Thursday, July 26, 2012

Finding My Meaning

What have these four weeks meant to me? This is a question that I have kept asking myself ever since I’ve returned from the East coast. The reflection process has not gone as smoothly as I had hoped, because the answer is not a simple one. The vast impacts of this program on me have been immeasurable. I will try my best to convey how the ILC has touched and impacted my life.

When I first applied for the Ivy League Connection, honestly part of me was sort of skeptical. I wasn’t sure whether this program was for me, partly because I didn’t know what to expect. Throughout, I discovered for myself that everything that the ILC put us through, from the dinners to the daily blog was yes, for a reason. All in all, I couldn’t be happier about my decision to apply. To put it simply, this amazing experience was the best and most well-spent summer of my life. It’s been nothing short of life-changing, in too many aspects to count.

Academically, I was able to see new heights and perspectives. At Brown, I found it necessary to change my attitude towards studying. Instead of passively receiving instruction as I’m so used to, the learning environment and instructors encouraged the active pursuit of knowledge; asking under-the-surface questions, meeting the material head-on, and independent learning. Although usually, trying to learn on your own can feel pretty dull, I discovered that my curiosity peaked as I freely pored over research articles about epigenetic regulation and the like, in anticipation for each day’s lesson. This newfound sense of intellectual resolve doesn’t just end there. I’m continuing to apply it to my daily life. In short, I’ve come back emboldened by new knowledge and inspiration to learn.

Being a part of the ILC has without a doubt honed our social skills. What was a better way to do this than to meet and interact with people? Throughout the trip we were constantly meeting new people, some of them from prestigious universities. This was all very helpful to me, a person who is usually timid and more introvert, and to do it I had to force myself out of my comfort zone. While at first I was less willing to open up, I gradually became more comfortable in these situations and found myself talking about all sorts of things. This was reflected on my time at Brown, where I made lasting friendships in the short three-week I was there.

This journey has also helped me grow personally. Being put in a new environment for four weeks really facilitates change within a person. For example, I acclimated to the prison-like dorms (Grad Towers) at Brown and it became my home for three weeks, and found out that I was not as picky about food as I was home.  I’ve become more independent, flexible and more willing to adapt to different, sometimes awkward or unpleasant situations. I’m less afraid of change, and not overwhelmed by it. I feel more confident now, after finding out that I can (if barely) handle managing everything for myself, planning my own schedules and trying to balance the priorities of studying, blogging, and sleep with the necessary social life at Summer@Brown. Back at home it’s easy to take all the little things for granted. While I was at Brown, for the first time I really felt like I was in charge of my own life—I knew exactly what I had to do, and I honestly miss the feeling. Something it’s done for me is shown me where my shortcomings lie and what I can and will keep working on. Despite my stumbles in the process, I understand myself a lot better now; who I am, what I need to continue to grow at this stage, and insight for the future.

Looking back, there wasn’t any single moment or thing about my journey that I can say defined it all. It was every part of the experience as a whole that made it meaningful. The events that I thought contributed the most to this were the college tours and the DNA/Biotech class.

The first week was devoted to touring colleges. In three days, we learned about 4 amazing campuses, and what they had to offer. Like many others, I had never really considered schools outside of California, just based on my lack of knowledge about them. I probably would’ve stayed that way, but I have the ILC to thank for broadening my horizons and opening my eyes to countless opportunities beyond. On the East coast I was introduced to a radical concept (to me) in liberal arts. With its encouragement to explore as much as possible, in sometimes strange subjects, how can students not develop a passion for learning? This idea really stuck with me, and now when I consider where to apply my senior year, I will definitely factor in liberal arts as one of my options.

We became masters at grilling tour guides, admissions officers, and alums alike. More importantly, this opportunity allowed us to understand each school’s philosophy and to find out more about our own ‘fit’—what we look for in the colleges we aspire to attend. Knowing the right questions to ask is a crucial part of the college hunt. Through the information sessions, campus tours, and conversations with people, I gained a new perspective: what colleges and admission officers look for in potential students. I learned more about the application process, about the personal statement and the interview, financial aid, and so on. As a first-generation college-applicant, this was invaluable to me. I’m also reassured, now that I sort of have an idea of what to expect. A recurring theme I found was the emphasis that was placed onto the essays and one-on-one interviews, and the person as a whole: it shows that admissions officers want to understand the applicant personally, and that what’s on a transcript isn’t entirely the deciding factor. Connecting with actual students and alumni from the schools was most valued. From them, we got something that you can’t get from tours and info sessions. Hearing them talk passionately about their schools and majors motivated me to want to be like them someday. Through all the dinners and brunches we went to, we began to build our own network. With these encounters, Ivy League schools no longer seem like an unreachable dream. I now have knowledge and guidelines to apply and make an informed decision, which, might not necessarily be Ivy League. Having the college tours first was definitely good planning. After the first week, I know I felt more excited and pumped up to start class than ever.

