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Lessons from The Hill: Landing an Internship

This is the last entry of a three-part series on lessons from interning on Capitol Hill. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the office for which I worked.

So, you want to work in government. Below, I will be discussing the necessary skills for positions on The Hill or government agencies, and some of my tips on how to land these positions from my personal experience.

I recently made the move from the legislative branch to an executive agency (federal government). Currently, I serve as a Harold W. Rosenthal Fellow of International Relations at the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Bureau of International Affairs (ILAB), Office of Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Human Trafficking (whew, that’s a mouthful!). I support the Research & Policy Division with researching and editing the 2018 edition of one of ILAB’s flagship reports, Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, which is prepared in accordance with the Trade & Development Act of 2000. I also assist with creating the graphics for the report’s magazine companion, as well as testing ILAB’s two mobile applications, Comply Chain and Sweat & Toil.

One difference that I have noted from this transition is that internships on The Hill are typically geared towards current undergraduate students or recent graduates. While not rare, “Hilltern”-ing as a graduate student has its pros and cons. On the one hand, staff members were more willing to give me more substantial projects. For instance, one legislative staff member tasked me with many research projects that culminated in a bill or an amendment that the Congresswoman introduced in Committee. Another staff member in charge of corresponding with constituents often assigned me more “difficult” letters than those assigned to my undergraduate counterparts. On the other hand, as administrative tasks were still part of my duties, I still had to run errands and do the usual “intern” things. It takes patience and humility to remember that these are equally important parts of the job.

In contrast, at DOL, interns are expected to be current graduate students. My tasks are more project-based and research-heavy, requiring attention to detail, quick turnaround, the ability to think on my feet and juggle multiple tasks and deadlines, as well as discretion and maintaining a high level of confidentiality. In order to work in this capacity, I had to undergo a Public Trust background investigation, where I completed a questionnaire asking questions about where I’ve lived, worked, went to school, and any military history or police records. (This is different than a security clearance.) It took me two months from the initial offer to the final offer for me to be cleared to work at DOL, whereas my Hill internship did not even require a background check.

If you are interested in my internships in government so far and wondering what skills may be necessary for these positions, below I’ve listed some hard and soft skills that I’ve learned and found to be essential.

Hard Skills

Research & Analysis

In the information age, research is essentially an expected duty of any intern ever. But how much research do you actually need for your position, and what research skills do you currently have?

When reading the job posting, be sure to look for specific research skills that are needed for the position. For more general internships, your academic research is sufficient. But for positions that explicitly say “research” in the title, be sure to highlight specific projects that are relevant to the position in your resume, i.e. senior thesis, major papers, publications, etc., and familiarize yourself with the works of other experts in your field (Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, Congressional Research Service, and Foreign Policy are good places to start).

For an internship in government, keeping yourself updated with current news is expected. I recommend subscribing to these daily newsletters: New York Times Morning Briefing, Foreign Policy Morning Brief, Human Rights Watch Daily Brief, or at the very least, theSkimm. I also have the AP News app and follow journalists on Twitter for breaking news.

Writing & Editing

Along with research, interns are also expected to do writing and editing work. It is essential that you brush up on your writing skills and be highly attentive to detail when editing other people’s work. One of the most helpful guides in writing that I’ve come across in my academic career is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White (my two English-major-graduate best friends told me this was their Bible in college). The Kindle version is only $2.99 (the paperback and used versions run less than $10), and I swear to you–if you are still in school or contemplating going back–it will be the best $3 you will ever spend in your life.

It also helps for you to have, or at least start, a writing portfolio. It can be as simple as keeping up with a blog or as complex as a peer-reviewed article. I’m grateful that my professors at the Elliott School this past semester made me write op-eds for their classes. While writing long papers is important as an academic exercise, particularly if you are thinking of obtaining advanced degrees, I find more and more in my work that succinct writing is the way to go. On The Hill, the legislative staff members I worked with preferred their memos to be one page long. At DOL, one of my colleagues advised me that interagency emails should be “short, simple, and to the point.” Writing op-eds is a great exercise to achieve these objectives. Plus, having published work would make you an even more excellent candidate.

