Fifteen Ways I Look at Me

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Today, I struggled to get out of bed. I woke up this morning, my stomach aching, trying desperately to make it to my 9:30am class, an anthropology class titled “Religion and Politics in the Muslim World.” But after spending forty-five minutes in the bathroom, I decided to drop the class right there and then, and I went back to bed. I finally got up around 3:30pm, with some occasional times where I had to force myself to get up because I felt so sick that I had to run to the bathroom next door.

I do a lot each day, so it was incredibly difficult to feel myself lose control of my day, not getting to go to classes that mattered to me and not getting to see the friends I had planned to see for lunch. I do so much, that I often run myself into the ground with exhaustion, which is why the first few days I spent at Stanford at the beginning of September were just me napping, reading, writing, and watching Netflix—a much earned break after a summer of travel.

I felt so sick today, and to a lesser extent earlier this week, not because there’s a bug going around… although that’s happening too; college campuses are notorious for being a breeding ground for illness. It’s because, for the first time in a while, I changed the dosage of my antidepressants. Starting this weekend, I took the first step towards getting off of them. Any time I change my medications, I always feel sick to my stomach, apparently a result of the many serotonin receptors in my stomach that, for some reason, are just extremely sensitive to change. (Even just travel put a frustrating stress on my sensitive digestive system.)

I don’t know whether this is something to celebrate. When I first went on antidepressants, I chose to shout my depression and anxiety. I was tired of the stigma against mental health issues that leads to so many people not seeking treatment, whether that’s therapy, wellness programs, or medical treatment. Depression and anxiety are, after all, both biological and social in nature, and as social beings, we can’t get help for them alone.

It’s now been about nine months since I first went on antidepressants, something I was initially resistant to until close friends of mine saw that I hadn’t eaten for days or showed up to classes for almost a week, despite meals and class being some of my favorite things (as nerdy as that sounds). It was because I had kind, loving people who were willing to intervene in my life that I found the courage to find a psychiatrist, start therapy, get on antidepressants, and return to being the person I always knew I was. Almost immediately, I felt a huge shift in my mindset and mood. They weren’t “happy pills,” but they helped me feel more resilient, have more energy, and overall feel like a more functional person.

Today felt like backsliding. It reminded me so much of the many days that I hadn’t gotten out of bed, when I’d block out the sunrise with my sheets and lay there until the sun would set again. But progress isn’t linear, even though, as I was reminded by my psychiatrist this weekend, I’ve made tremendous progress since first getting on antidepressants. And of course, the physical symptoms of depression, anxiety, and the SSRIs meant to treat them, are incredibly real and tangible—how could I really blame myself for not wanting to get out of bed when I was in so much pain due to the change in medication dosage? (And honestly, who knows, I may even have gotten that bug that’s going around on top of everything.)

Eventually, my stomach stopped hurting, and this afternoon, I finally got on with my day. I help TA a queer poetry workshop on Thursdays, and today I was reminded how nourishing the arts are for me. A year ago, I wouldn’t have defined myself as someone who thrives on creativity and art. But today, I’m a creative writing minor who spends so much of my time experimenting with my writing—both privately in my anthropology classes and publicly on this blog—and sharing my stories and the stories of others and engaging with works of poetry and prose.

Today, as part of the workshop, we looked at a poem called “13 Ways to Look at a Black Girl” by Morgan Parker, a response to Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways to Look at a Black Bird,” a beautiful, celebrated poem. But Stevens showed his true colors at a meeting of the National Book Award committee. A few drinks in, he and others were looking at photos of the previous committee judges. Upon seeing Gwendolyn Brooks, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer, he asked, “Who’s the coon?” Upon seeing everyone’s shock at his comment, he doubled down. “I know you don’t like to hear people call a lady a coon, but who is it?” Morgan Parker then wrote “13 Ways to Look at a Black Girl,” a poem I can’t find on the internet, but you can find it in her book There are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé (which I highly recommend).

The poem was angry and frustrated, an exploration of what society, including Wallace Stevens, views black women as good for—for sex, as just a friend, and most hauntingly, “dead.” But at the same time, it celebrated famous black women, from Toni Morrison to Michelle Obama to bell hooks, juxtaposing the racism black women experience with these lauded, celebrated figures. As a way to engage with this text, we wrote poems that were celebrations of ourselves.

This is the draft of the poem I wrote today, and I thought I’d share it here:

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Fifteen Ways I Look at Me

I.
You were the first one
To make me hate myself.

II.
I was the first to apologize.
But I didn’t apologize for me.
I apologized on behalf of you.

III.
I escaped you by going on a train to the north.
I blanketed myself in City Lights
And began my life On the Road.

IV.
I searched myself in the clouds.
I, a wandering spirit

V.
I woke up one day in Texas
After crying myself to sleep
I realized how much of me there is to love.

VI.
In front of a canal in Venice
I chose to forgive you
To speak my peace
And to show you, the world, and myself
That I am love.

VII.
I learned I am capable
Of connecting to others’ hearts
No matter who they are

VIII.
I covered myself in the mud of the Dead Sea
Let the salt cleanse me
I emerged free of scars.

IX.
Once, I thought of you.
But I realized how loved I was by others
And I stopped longing for your approval.

X.
I sat on the balcony we used to sit on
And released the ghosts of our past
And I realized how much I had grown since you.

