that grow up in dysfunctional environments can choose to redefine normalcy – even if it’s a lifelong process.” Part of learning to control our response to things is being cognizant of why we think the way we do. Practicing mindfulness at an earlier age will help you cope with things more healthily.
4. My father did not lie: time truly is the best medicine. Time is an equalizer for almost everything: I’ve lost friendships just to mend those same friendships years later, I’ve had heartbreaks just to wonder why I was so heartbroken in the first place months after the fact, and I’ve experienced my fair share of insecurities just to outgrow them in adulthood. Sometimes all you need is a little bit of time to heal and gain clarity to make better decisions. Things are almost always less stressful if you sleep on it the next day.
5. Speaking of time, there is no such thing as the 4-year plan, just your plan. This is advice my brother gave to me, and it only really sunk in during adulthood. Time seems so pressing and urgent in high school and college: you’re trained at an early age to get from point A to point B, and there’s little room for error in between. Life can be a lot more unforgiving than that. You can’t control every single outcome, that’s impossible. But you’ll realize you’re exactly where you need to be, even if it’s the more unconventional path. Not everyone is meant to be in college and not everyone is meant to climb the corporate ladder. Some need to take time off, some need to travel, and some need to reach a specific set of circumstances to get exactly where they’re meant to be.
6. Your parents are incredibly resilient. Be kind to them – always. I think the narrative of most first generation immigrants isn’t unique: my parents were no exception when they decided to immigrate here. They shared a small apartment with a handful of my aunts and uncles. My dad, technically trained in engineering, found his degree was worthless here and worked as a taxi cab driver his first year in America. To complicate this narrative, my mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder freshman year of high school, forcing her to end her nursing career early. It takes an incredible amount of strength to survive and keep pushing forward. It’s easy to forget where we come from, but as children of immigrants, we owe a lot of our success to the sacrifices our parents chose to make for us. And although I don’t think this translates into fulfilling our parents’ lost dreams, we should be thankful for the opportunities and life we’ve built here because of them.