Web Processing & Social Media

Most offices now look for people with at least some experience with social media and web. So, if you’ve had more than the regular exposure of just casually scrolling through the ‘gram or retweeting memes, be sure to express that in your office. If you have a blog or have had one in the past, that qualifies you to be proficient in that blogging or web platform. And even if you haven’t had much exposure, just simply being enthusiastic about learning more or willing to help can go a long way (particularly if you are working with a Member who is actively trying to expand their digital presence).

On that social media note, I must stress that discretion is key. Ever wonder why people’s Twitter accounts say “RTs are not endorsements”? It’s because when you work for any government or organization, you represent your office or your organization wherever you go. Your First Amendment rights protect you from being persecuted for what you say, tweet, or publish, but it does not protect you from being fired, dismissed, or otherwise reprimanded. After two years of teaching, I’ve learned my lesson to simply keep all social media private and protected from public consumption.

Plus, if you are going to be a public servant or serve one, be mindful of what that office truly represents, and whether your thoughts and actions align with that.

Soft Skills

Most internships I’ve had require:

  • Sound judgment and ability to “read the room”
  • Interpersonal skills to effectively interact with staff from all levels of the organization, including high-level officials
  • Flexibility, adaptability, and being able to think on one’s feet
  • Working in a fast-paced environment, both independently and as a part of a team, often juggling multiple projects and deadlines with minimal supervision, for which time management is essential

Some skills that could be beneficial in your internships:

  • Public speaking skills
  • Conflict resolution
  • Leadership and teamwork
  • Positive attitude, ability to accept criticism
  • Strong work ethic and motivation for public service

The above lists are by no means exhaustive, but I hope they give an idea of what skills are necessary should you decide to pursue an internship or a job in the U.S. public sector in the future.

That’s a wrap for the Lessons for the Hill series! I hope you find the series helpful to you in your future endeavors. Until next time!

*Please note that U.S. citizenship is required for positions in the federal government. U.S. citizenship is not necessarily required for internships on Capitol Hill; paid internship opportunities are generally available for U.S. citizens only. For more information on opportunities for non-U.S. citizens, check out programs available through the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) or the Washington Internship Institute.

Lessons from The Hill: Life Skills

This is the second entry of a three-part series on lessons from interning on Capitol Hill. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the office for which I worked.

In this post, I want to share some life skills that I’ve learned from working on the Hill. I call them “life skills” because I think these are skills that would benefit anyone in any phase of their life, whether you’re a student, looking for a job, working right now, or in the middle of your career. But I think they’re especially helpful for anyone in my position right now: a student who moved to a big city in pursuit of a career in government or politics.

I grew up in a suburban town of Greenville, South Carolina. I was schooled there from elementary school all the way to college. I had little experience elsewhere then—a short summer stint in my birthplace of Jakarta, Indonesia, and a fall semester in Brussels, Belgium, but nowhere else in the U.S. I loved living in Jacksonville, Florida while serving in Teach for America, but living in a beach town was a completely different experience than in a metropolitan hub like Washington, D.C.

Moving here was an adjustment; some of these skills were born out of learning how to adjust to life here. Some were born out of embarrassing mistakes and failures–when I say it was a learning process, it really was a process. And some of these were born out of serendipity and a positive mindset. I hope that these tips, laced with my personal anecdotes, will serve to help you in any and all of your future endeavors.

Always be at your best! You never know who you’re going to meet…

The Congresswoman was introducing a bill on the House floor. Naturally, it was a super hectic day at the office. The intern who was tasked with delivering the bill to the “Hopper” (where bills are dropped off on The Hill) was asked to help the press team with the press conference. The other intern was also helping with the press conference. I got a text message asking if I could deliver the bill at 4:30pm. I was happy to go since Congress was in session and there’s a chance that I might run into some famous legislators.