XI.
I am kind.
I am loving.
I am patient.
I am forgiving.

XII.
I am open.
I am caring.
I am inclusive.
I am forgiving.

XIII.
I give to everyone
Who is willing to receive me.
I am forgiving.

XIV.
I don’t let anyone
Stop me from loving the world and myself.
I am forgiving.

XV.
For the first time,
I love myself unapologetically.
I am forgiving.

Returning Home

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I watched the sunrise from thirty-six thousand feet. The sun painted the sky with streaks of orange and purple before it let all that is above the wisps of cirrus clouds ascend into a deep blue. The cabin of the airplane is exceptionally quiet, maybe because the plane is only half full or because we departed before dawn.

I stretched out into the empty row of seats, my legs still aching from the eleven-hour flight I had just endured. But the soreness was not solely from trying to sit still for far longer than I would have liked. It was from the many tens of thousands of steps I’ve taken over airport terminals, dust and sand, rundown train tracks, and kitchen floors over the past few months. It was from the lack of rest my body has gotten as it would flit across time zones and political borders. It was from my mental exhaustion physically manifesting into that dull aching I feel in my upper thighs.

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The Sea of Galilee

I had embarked on the journey of a lifetime. I had told myself and the world that I was in search of answers: about history, about America, about the world, about people different from me, about people the same as me. But in reality, I was looking for myself, as if I were a tucked-away spirit hidden in the islands of the Venetian Lagoon, in the dusty streets of rural Texas and rural Israel, or in the West Bank wall looming over Palestine. I did not find myself in the end. I built a new self instead, forming myself out of clay.

The sunrise faded away, eventually overtaken by the peaceful blue sky that sat above it. The clouds began to fill, transforming into large, white puffs that I flew above. For a few minutes, the restlessness that set me off on this journey was quelled, and I finally felt my constantly running mind and heart pause and be still. I’m ready to pause and be still, at least for another few minutes. I’ve learned to run on fumes, to convince my body that it can get by without rest. I’ve learned to draw energy from those around me, to transform my curiosity about others and the world into that which propels me forward. But here, on this plane, in this empty row, I was alone. Being without others is nothing new for me. After all, few have the energy to keep up with the lifestyle I emphatically choose to live. But it was striking to wake up this morning on a plane ride across the Middle East, Europe, and the Atlantic Ocean with someone who had become a fast friend directly at my side, only to dart across the airport and jump onto a plane flying from East Coast to West Coast with no one.

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Sunset over Jaffa

A hamsa hangs from my neck, a symbol of defense against evil that’s used by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As I tried to navigate my way through Newark International Airport, a woman approached me asking for help, thinking I, too, was an Israeli because of my necklace, but while my hamsa necklace has origins in Tel Aviv, I do not. Together, the two of us found our way through the airport before we ultimately separated—for her to get to the train station and for me to hop on yet another plane.

Just minutes before I ran into this Israeli woman, the man at the customs gate told me “welcome home,” the second time I had heard this all-too-comforting phrase this summer when I finally touched down in the United States. And both times, I wanted to hug the customs officer—and I would’ve, if only that wouldn’t be seen as odd and probably threatening. It was true, I was home. I was finally home. Except that I wasn’t. Unless my home was the clouds, I was still not home.

When I embarked to find myself in these odd corners of the Earth, I began to believe that I am someone who does not have a home. Or rather, I have houses and residences and places to stay, but no true home. Maybe Dallas is my home, or Stanford is my home. But maybe these clouds are my home—they were, after all, the most consistent place to which I returned after each and every one of my travels. Maybe I live in these clouds, free of the heart-wrenching pain I’ve had to see and feel within the people below them, from the Israeli descendants of Holocaust survivors trying to fulfill their ancestors’ dreams of safety in a Jewish homeland, to the Palestinians who hold the keys to the old homes they’ll likely never be able to return to. In these clouds, I get to finally breathe and sit still, to recover from the psychological toll that empathy takes on me. The sky may or may not be home, but it seems to be my only site of refuge.

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The Jordan River, the site which the Israelites crossed to enter the Promised Land and where Jesus Christ was baptized by John the Baptist

I return to Stanford today—one of my many homes?—filled with Weltschmerz or world-weariness. I finally return to the institution that gave me the financial and intellectual resources to do this kind of soul-searching. After exiting the “Stanford bubble” in mid-June, I now return to it, reborn and re-centered but still yearning for a better world outside this bubble. I’m not sure how, after having seen what lies in the real world in such an up close and personal way, I can return to a place where everyone stresses far too much about exam scores and club activities and internships, but I believe in my resilience and ability to do so, because I must return.

For the next few weeks, I finally get to sit still. I have come to the conclusion that my mind will never be at rest—and nor do I want it to be—but after twenty-four straight hours of traveling from Tel Aviv to California and over two straight months of being on the road and in the skies, I’m excited to step foot onto my beautiful campus that’s filled with palm trees and perpetually perfect weather, to take a much needed shower, and to finally take the two weeks of time I’ve protected for myself to process, digest my thoughts, and write.