I enjoyed and found the rigorous DNA/Biotech course at Brown to be intriguing from beginning to end. Right from the start it was evident that it wasn’t going to be any ‘ordinary’ class. I looked at the syllabus and saw that we would be spending practically every day in the lab. I was aware that ‘Techniques in DNA-based Biotechnology’ would include extensive lab work, but in reality was blown away by the way the course was presented to us. We were the ones in control, given the total freedom to set our own goals and learn at our own pace, to make our own discoveries. We were blessed with a great instructor, Jody Hall, who was obviously very into her work and research. She showed us that mistakes are a part of the learning process (especially in the lab), and that the important thing is to improve upon them. The positive learning environment/atmosphere was reinforced by the students’ attitudes. I soon realized that everyone wanted to be there as I did, and were just as enthusiastic to learn. Without the involvement of our instructor, we decided that working together would be for the best. The class formed a study group which met regularly. Although we barely knew each other, this collaborative effort was far more efficient and at the same time brought our class closer together. And that’s what I love so much about Brown’s community. That its students can form mutually supportive relationships, working towards the same end without any competitive pressure whatsoever. Overall, the class was fun and enlightening. Coming out of this three-week intensive course, I have accomplished so much. I expanded the extent of my biotech knowledge, gained and sharpened lab techniques (gel electrophoresis, purifying DNA, etc.)—of which I can understand each step, became comfortable running my own lab bench, learned how to critically analyze research papers and figures, and found asking in-depth questions to be an effective learning method. My interest in the subject, which was initially just a notion, has developed into a sort of passion. Now I’m pretty convinced that biotech is the path that I want to pursue.

When I think back on this amazing month of memories years from now, I hope that I can say that this cherished experience has influenced my life in the long run (for the better). While I may not recall everything that I learned, I know I will always remember the amazing people I was with, whether it was my cohort or the new friends I made at Brown. Nor will I forget the excitement that I felt during those days of discovery. Our time at Brown, whether it was busily exploring its beautiful campus and Providence itself, or lounging on the main green, each moment will always have a special place in my heart.

I think that there are several areas that my El Cerrito High could strive to improve on. For one, there is an information deficit at that is becoming a problem. Students aren’t being made aware of valuable opportunities out there such as the ILC. As a sophomore last year, I didn’t even know the Ivy League Connection existed until I was attended Don’s information session. This is contrasted from the situations at Middle College and Pinole Valley, where the ILC is hailed and recognized school-wide, introduced to students before they even enter the schools, which I found out from my fellow cohorts. In addition, a lot of students aren’t getting critical information about college and its requirements, early enough. Being a first generation student (in the states), I know what it feels like to be in the dark on the college application and admission process. Many end up having to wing the process, while others hire expensive college counselors for help. With that being said, what we need to be working towards is more outreach to students: to actively spread the information, preferably including incoming students as well. The school could also be doing more to prepare students for college; mock interviews, workshops, conversations about college similar to the ones that were offered at Summer@Brown, among just a few of the options. I think that knowing what to expect along the way, about the indescribable opportunities beyond, and having a clear goal to work towards, namely college, would be a great source of motivation as it’s been for me. That’s how we can get more people thinking about and ultimately, continuing education. As far as academics, the curriculum should be expanded to promote/include more hands-on as well as individualized learning. Hopefully, we will be able to find some way to create that same kind of engaging atmosphere as I experienced at Brown.

What now? Now that the Ivy League Connection has opened the doors to opportunity for us, we in turn, are compelled to give back to our community. This will be the perfect chance for us to take what gained and apply it, and show how we’ve earned it. I hope to be a resource to future ILCers and students. I will definitely share my experiences as a part of the ILC, through talking with my fellow students or some other way. It’s a story that I will enjoy telling as many times as people want to hear it. Perhaps we ILCers can take it a step even further and try something like forming a group, starting with ILC members. It would be an information sharing group among the student body that would actively promote the program through outreach and presentations, and students interested could sign up not just to receive information, but to become a part of a network in which they could obtain guidance and interact directly. Eventually spread across the district to include all the schools, creating a student-organized network within the school district. Anyways, it’s just an idea. The possibilities stretch far beyond what I can see right now.

I don’t think I’ve really appreciated blogging until now, as I look back on the whole experience and see how far we’ve come. Reading some of my past posts, I’m glad that we did it, because it made the experience feel all the more real. I’ve also noticed that now, I’m reflecting back regularly on my everyday experiences and also thinking more critically about what I do before I do it. It’s become a part of my treasured memories, as well as given my life a higher sense of meaning.

I am so happy and proud to say that like so many others, I have been touched by the one of a kind experience the Ivy League Connection offers. What we have achieved with this program would not have been possible without the enormous amount of time, effort, and support put into it by some highly dedicated people. I would like to express my gratitude to Mr. Ramsey, Ms. Kronenberg, and Don. Many thanks to the sponsors and every single person who helped make this opportunity possible. To everyone who took their time and came out to the events to talk to us and inspired us along the way. My instructor Jody Hall and TA Colby, as well as my biotech classmates for making my class at Brown truly memorable. And of course how could I forget my cohort, the five awesome people that I got to share this experience with, and Ms. Kaplan, our beloved (and the coolest!) chaperone.

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