To get to the Capitol from our office, the fastest way was to use the underground subway. When I got to the subway, I saw none other than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She had gotten on the subway with her Chief of Staff just a few seconds after I did. (There’s a Members Only section so I didn’t sit with them.) My mouth dropped. Her Chief saw that I was fangirling (see: freaking out, but like calmly) and secretly recording her to put on my Instagram story.

When they got off the subway, her Chief signaled for me to come closer and held open his hand, palms up, the way people do when you asked them to take your photo. I got to talk to her, I thanked her for all she does in Congress, all that she represents and fights for, and especially for standing with her friend and colleague, Representative Ilhan Omar.

After that day, I decided that I was going to put some effort to be at my best every day. The day that I met her, I was running late and didn’t have a chance to wash my hair. I still regret that I wasn’t at my best, but I was glad that I had put some effort into my appearance that day. Now, I want to make sure that I would be ready for once-in-a-lifetime opportunities at any moment. 

There’s something to be said about recognizing society’s unrealistic (at times also Eurocentric) expectations of beauty. But there’s also something to be said about simply being at your best. The simple truth is that first impressions matter; therefore, our presentation matters. So, make it your best one. Or at the very least, make an effort to make it a good one each day. You never know who you will meet. It could be someone who can help you in your career. It could be your future boss. It could be Alexandria Ocasio-freaking-Cortez.

The power of saying thank you

Small gestures matter. There’s a sort of ethic that comes from living in a big city, where people know people and will help you meet your personal goal(s), without hesitation, out of the goodness of their own heart. But they’re also busy with their own things, so it’s important that we take the time out of our day to thank them for taking time out of their day to help us.

That means, yes, the good old-fashioned thank you notes can go a long way. A follow-up email works as well, but there’s nothing like putting pen on paper and hand-delivering them to someone.

But in an even simpler way, treat everyone graciously and say thank you for the small things, like thanking your supervisor when they tasked you with something important, when they give you feedback on something you did to make it better, when they answer your question, or when tell you that you’re doing a great job. Thanking the custodian or cafeteria workers for doing their job, because without them, you can’t fulfill your basic needs. Thanking everyone you meet, even your friends, for their time. These are simple things that not only will make the other person feel appreciated, but also cast positivity into the Universe that I wholeheartedly believe will eventually be returned to you.

Advocate for yourself

Along with being at your best, dress for the job you want. I don’t know about you, but when I dress up and put more effort into how I look on the outside, I also feel good on the inside.

The reverse is also true, which is why despite my full work and school loads, I try to get 7 hours of sleep each night and I don’t skip meals. Yes, that also means, take your lunch break! I understand some days where it’s so hectic that you forget to eat. But when your supervisor tells you that you have a 30-40 minute lunch break each day, take it! No, you aren’t losing precious work time (if you can’t accomplish a task without taking 30 minutes out of your day, you’re not doing it effectively). No, you aren’t going to be talked about or perceived negatively for taking lunch (this is just silly, also it’s inhumane). Simply put, you’re only hurting yourself when you don’t take your lunch. SO TAKE YOUR LUNCH BREAK AND EAT.

Something I learned on The Hill in particular was to let people know that you’re looking for a job. I was thankful that my office held resume and cover letter workshops for the interns, so that they can learn some ways that they can enhance their resumes and cover letters for Hill jobs. I was shy about letting the staff members know that I was looking for positions, but the fact that I hadn’t let them know early on meant that I had lost some precious time in learning some valuable skills at the office that could be helpful in future jobs. So, for anyone else in my position, don’t make the same mistakes that I did! Wherever you are, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and advocate for your personal objectives and career goals.

Envision the outcome you want

Manifesting is the practice of intentionality. It means thinking about what you want, saying what you want out loud, putting together an action plan, and living your life with the vision of what you want in mind. Everything else will fall into place. Your mind will attract the things that you want.