I don’t know where home is anymore. But at least for these next two weeks, I’m going to say that I’m finally home.

There’s Hope in West Virginia

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“I think a lot of us on the coasts—and I would include myself in this—view West Virginia as America’s dumping ground.”

That’s what I told Julie* yesterday as we sat on her balcony, looking over the lush mountains of the Ohio Valley in West Virginia. We were both exhausted. I could feel the jet lag setting in. It was shocking to me to realize that I had only just returned from Italy to New York City two days before, and yet somehow I was already having a quiet morning in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. I told myself that I didn’t have the time to deal with jet lag—I was on a tight schedule, trying to get from Queens to Manhattan for dinner then a train to Newark for the night, before returning to Manhattan the next morning so that I could take a train to Pittsburgh and drive to West Virginia. Turns out, I’m really good at delaying exhaustion, but at some point sooner or later, it’ll catch up to me.

Julie was also probably dealing with a similar sense of chronic exhaustion. She had just returned from India a few weeks ago, where she was doing education-related research for an NGO called Kakatiya Sandbox and picked up the morning habit of having lemon water and yogurt. In the spring, she was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. And now, she’s been working on an independent research project on barriers to access to higher education among West Virginia high schoolers.

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Education is something that runs in her family. Her paternal grandfather used to be a superintendent, and her mother, who used to be a teacher and worked her way up through the school system, is now the superintendent of the Ohio County school district. Education is what Julie credits to transforming her into who she is today—Stanford, despite all its faults, gave her the opportunities to do things like live in Italy and India, connected her to a research team where she could do the serious, in-depth, and impactful work on education that she’s doing today, and helped expand her worldview. But what she might not realize is that, just as her social environment has created such an impact on her, she’s impacted the world around her just as much, if not more.

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Oglebay Park

Her time in California, Italy, and India have been a source of excitement and intrigue among people in Wheeling, a small city of under 30,000 people that was once a manufacturing center but has since had its population substantially decline as factories disappeared. Pretty soon after getting into West Virginia, Julie had alerted to me to the fact that we’d be going to the radio station for a cooking segment. That afternoon, before we left to the grocery store to pick up ingredients, I saw Julie frantically writing down her pesto recipe on a pink sticky note, double checking other pesto recipes on her phone. “I just need to make sure I know what I’m doing before I get there,” she said, throwing her mini-blender in a tote bag as we ran out the door.

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The radio station experience itself was unique. I’ve had experiences with local media; my brother, a former two-time cancer patient, has had a good amount of media exposure, and I’ve been on local news channels and our local NPR-affiliate station as well. But there was something different about this one. I’m used to the “liberal elitism” of Dallas, a phrase I genuinely don’t like to use, but I think it’s more prominent in Dallas than anywhere else in Texas… maybe even the rest of the South. At this radio station, the host of the show, an incredibly sweet and funny man, was missing some of his teeth and had a certain politically incorrect humor that occasionally broke out into the airwaves. He made brief mentions of his son who was in Iraq, and he closed off the show with “God bless you,” something that you simply don’t hear in Dallas.

The day we were there was for the weekly food segment that he does to close out the day, probably a more fun and exciting segment to sit in on than their politics or sports segments—in case you’re wondering, Wheeling is strong Steelers territory. Julie had filled in for her mom on a previous radio segment, and when she was asked about her time in Italy, she mentioned the fresh pesto she learned to make with her host family. Hence how I ended up standing behind the desk of a West Virginia radio station, watching Julie pull out her blender and fill it with basil that we had bought just a half hour before. Southern cordiality and friendliness shone through here, too, and I even got a few shoutouts from the radio host on the air. There were some brief mentions of how I was from Dallas—a great place to be from, since its combination of liberal metropolitan environment and conservative Texan surroundings makes me never seem like too much of an outsider, no matter where I am in the country—and also how I love pineapples.

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I don’t know if I’d really call my experience in Wheeling as a culture shock. It was certainly different—it is still West Virginia, after all—but it was much more scenic and urban than I had expected. Whereas Canadian, Texas, which sits in the Texas Panhandle instead of one of the two West Virginian ones, was genuinely small and rural, Wheeling is like a suburb without a city. And that’s a remnant of its once large stature within the area, before globalization led to the fall of American manufacturing. Unlike Canadian, which had a sizable Mexican-American population even if it’s much smaller than urban areas like Dallas, Wheeling was nearly entirely white and aging. Those demographics help explain why long stretches of Wheeling were just Christian churches, law firms that mostly deal with workers compensation and medical malpractice cases, and retirement homes. It’s a site of significant brain drain, in which the best and brightest minds end up abandoning Wheeling—and the state of West Virginia as a whole—due to the significantly fewer opportunities.

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Foggy mornings in Wheeling

“Wheeling has so much potential,” Julie told me as we sat out on her porch, minutes after I had admitted to her that I assumed West Virginia would just be a boring and unsightly place. The morning fog had finally cleared, and with that came a renewed optimism on her end. The tiredness in her voice that had characterized so many of our conversations the day before was replaced with a new sense of vigor as she told me more about the areas that West Virginia needs work. But even more exciting was her plans of how she’d fix it, drawing on her recent experiences in India, her background in economics, and the cultural knowledge and connections she’d built up throughout her time growing up in the state.

