For most of my life, I thought I was dumb. Or at least, incompetent. It felt like nothing I did was good enough, and the bureaucracy of semi-decent public high schools didn’t help much. Additionally, as I was finishing up high school, I saw how expensive college was, and so I couldn’t take the idea of college seriously. I didn’t understand financial aid, and my non-English-speaking parents certainly did not either. It wasn’t like I felt like I was learning much in high school anyways – how could college be any better? I was always just so tired all the time. What was the point? Was I just doing it all for a piece of paper?
Yet suddenly, four years have passed since I graduated high school, most of my high-school classmates are graduating and I’m just taking my first step onto the Hopkins campus, ready to formally enter into the four-year university environment for the first time in my life. Thanks to a mysterious man named Bloomberg, I was not in any debt. And apparently, I’m not dreaming.
I guess I won’t be graduating “on time” anymore. I guess attending community college will always have its place on my resume. I guess I still won’t go into life-wrecking debt. And I guess my story is not finished being written.
If I attended college straight out of high school, I would have been a mess. I was so lost. I hated myself so much and nobody seemed to disagree with how I saw myself.
My junior year was the first time I thought seriously about my life as something beyond a manufactured instrument of capitalism. I had just gotten kicked out of my student exchange program abroad, it was February and snowing up past my calves, and for the first time in my life, I had to wrestle face to face with ideas of racism, sexism, sexual assault, classism, political power dynamics and injustice. It was also the first time in my life I thought seriously about actually not being a doctor like my parents wanted. I was so angry. So angry that I refused to communicate much with my parents. So angry that I said little to nothing to them.
How drastically my life has changed since community college. I never could have dared to dream of today. Now that I’m here at Hopkins, I knew I’d immediately feel a bit out of place. A little too old. A little too loud. A little too blunt. A little too different. Then again, I held these fears as if my life has ever been lived any differently.
Attending community college, dropping out of college for two years and meeting people during my journey all taught me the beauty of being different. I wish to carry these lessons with me for the rest of my life. After making a variety of new friends, including returning adult students, students in poverty, single mothers, ex-convicts, veterans, Deaf friends and others who were not like me, I learned that learning happens both with and without textbooks.
Talented students in these situations have always had to come up with creative ways to get through their lives. They hold unique expertise over their arenas of society, presenting valuable perspectives addressing hidden societal problems and successes.
Additionally, being gifted with a scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan allowed me to write Chinese at an academic university level, which ironed out miscommunication between me and my parents. I finally had the tools to access contexts across oceans, across time and across perspectives. These tools made me capable of advocating for my personality when interacting with my parents. I suddenly had the words to gradually bind the gap between their expectations and my integrity to who I am.
How strange that there was a day where I would be preparing to attend Hopkins, knowing that I almost gave up on myself. Never did I imagine a day when learning would become more than grades, ego or going through the motions. Never did I imagine a day when the details would roll off textbook pages, walking by my side as mentors, leaders, lieutenants, servants, enemies and friends: knowledge that was suddenly brought to life, illuminating the world around me. Never did I imagine a day where I would love learning again. Never did I imagine becoming less alone, less misunderstood. Never did I imagine being in a place where fully explaining my thoughts is seen as clarifying and reasonable rather than intimidating and arrogant. Never did I imagine being no longer ashamed to become better, no longer ashamed to see the world through my own lights, no longer ashamed about the shape of my eyes, no longer ashamed to be myself.
I remember one day during Hopkins orientation week, I heard that a company was giving out free pies. I asked my friend Charice for one single slice. She came back with a whole bag. I had dessert for the rest of the week and even a bit of breakfast. Every other resource I encountered here seemed similar: I would ask for one thing and suddenly get the world in return.
Compared to how under-resourced my high school and community college were, I was amazed. I was amazed by how I would ask one question and get answers for questions I didn’t realize I had originally had, from Alayna with my resumes, to Tracy with research opportunities, to Bri and Eric and Denise with my advisement, to Sara and Ali and Milad and Claudia and Kelly and Justin and Chaz and Dr. G and Dr. Taylor and Dr. Huang and Monsieur Tribotté with their office hours (so many office hours!).
I know this school can be overwhelming at times. And I know that not every single thing at Hopkins is like Charice’s bag of pies — there are definitely people who bureaucratically dismiss people as if they were problems rather than humans. There are definitely people who take more than they give. But I know that in comparison to the abundance of resources, those who steal away from the light can have it — they need it more than I do. I have more than enough stars illuminating my skies, more than enough light to live just momentarily.
Too many students today are blindly shuffled into college while still lost and bruised by society’s handcuffs. Not everyone magically hits their stride when they’re 18. Everyone has their own timeline. Even here, at Hopkins, I met other people who also chose to stay true to themselves rather than adhere to an expected timeline. I met someone who didn’t learn English until three years before they transferred to Hopkins, studying books and movies by herself, alone in America. I met someone who escaped a cult that didn’t believe in education, and then had to take the next seven years obtaining a GED, an associate’s degree and a new set of life skills appropriate for a completely different society. And then I met people like me, who were just left behind, but demanded to be heard anyway, with or without a pleasant voice.
Hopkins and other elite institutions should accept more community college students and students of non-traditional age. We remind the world of a beauty to life that can be found beyond what is socially expected. We remind the world that school is about learning with joy and making the world better, not about social status or just a stamp of approval for our next biggest career move.
Our community college is a piece of my story that will never leave us, despite how much shame we were forced to swallow. Proudly, we will never forget that there is more to life than the tracks littered with applause and pre-approval. We will never forget that there is more to life than a piece of paper. We will never forget that no one deserves to be left behind simply because they are different. We will never forget that there are rich libraries hidden behind the ugliest covers.
And our stories will speak when the time is right.
“There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under the heavens... and everything is made beautiful in its time.” (Ecc 3:1–11)