There are many books written on this practice, and they take on many names, like the law of attraction, the power of positive thinking, etc., but they all essentially say the same thing in principle.

Manifesting is something that I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. My mom has always influenced me to think positively, for a positive mindset is the key to achieving my goals. When I was a teacher, my coach from the very beginning emphasized the importance of having a vision for your classroom–from individual student outcomes to class outcomes and more. I’ve since started to put this into practice for myself, and I manifest these outcomes by thinking positively each day and make it a practice to say my goals and objectives so that everything that I do will lead me to what I envision myself and my life to be.

It’s also important that these manifestations are positive, because whatever we think, we become. A manifestation in the negation of something–I hope this doesn’t happen to me—might just turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. It may take a bit of practice to do this “mind aerobics” of turning something negative into a positive, but it makes a difference and becomes easier over time.

That’s it for the second entry! I hope that you found these tips helpful, or at the very least they sparked some thoughts in your mind. Stay tuned for my last entry coming next week!

Lessons from The Hill: Maximizing Your Voice in a Democracy

This is the first entry of a three-part series on lessons from interning on Capitol Hill. The views expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of the office for which I worked.

This semester, I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to work for a Member of Congress. I’ve learned so much from this experience—from the depth and breadth of the legislative branch to interview skills for jobs within the government—and I thought that it would be a disservice if I don’t share these lessons with others.

In this post, I want to share the ways in which I’ve learned how to maximize our voice and participation in our democratic government. We all know that democracy isn’t a spectator sport, but our participation doesn’t–and shouldn’t–stop at the voting booths or getting people there. There are so many resources out there that are free and available, but for some reason, aren’t public knowledge. And the fact that we don’t know or use these resources, and instead rely on headlines and/or posts on social media for information, makes us susceptible to politicized news that may or may not give us the full picture of what’s happening.

As an intern, one of my daily tasks was to conduct research for the legislative team on everything Congress-related. In supporting the Legislative Correspondent, I conducted extensive research on particular bills that constituents write to the Member of Congress about before drafting a response to them (constituent work is a major part of our work and office culture). In supporting the Legislative Assistant, I’ve done research to support an amendment introduced in the Rules Committee. Finally, I was usually the first person that individuals come in contact with over the phone in the office.

Below, I share some tips and resources on how to get in touch with your elected officials, find information on past, present, or future bills, and keep up with Hill happenings. I hope that these resources will help you become a more informed citizen.

Write to your elected officials

How many of you know who your elected officials are?

If you don’t, you aren’t alone. Only 37% of Americans can name their Representative; 77% can’t name a Senator from their home state; and only 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government.

Womp womp.

Okay, I recognize that these numbers may be old (the articles were published in 2015 and 2017), but still! These numbers are telling of how ill-informed we are as a nation about our own government. And that’s pretty sad.

Let’s start with the basics:

  • The legislative branch of government is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. Together, these Chambers make up Congress. This is where national bills are made!
  • There are 435 Representatives that represent districts across the country, who are elected every 2 years.
  • There are 100 Senators that represent states across the country, who are elected every 6 years.

Since there are so many Representatives, don’t feel bad if you don’t know your own. Chances are, you have a new one! And it’s easy to find out who they are.

Find your Representative on house.gov

Write your zip code on the right hand side under “Find Your Representative” — voilà!

Find your Senators on senate.gov

What can you do with this information, besides winning a trivia question on Civics and not being a part of an embarrassing statistic? A lot, actually!

Let’s say you are an educator who is enraged at the large amounts of budget cuts proposed for education (hi, Betsy DeVos). You know who’s in charge of approving the national budget? Your elected officials! Call their office(s) and voice your opinion. Be sure to include the following information when calling (if you forget, they will ask anyway so don’t worry):

  • First & last name
  • Full address (particularly your zip code)
  • Email address, if you prefer emails to snail mail

Your voice will be heard–take it from someone who takes calls and mail from constituents and logs them daily for a Member of Congress.