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I wasn’t the first person to suggest she should go into politics. So many others had seen her passion for the state, her love of the people, and how she’s a junkie for mountaineers, country roads, moonshine, and coal mining. And there was already precedent for it in her own life—her mother and father keep her grounded in local politics, and she’s close enough with Senator Joe Manchin that she got coffee with him a few weeks ago and worked for him in the Senate last summer. But the issue continues to rest in West Virginia’s lack of jobs for her—her interest is in policy, especially education policy, but there are few opportunities in policy or academia. “I hope to stay connected to [West Virginia] forever,” Julie told me, whether that was through her research, through business, or just in returning home to visit. “Maybe if I’m a fancy rich person someday,” she said, her smile widening as she chuckled, “I’ll get a little cabin somewhere that I can come and have my vacations in and escape from reality to. I don’t know. But I do love it here.”

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And the truth was, I loved it, too. At many points, Julie took so much personal pride when I agreed with her that Wheeling would be a perfect center for leisure tourism. Hell, it was a great place for me to rest in between nine-hour plane rides across the Atlantic and equally long train rides across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

If you had told me a year ago that I would’ve spent two days in West Virginia with a girl who I had met in a statistics class—and that I’d love it!—I would’ve thought you were crazy. But there’s a certain charm to Wheeling. Especially after enjoying rural Texas so much, I can’t tell if it’s just that, like many Americans, I fetishize Americana to a certain extent and that West Virginia, with its coal mines and its Trump voters, is just a great symbol of the American “heartland” nowadays. To some, that fetishization isn’t the worst thing—at least people are interested in places like West Virginia, right? But there is a certain irony and danger in so many of us from urban, metropolitan areas yearning for “the real America” while still viewing places like West Virginia as—in my own words—a “dumping ground.”

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I said earlier in this post that Julie has already had an impact on the world around her. I’m definitely one of those people who’ve felt her impact and learned so much from her just in the past two days and three nights that I was with her. Especially after I abandoned economics and dove headfirst into anthropology, exhausted by microagressions by my mostly straight, white, and male peers, Julie’s sense of social responsibility to her community and her unrelenting ability to push through setbacks in funding have given me so much hope. Her interest too in policy writing itself, a requirement of Stanford economics majors that few look forward to with as much excitement as she does, leaves me even more confident that I’m watching the development and growth of a future leader and change-maker.

And I’m just genuinely glad to have gotten to see the beginnings of it firsthand.

***

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Entering Pittsburgh this morning

I’m currently on a long train ride to Philadelphia after Julie dropped me off at the Pittsburgh Amtrak Station bright and early this morning—all with enough time to make it back to Wheeling to watch her younger sister go to school. I’ll be home in Dallas for a few days after today before I head off to New England and then to the Holy Land.

This is a topic for a future time—maybe for while I’m at home—but it’s been impossible to disconnect the current political moment that we’re in from the research I’m doing, which should technically be what most people consider apolitical… or at least unconnected to partisan politics. But my very nature and existence is political, as a colleague and classmate of mine who’s a returning student reminded me in Italy. I’ve been thinking a lot about coalition building, what the future of our country can look like for people in places as different as California and West Virginia, and what that means in both the short-term (i.e. 2018 and 2020) and the long-term (i.e. how I proceed from here). And at the recommendation of my friend Whitney, I’ve been listening to a documentary–podcast (The Wilderness) on the train that’s included some emotional speeches by both Barack Obama and Bobby Kennedy.

As I close out this piece of my journey, and come very close to closing out “part three” of my overall travels, I just wanted to very publicly thank Julie, her parents, and her grandparents for taking me in these past few days and showing me a piece of the country that I probably would never have gone to on my own. My time in West Virginia was too short, and there were so many things I’d loved to have gone more in-depth about—from the strength of unions and organized labor to Trump’s support in the state to even just Julie’s mother’s dissertation and wonderful research around education—but I guess I’ll just have to come back. Who knows, maybe I’ll return to West Virginia next year?

* names changed

The Spirituality of a Slovenian Spa

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* Names changed, as usual.

For most of the spring and summer, I’d been looking forward to my time in Venice, Italy, as a three-week break from traveling the United States for my independent research project on educational mobility. Or at least, that’s what I told my advisors, my classmates, my family, and my friends when they posited the completely crazy, totally out-of-left-field idea that maybe, just maybe trying to travel to about twelve different states in the span of about six weeks. (That number bumps up to thirteen if you include Oklahoma, which I didn’t stop long in, per se, but drove through on my way to the Texas Panhandle after being re-routed.)

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Inside a church in Slovenia

Turns out, rapid travel is pretty tiring. It’s something I wrote about in my last blog post about Venice and New York, where I found so much magic in the quiet, simple moments in each place. But now, with only about three days left in Italy, I can definitely say that I’ve found peace and rejuvenation.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” — Audre Lorde

Spirituality and travel go together. It’s partially why I’m reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a Beat Generation writer whose travels heavily influenced his eventual turn to Buddhism (as chronicled in The Dharma Bums, which takes place after the events of On the Road). My friend Jackie* and I have laughed a lot about how this specific leg of our travels—the Veneto region of Italy—feels an awful lot like the beginning of Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Except that it’s mostly been “Eat Eat Eat” instead. There’s no real time to progress to the third part of that book title—”love”—but there sure has been a lot of time for deep spiritual connection and personal contemplation. It’s just that I didn’t expect so much of that to be in coastal Slovenia.

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Piran, Slovenia

I embarked to the coastal Slovenian cities of Piran and Koper for about three days total at the beginning of this month, which was when I posted my most recent blog post on Venice. The purpose of the trip was to understand how cities outside of Venice were influenced by the Republic of Venice, and after stepping foot in Piran and Koper, it was pretty clear that these two cities on the very small strip of coast that Slovenia has were very Venetian in character.

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Streets of Piran

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The city center in Koper

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Excavating in Torcello

I’m not gonna lie—Slovenia ended up being my favorite piece of these past three weeks altogether. Koper and especially Piran had all the character of Venice, but with more open space, fewer people, places where we could actually swim, and so much less humidity. It was perfectly timed, too; our excavations in Torcello, which is an island near Venice that’s still in the Venetian Lagoon, came right after returning from Koper, and there’s no way I would’ve survived the heat and exhaustion of an archeological site if I didn’t have the time to rest beforehand.

Jackie and I made the single best decision of the entire trip: going to a spa together. We found one in Koper that was about €40 per person for 150 minutes in a private spa room, complete with a hot tub, sauna, shower mister, and a few bottles of Prosecco. Our professor, Krish, had told us about how great Slovenian spas are; apparently, because salt mining was a major piece of industry in Slovenia, the spas are wonderful, although you’d have to be naked (unlike Italian spas). As it turned out, the spa Jackie and I went to in Koper was less Slovenian—the name “Veneziana” should’ve tipped us off on that—but considering we only knew each other for two weeks, avoiding full-frontal nudity was probably for the best.

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Those two-and-a-half hours were some of the most restful, rejuvenating, and reinvigorating hours of this whole last year. Jackie and I had brought our books with us—for her, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (she’s an English minor after all), and for me, On the Road—but the two of us ended up not spending any time reading since we were so busy talking and really getting to know each other at a much deeper level. We spoke about everything: past loves, our aspirations for life, our visions of how we want society to look, and the pains of losing a friend. That hottub became a site of deep spiritual and emotional connections, where two wandering souls were finally able to come together and begin wandering together.

It’s cheesy, but getting to know Jackie here in Europe has been so incredibly special. Our paths probably wouldn’t have converged on campus—she studies psychology while I study anthropology, our social circles are fairly distinct, and the areas that we devote our time and attention to on campus are different. But starting this spring, after she returns from studying abroad in Madrid and I return from studying abroad at Oxford, we’ll be working together on one of our shared priorities: improving mental health and wellness at Stanford’s campus. The way I see it, my time at Stanford is not just about learning material; I’m here to assemble a team around me. And Jackie is someone who I’m so excited to be working with through the future, as well as just having as a friend!

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Jackie and me in Pellestrina, Veneto, Italy

The next day, we left Koper and returned to Venice. But before we left, we made sure to eat well, including having some delicious Thai food made by a woman who served as a cultural food ambassador for Thailand! Since coming to Venice, a lot has happened. We helped out with an excavation for three days in Torcello, where one of us in the group found an infant skull. That was pretty freaky… especially since we didn’t expect to find any actual human remains and had been joking for the past week about our trip not being complete unless we find a human skull (be careful what you wish for!). I spent a morning at a cemetery. And I started working on my final paper for this class: an examination of the exertions of state power and the development of biopolitics in the Republic of Venice, using the Jewish Ghetto as a case study.

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Feltre, Italy

Right now I’m in Feltre, which is closer to the Alps. I’ve been sitting outside at a café, drinking an espresso and letting the cool breeze cleanse me. It’s been a pretty emotionally draining last couple days. I’ve been having trouble shaking the weird realization of my mortality after seeing that human skull. Going to a cemetery the next day didn’t help. I had a painful falling out with someone dearly important to me, and I turned to the friends closest to me for comfort—the time zones don’t help, but the love and support they’ve given me have only solidified my belief that I’m assembling the best possible team around me I could ever have. I’m incredibly proud of how I handled the whole situation with a sense of dignity and grace that was consistent with how I believe people should be treated, even when that same respect and kindness is not reciprocated.

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My brother is in the hospital for pancreatitis. He’s been so kind and loving about trying to make sure that I don’t worry from 5500 miles away, but it’s hard not to be worried about him every waking minute. I’ve been visiting quite a few more churches, and every time I go, I make sure to light a candle and say a prayer for both him and me.

Before I know it, I’ll be back in the United States. I’ll be making a return to New Jersey to visit Whitney again (who made an appearance in my post about New York City). It’s been a whirlwind of a trip, and it’s not even over! Truly, it’s been such a clarifying experience already. But until then, I’ll just continue sitting here, in Feltre, watching the rain and finishing my espresso.

Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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* Names changed.

Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

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At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

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On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

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I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

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These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

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Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

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Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

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New York City from the Hudson River

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Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!