If you’re ever visiting Washington, DC, you can call your elected official’s office to request tours in the nation’s capital–for free! You can tour the Capitol, White House (must be 90 days in advance), Library of Congress, the Pentagon, State Department, and the list goes on. You also get to visit their DC office, which personally is always a treat for staff.

Pro-tip: Staff-led Capitol tours are more personal to ones led by the Capitol Visitor Center guides. Staff members can only take up to 15 people in one tour, so your tour group is smaller. Plus, staff could take you to the speaker’s balcony for the best view in town (depending on the Speaker or Congress’s schedule).

Keep them accountable

Now that you know who your elected officials are, what if you want to find out how they voted on certain legislation, or persuade them to support a specific bill?

You can type in the name (e.g. Equality Act), bill number (e.g. H.R.5), or even the subject of any legislation that you have any questions about on Congress.gov, and you will see the text of the bill, the list of sponsors or cosponsors of the bill, and any actions that either Chamber has taken. You can narrow your search further to see what bills your elected official has signed on to in the past.

A couple of things to note:

We are in the 116th Congress, so pay attention to that when looking at bills! Any bills introduced in either Chamber but not passed by both in past Congresses have “died,” which means they won’t be considered again unless they’re reintroduced this session.

Bill numbers that start with H originated in the House, and bills with S originated in the Senate. All bills must pass both Chambers and signed by the President to become a law. Many of us learned that bills originate in the House, but this process of course has become more complicated in the present day. Having worked on a bill and delivered one myself, feel free to send me a message if you’d like to learn more about this process!

Legislation at the top of the list on the House floor this session:

  • H.R.1, For the People Act of 2019 (voting reform)
  • H.R.4, Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2019 (H.R.1 companion)
  • H.R.5, Equality Act (LGBTQ+ rights)
  • H.R.6, American Dream and Promise Act (immigration reform)
  • H.R.7, Paycheck Fairness Act (equal pay)
  • H.R.8, Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019
  • H.R.9, Climate Action Now Act

And now that you know how to call your elected officials, call them to voice your support or opposition to certain legislation. Simply say, “Hi, I’d like for the Congresswoman/man to vote YES on H.R.5!” or even, “Hi, I’d like to thank the Congresswoman/man for voting YES on universal background checks!”

That being said, what you don’t want to do is call every single Democratic or Republican elected official who doesn’t represent you. Many people do this as a way to advocate for their position, but it’s highly ineffective. Offices can only log the mail or calls coming from their district. So, if you’re calling to express your frustration on the border wall, budget cuts, etc., to an office of a Member who doesn’t represent you, what you’re actually doing is harassing the staff member on the other end of the line.

What would be most effective is rallying everyone who lives in your district to call the same Member of Congress. (Since I didn’t work in a Senate office, I am not able to speak on behalf of Senate offices.)

And, of course, use Congress.gov to inform yourself on who to vote for every 2 years. There’s no automatic reelection unless candidates run unopposed. So, it’s your job to make sure your elected officials either keep or lose their job!

Reliable Hill-related news sources

Curious about what happens daily on The Hill? You can always follow your regular news sources, often they have a specific section dedicated to Congress or The Hill. But, in general, check out The Hill or Roll Call for Hill-specific news that usually comes out before other major news sources.

Remember your State Legislature and local governments

Capitol Hill gets a lot of coverage, but to be honest, your State and local governments are the ones that will most greatly impact your lives on a daily basis.

It can take months, even years, for a law to be passed on the national level. Right now, the Democrats control the House and the Republicans control the Senate, which means that many of these important bills that have already passed the House are under the control of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who decides whether they will be debated on the Senate floor. (And with 2020 just around the corner… you can gather how this goes.)