4 Things I’ve Learned from Traveling (so far)

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Right now, I’m waking up in my bed in Dallas for the first time in a while after making a brief stop in the Pacific Northwest to visit a friend from my freshman year at Stanford. This is now day 13 of my travels across the country—and world, kind of… if you include Italy, Slovenia, Israel, and Palestine as “traveling the world.” But after spending some time in Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Menlo Park, California; San Francisco, California; and Portland, Oregon, for my anthropology fieldwork, there are a few things that I’ve learned about people, travel, and myself already.

1. You have to be open to adventure, even when it’s awkward.

It’s a pretty obvious statement, I know. I’m a very extroverted person to begin with; anyone who knows me is well aware of how much I love getting to know people and just being with others. But one of the hardest things about traveling is the constant feeling of displacement and the lack of grounding that comes with that. When I don’t feel grounded, I have a tendency to feel anxious, and that can make it hard to put myself out there in the same ways that I might be able to without even thinking during the school year.

The way that I managed to quell the shifting earth under my feet was by being very intentional about how I planned my travels. Even parts of my travels that aren’t for the purposes of my fieldwork were built with comfort in mind: I made sure that there was always one person in every city who I knew (keeping an extremely wide social network at Stanford was a key prerequisite for this), and I asked to stay in people’s homes instead of in hotels or Airbnbs (also great for saving money!). Beyond that, face masks, an occasional glass of red wine, a good book (currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac), and, if worst comes to worst, some anti-anxiety medications, all help.

Keeping the inherent nervousness that comes with traveling down to a minimum has helped me say yes to all sorts of new experiences. It’s how I ended up at a country concert in Milwaukee even though I don’t really like or know country music. It’s how I ended up watching fireworks at a country club on the Fourth of July. It’s how I ended up making new friends in San Francisco and getting to see a piece of the Mission District that I would’ve never known to explore before. It’s how I got to see downtown Portland by bike. And it’s how I’m going to venture into the Texas Panhandle this weekend for the first time.

2. Books are a love language. Read a lot of them.

This is probably partially a product of the fact that I’ve been hanging out with Stanford students and their families, but books have been such a huge part of my travels so far. I decided that I wanted to be able to read more, and after getting into a brief but ongoing Beat Generation phase, I finally picked up Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—both a great book overall due to its historical importance and a great book to read while traveling the country. It’s the first fiction book—although it barely counts as fiction since it’s a roman à clef—that I’ve read in a while, and oh boy, has it been a journey. I’m about halfway through the book as of right now, and it’s a really genuinely fascinating portrayal of what it’s like to be a straight white man in 1940s/1950s America.

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Dog Eared Books in the Mission District in San Francisco, California

Even more exciting than reading the books themselves is how I’ve realized books connect you to others. Reading may be a solitary activity, but books are a way to share knowledge and the human experience with others. In San Francisco this past weekend, I was surrounded by a group of Stanford students who all love to read. They broke all the stereotypes in my head of what STEM majors do in their free time by waxing poetic about different philosophers they like to read and sharing what’s on their reading lists. We even all went to a bookstore in the Mission together. I can only imagine how awkward that whole experience would’ve been if I didn’t like to read; what would I have done while everyone spent so long roaming through the bookstore, taking books off the shelves, and calling over to each other to recommend things to read? And it definitely helped, too, that one of those people had just finished Kerouac’s On the Road as well!

There’s rich anthropological literature about the importance of giving, receiving, and exchanging gifts in the formation of social bonds. Books, in my opinion, are one of the many ways that people—especially students and their families—facilitate this kind of gift-giving. Right now, I’m borrowing a nonfiction book from a friend called Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Culture after he let me look through all his books while he was packing the night before I left the Bay Area. And just yesterday in Portland, my friend’s family let me borrow a fiction book called Euphoria which they thought I’d really like.

3. Planes can be your friends.

My schedule for this summer is pretty intense. It goes without saying that I’m racking up a ton of miles on Southwest, which I’m super excited to use to fund a free trip later! As a college student, I spend a lot of time on planes because I’m usually flying somewhere over Thanksgiving, winter, spring, and summer breaks, and I usually take about one or two trips each year—this past year I went to both Boston and D.C. in the fall and spring, respectively. With so much air travel, I’ve learned that flying doesn’t have to be the completely miserable experience that so many people think it’ll be. I usually try to book direct flights whenever possible, both because it’s less stressful and because it puts less strain on the environment. But for those times when I do end up flying for a while, either because a direct flight isn’t available or even just because the direct flight is really long, I realized that planes are actually great for either reading, getting rest, or working.

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Chicago from above

It’s pretty obvious, but planes make for a great time to take a nap. I use a charcoal eye mask to help block extra light, and I end up asleep real fast. Supposedly, this charcoal eye mask is supposed to help reduce the swelling and puffiness that are associated with tiredness, sleep debt, and flying; I’m not really sure I believe that, but I’m gonna go ahead and pretend it does. For flights that are about three or more hours or flights that are timed so that I really do need to sleep on the plane to make sure I’m rested enough to take on the city as soon as I land, I sometimes take generic Benadryl. Fun fact: ZzzQuil (a well-known over-the-counter sleep aid) is actually just diphenhydramine, which is the exact same active ingredient in Benadryl, so you can save a good amount of cash if you buy generic Benadryl instead of shelling out the big bucks for brand-name ZzzQuil.

I also like to read and/or blog on flights since planes give me uninterrupted quiet time. I read most of On the Road on a plane, and I actually wrote this blog post on my flight back from Portland to Dallas! I’m really bad about actually finding time to write—have you noticed the lack of posts throughout the school year?—but luckily, plane rides give me the time to actually collect my thoughts and write. My refusal to pay money for Wi-Fi to check Facebook and Twitter definitely help the writing process. I also try to make sure my field notes are all accounted for when I’m on the plane leaving a location; I’m often pretty busy doing interviews and just observing and participating in others’ lives while I’m in various locations, so the long plane rides give me a lot of time to actually make sure I have the notes that I need and some time to reflect on the key themes of each trip.

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Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon

4. Things always work out.

My trip to Portland wasn’t actually supposed to happen. My original plans to visit in August fell through after my contact in Portland was no longer able to accommodate my visit, but because I really wanted to visit, I very last minute made alternative arrangements to stay with a different friend. I took a leap of faith, booking my flights before I even had a place to stay—thank God that Southwest lets you really easily change your flights! (Dear Southwest Airlines, you should sponsor me and my burgeoning anthropology career!)

My mantra in life lately has been “everything will work out.” It’s something I’ve had to repeat to myself so many times in elementary school, high school, and now college, and I’ve reminded myself that so many times this summer as my travels would get more and more complicated and random things would come up that I would need to plan around and account for. But at the end of the day, I’m confident in myself. I’m confident that I’ve set myself up for success this summer: my parents instilled in me a strong sense of independence and quick thinking that has saved my ass so many times; my coursework has been geared toward both theoretical and practical skills for how to handle this kind of project (thanks, Stanford, for having multiple classes on research methodology and fieldwork preparation!); and I have the monetary resources to get by should anything happen since I built in emergency funds into my grant budget and have emergency stashes of credit both through various credit cards and a personal line of credit from my credit union just in case I’m in desperate need of a bailout.

I was pretty worried that I’d struggle to get the kinds of data that I’d need for this project, too. My biggest fear was that I’d go through this whole summer and then return to campus having nothing at all because I was blindsided by what I ended up experiencing. What if everything ended up completely irrelevant? But my lovely advisor, Sylvia, reminded me that the best part of anthropology research is when you get thrown for a loop. If everything went just as planned and exactly as expected, what’s the point? That’s why I’m rolling with the punches (see #1 on this list) and trying to not stress about the research aspect too much. After all, this summer is as much about my academic and personal growth as it is about writing a kick-ass thesis.

I’ve learned that preparation is key, and while you can’t prepare yourself for everything, you can set yourself up to handle nearly any situation. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you can do.

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Inside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California

So what am I up to now?

Right now, I’m ending Part One of my life on the road (yes, that’s a small Jack Kerouac reference)! In true Kerouacian fashion, here’s what my itinerary looks like as of the time of writing, split up into five parts:

Part One (complete!): Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; the Bay Area, California (specifically Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and San Francisco); Portland, Oregon
Part Two (about to begin): Canadian, Texas (a small town in the Texas Panhandle); Austin, Texas; Newark, New Jersey; Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and probably Florence, Italy, if I can swing a quick daytrip
Part Three: New York City, New York; Wheeling, West Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Part Four: Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; probably a few other towns in New England where I can do daytrips from Boston; Tel Aviv, Israel; Jerusalem, Israel & Palestine; Bethlehem, Palestine; and possibly a few other parts of both Israel and the West Bank
Part Five: TBD! Strong contenders are Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, since I’ll be back in the Bay Area to focus on writing.

I’ll be blogging throughout the summer about specific locations and experiences I have, as well as my general thoughts on travel and the world through posts similar to this one. I expect the commentary to get a little bit more cutting since I actually have a pretty sarcastic personality that usually doesn’t come across in my writing… that, and I think I was a little afraid to be brutally honest on this blog while in my teen years, but now that I hit twenty all bets are off. It should still be entertaining, though… the anthropology department’s student services officer told me she thought I should start a blog about my life at Stanford since my reactions to things are usually pretty funny.

If you’d like to keep up with me, you can be notified via email every time I post if you subscribe in the sidebar. My day-to-day adventures are captured via Instagram stories, so if you have Instagram (or Facebook, since my Facebook friends can automatically see my Instagram stories), feel free to check that out. Yes, you too, Mom and Dad. The frequent posts that probably annoy my friends and classmates should at least indicate to you all that I’m alive. And then of course I’ll be sharing each post on Twitter and my personal Facebook profile, but I’m thinking of restarting the Facebook Page for this blog so that anyone can follow along even if we aren’t actually Facebook friends (yes, you, random stranger, friends of my parents who might feel weird about adding their son on Facebook, and/or current/previous classmates who just want to read my travel posts without being subjected to my political Facebook statuses!).

I guess I’m 20 now?

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As I sit in my bed, curled up with my laptop, admitting to myself that I have no chance of falling back asleep, I’m overcome with a strange, deep anxiety. I’ve been alive for two whole decades now. In many ways, this strange fear of growing up is probably a sign that I’m still young. But at the same time, has it really been twenty years since I was born?