To truly make a change, we must be involved in all levels of government. Know who your City Councilwomen and men are. Know who is in your State Legislature; make sure that you take the time to do your research and choose carefully who will best represent you. Use these resources to be better informed about your elected officials who represent you in the nation’s capital. And finally, exercise your right to vote in every election. Hopefully, these resources have served to make you a better-informed voter. 2020 is just around the corner, y’all!

On Grace

Tuesdays and Fridays are my favorite days because I get off work at around 4 o’clock, which means that I still get to see the sun. With my full schedule this semester and the wintertime, I’m realizing more and more how sunshine is a privilege. I relish every opportunity that I get to bask in the warmth of the sun in 30-something-degree weather.

On my walk home, I pass by a nearby public school. Besides the afternoon sun, I see children in their uniform—navy blue polos and matching skirts or pants, high socks, and different iterations of scrunchies or basketball shoes. Their tiny hands inside larger hands that belonged to someone walking alongside them. Sometimes, they would walk in groups to the metro station, presumably to go home. The train becomes lively with their laughter, their banter, sometimes their mischief.

And for a moment, I’m reminded of my past life before I embarked on this journey to follow my dreams in the capital city.

A year ago today, I was analyzing data from the midyear scrimmage of the mock statewide science test to determine what the next few months’ lessons are going to look like. I’m looking at students’ Lexile scores, researching lab activities, interactive websites, old and remedial lesson plans, and keeping in mind individual students’ and each class’s behaviors. I’m changing the seating arrangement every day to match the day’s activities and ensure that they would be conducive to learning.

Now, I’m a full-time graduate student who also works full-time, swinging two part-time jobs on The Hill and at a digital agency dedicated to progressive causes. My Mondays and Tuesday are 12-hour days; balancing work, school, and life is an art that I’m learning daily.

With all the new challenges I’m facing, it has become easy for me to put aside and forget how tough of a person I used to be when I was a teacher. How tough it was to be a teacher.

D.C. is a big city; a so-called “transient city,” an international hub where I’ve experienced things unlike what I’m used to. I met a community of Indonesians here that I never had when I grew up in South Carolina or lived in Florida. I go to school with people from all over the world, from all walks of life, and who bring work experiences that enhance the learning environment. I’m learning so much, not just from the professor, but from everyone around me. At the same time, I’m constantly surrounded by people who are on the same level of capability, competency, and competitiveness as me, if not more. While it’s exhilarating, it can also be daunting on days when I’m not at my best.

On a basic level, it has taught me to be mindful of my sleep and eating schedule. It is easier for me to feel down when I haven’t had a full night’s sleep or anything to eat. On a deeper level, it has made me more aware of my mindset and perspective. When I start thinking negatively, everything starts to shift to become more negative, more difficult. But when I start thinking positively, I think of things that are “difficult” as another challenge to defeat or even as opportunities for growth. Positive things seem to come more naturally to me.

On a fundamental level, living in D.C. has taught me, again and again, to have grace with and be kind to myself.

I remembered vividly when I was having one of those days. I felt tired, unmotivated, and like I wasn’t contributing my all into what I was doing. I was getting discouraged by the job prospects and what my future would look like in the city. It seemed like getting a career was getting tougher and tougher these days and that my graduate degree was getting more expensive and difficult, yet less helpful.

But then, I talked to my mom, who has this divine skill of making things better even when you weren’t completely telling her what’s on your mind. As I was telling her about my policy skillset and what I wanted to accomplish during my internship on The Hill and beyond, she says, “Don’t forget education–you have experience as a teacher. You’ve been there. Remember that.”

Remember that.

And that’s when the images started flooding in. All the memories of all the times when it was tough, yet I continued to show up and stand in front of the classroom every day at 9:05 am. All the nights that I stayed up late lesson-planning, all the weekends I spent grading or lesson-planning some more. All the field trips–science fairs, engineering facilities, Sea World, and especially the last one, Gradventure at Universal Studios, with my eighth-graders who are now in high school. How did I allow myself to forget?