It’s been a wild ride thus far, probably far more than most people really need to experience by this age. But looking back, I can confidently say I’m really proud of all that I’ve managed to do up to this point and all I’m about to do, at least in the near future.

This past year alone, I feel like I’ve finally become comfortable enough to be myself. About a full year ago, I came out on this blog after nearly another full year of being out to my parents, close friends from home, and everyone I knew at Stanford. I’m still learning to get rid of the internalized self-hate that was instilled in me from over a decade of Catholic education—the education was great, but can we do that without teaching our children that there’s something wrong with them for being who they are?—but that coming out post was one of the biggest, scariest things I’ve done.

On the note of religion, I began to pay more attention to my own spiritual needs. I found a spiritual home at Stanford’s Memorial Church and their University Public Worship, a non-denominational Protestant ecumenical service whose services have included beautiful sermons by our deans of religious life, who hail from Anglican, Episcopal, Reform Jewish, and Muslim traditions. And lately, I’ve been finding an interesting and accepting home within the Jewish community at Stanford, mostly thanks to a close friend who I took an anti-Semitism class with in the fall.

I rekindled my love of writing. After spending the past year writing small pieces of prose poetry and flash fiction, partially as a form of self-therapy, I wrote a 50,000-word novel draft in the month of November. It was pretty bad, but I did it. And then I wrote a full-length short story this spring that I’m incredibly proud of called who made the sun rise. And then I declared a minor in creative writing!

My academic life has never been better. I finished spring quarter happy and fulfilled, having learned so much more than I could have ever expected to learn. I finally feel in control of my academic life. I spent most of my time in small seminar-style classes—my largest class was eleven people!—and then I would sit outside in the California sunshine reading and writing for my classes. Grades are imperfect measures of success, learning, and fulfillment, but the contentment with my academic life translated to a 4.0 for spring quarter, bringing up my overall GPA to a place where I’m actually happy with. I’ve never felt more validated in my decision to study anthropology, and if the future permits, I’d like to keep going—ideally even getting my PhD in social/cultural anthropology within this next decade of my life.

I’ve acknowledged my role as a mentor for others, which has been the weirdest thing to wrap my mind around. It shouldn’t be all that weird; after all, some of my friends who are now rising seniors have been people who I’ve leaned on for support and mentorship in trying to navigate the often confusing, overwhelming, and difficult place that is Stanford University. And I guess for some of my friends who just finished their freshman years, I was able to provide at least a little bit of that same help and support. Beyond that, I’ve continued to take up positions of leadership within the communities that are important to me, such as the Pilipino American Student Union. And starting this next year, I start a two-year position on the Asian American Activities Center’s Advisory Board, in which I’ll deepen my commitment to supporting the Asian American community at Stanford by working directly with Stanford administration to advocate for our community’s needs.

Most excitingly of all, I’ll be spending the summer traveling… nearly entirely on Stanford’s dime since this is all part of my anthropology fieldwork. At the end of this month, I leave for Chicago. Other places I’ll be this summer: Seattle, Philadelphia, New York City, West Virginia, and more. Oh, and also Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and various parts of Israel and Palestine. And then by January, I’ll be studying abroad at Oxford University (yes, the one in England). I’ve been denied the opportunity to travel for so long due to difficult life circumstances, so I’m excited to take the world by storm. What better way to kick off my twenties?

And just as I’m planning on spending some time to feed the wanderlust that I have, my commitment to others and to social justice remains just as strong—I guess that really was a carryover from my Jesuit education! The purpose of my travels is to investigate experiences and perceptions of social mobility among Stanford students, a micro look at a much wider issue of educational inequities and the barriers that certain types of students face, even after getting into an extremely selective academic institution such as Stanford. I used to think that I had to make a hard choice at some point between helping myself live the life I want and personally working toward creating a more just and equal work. But as time progresses, I’ve been finding that this dichotomy is false—I can do both, and I will.

I’ve always considered myself someone who makes things happen. It was why I loved Scandal so much when it came out; I identified so strongly with Kerry Washington’s character, whose early catchphrase was “it’s handled.” In many ways, that’s the way that I’ve lived and approached my life up to this point, especially at Stanford—tell me what needs to be done, and it’s handled. I honestly thought I would’ve burned myself out by now with this attitude, but I feel like my flame has only gotten stronger. And for that reason, I’m even more excited to see what the next decade holds—what social problems will I work toward fixing? Where will I devote my time and energy toward? Maybe this feeling in my stomach isn’t anxiety after all. Maybe it’s actually excitement for all that the future holds.

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For my twentieth birthday this year, I’m asking for everyone to donate $20+ to my friend Brooke’s fundraiser through St. Baldrick’s. Three years ago from tomorrow, she was diagnosed with leukemia and had a bone marrow transplant in the same month that my younger brother Jude had one (September 2015). Today, she’s been accepted to medical school at Mount Sinai in New York City, and she’s raising money to support young adult cancer survivorship and research around graft vs. host disease.

Even if you’re unable to donate $20, every dollar counts. She needs to raise $10,000 to set up a Hero Fund (and she’s making great progress so far!), so please support this life-saving research. And if you donate, please let me know! I’d love to thank you personally.

Donate here!

Thank you for your support!