The next day, I gathered my strength–after a full night’s sleep, a wholesome breakfast, and a full playlist run-through of female empowerment songs. I remembered why I moved to D.C., why I wanted to go back to school, why and how I’m here. I was working hard on a task when a staffer noticed and pulled me in to do a project for her. I completed the first part of the project, and she gave me positive feedback and areas of improvement for the continuation of the project. I told her that I was a graduate student who’s interested in the issue areas that she’s responsible for and that I’d be happy to help her with anything related to those issues. She appreciated my hard work and told me that she will keep me in mind for future projects.

It always starts with our mindset. I believe in the Law of Attraction and that we are the architects of our own future. Luck, timing, and privilege notwithstanding, positive things will occur because of a positive outlook. And I fundamentally believe that what we seek is seeking us. By virtue of our living and striving for what we seek as our ideal–whether that’s going to school or doing the best work that we can at our jobs–we are always and already creating the future that we want. That future awaits us as we work towards it. What we seek, seeks us.

As I navigate new challenges this semester, I’m thankful for Tuesdays and Fridays (absent wintry mix), where I get to bask in the sunlight.

Tuesdays and Fridays, where I get a chance to relive the memories of the students at Room 401, at a middle school in Westside Jacksonville, Florida; the moments that proceeded the one I’m currently living.

And I took it as a sign, that everything happens for a reason.

Papa

On Father’s Day

I noticed that every year I stumble upon the same photos of me and my dad that I’d post for Father’s Day. My dad lives in Indonesia, and the last time I saw him was last summer. I still couldn’t find many pictures of us together.

Then I realized that the reason why he isn’t in the picture is that he’s always taking the picture. Whether it’s an iPhone, a Chinese iPhone (“Xiaomi a better iPhone!”), a Canon 5D Mark II, or a Fujifilm, he’s the man behind the lens.

I remember the first time he formally introduced me to photography. He bought me my first Canon D-SLR: a 550D (in the US it’s called a Rebel T2i). I remember how he first taught me to use portrait mode. Before teaching me how to compose a photograph, he had made all the necessary changes so that the default setting makes for the perfect picture—brightness, contrast, and all.

That’s the kind of person that my dad is: instrumental, yet humble. He always ensures that everything is in place so that others can succeed, but he doesn’t always enjoy the spotlight. He’s always behind, not in front of, it all.

divider

From My Father

From my father, I have my genuine, squinty-eyed smile,
my short stature,
my thinning, silky dark hair,
my golden undertones that tan from sheer sunshine,
my thick, thunder thighs capable of biking through rice paddies in Bali.

From my father, I have my humility. My father is down-to-earth and steadfast. Sometimes I find him firmly planted on the ground, not realizing how tall or far his branches have grown, how many find him so tall, so full of life, so worthy all the praise and recognition than his own modesty allows.

From my father (and mother), I have my morals. Be kind, do no harm, and share your knowledge and good fortunes, they say. And I’m learning to trust my gut feeling more, but I know that that the gut feeling is there because I have a conscience, and my parents have taught me to trust that which is within me and seek that which is Good.

From my father, I learned to ride a bike. I learned 1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4, because 1/2 = 2/4. I learned the rule of thirds. I learned to love the real football, the beautiful game. And I (semi) learned how to drive a car in Jakarta—even though everything is flipped and I kept turning on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signals and even though I still don’t really feel comfortable doing it I do it anyway because it amuses him and I like to think that he taught me how to drive instead of a driver’s ed instructor in South Carolina.

From my father, I learned to value patience. To me, his patience seemed endless—even when he ran out of patience, he still had the patience to forgive. I aspire to be as patient as my dad every day and wish that the men I’ve let into my life would have had even a fraction of an ounce of patience that he had.

From my father, I learned that love is a verb. To be so far, and to be alone for long periods of time. To support his children living thousands of miles away in the Sunshine State without ever feeling the sunshine up close, without seeing the sunsets that are unseen from the eastern shores. To call and, more often than not, have those calls go unanswered.

From my father, I learned to love unconditionally.

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For My Father

There is a house in Bali with the perfect beach-to-mountains ratio in terms of proximity wherein I can find my parents retiring, joyfully living and thriving as empty nesters for at least two blissful decades.

I know that if I can envision it, I can manifest it, and I can make it happen.

Everything I do now will be to make this vision come true.

Because they deserve it.

When the Universe Speaks

It has been a long, hard school year.

Since August 2017, I have had four posts sitting in my drafts. Truth be told, I’ve been living almost a double life and telling truths only to a select few, and it hasn’t been without its challenges.

I knew I would be leaving the classroom at the close of this year. Sure, my Teach for America contract is only for two years, but the decision wasn’t made as easily or as quickly as you’d think. At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, I felt that I had thrived in the classroom. I found joy–I had students that were as invested in my class as I am in them and in the work; I had administrators, coaches, and colleagues who supported me and lifted me up throughout my first year. I contemplated staying for a third year because I wanted to see how far I could go. An additional year to study for the LSAT would be nice, too. At the time, I was set on law school as my next step, even considering educational policy. I was that deep in and that committed to the work.

Then I went home to Indonesia for the summer. I realized how much I had forgotten, and admittedly missed, the “international” part of me–a part that is so essential to my identity. I’m not just an Asian-American, I am an Indonesian-American. That I am a first-generation immigrant also means that I am always and already dipping my feet in two different spheres. And if I so choose, with my international background, my spheres of influence could extend as far as I desire.

You know when you were little, you were always asked what you want to be when you grow up? I want to be a world citizen. I want to be a diplomat. I want to be Secretary of State. I knew that with my newfound joy in the classroom I could make teaching my career. But I wasn’t ready to give up on my little girl dreams just yet. I wanted to explore further what I am capable of, and tap into the skills I have that I don’t get to use in education.

Upon coming back to Jacksonville, I wasn’t expecting the number of transitions that came my way. Some things changed for the better: I moved closer to work and live in beautiful, historic house in a vibrant area with a roommate–last year, I lived alone in an apartment with a 30-minute commute, without traffic. A few things were completely unexpected. My school had a new principal, my district an interim superintendent. Both the former superintendent and my former principal moved to Detroit. I was teaching a new course: Physical Science, a high school course. In the middle of the year, our school underwent major schedule changes due to a district school budget fiasco. I had brand new students. My advanced classes were consolidated from 4 to 3, increasing class sizes as high as 34. I had to teach an elective science “research” class with some of the most challenging students for a couple of weeks. We were told that schedules would be changed back as soon as the school is cleared to hire more teachers, but besides my elective class being replaced back to a regular science class, the schedules never changed. I lost some of my favorite students and gained a few who never really got a hold of my classroom rituals & routines. Labs continued to be a challenge throughout the year with high class sizes. On top of that, many of our teacher vacancies never got filled… in fact, they increased as the year went on. Some days, I feel like my job has been reduced to babysitter extraordinaire. And the worst part is, it’s no one’s fault, but everyone bears the burden.

On top of teaching full-time, I enrolled in a TestMasters LSAT course. Every Saturdays, Sundays, and Tuesdays, I’d attend a four-hour class for five weeks. On Tuesdays, I’d arrive to class late because I leave school at 4:30, catch rush-hour traffic to the other side of town, and pick up my dinner on the way if I had time. After work, I’d do the TestMasters homework (which culminates to 100 hours), lesson plan, and then apply to law schools, graduate schools, and fellowships.

In November, I was selected as a finalist for the Charles B. Rangel Graduate Fellowship Program. The program prepares graduating seniors or recent graduates for careers in the Foreign Service–to become a U.S. diplomat. The Rangel Program also supports them with finances for graduate school (tuition and stipend) as well as two summer internships, one abroad and one in Capitol Hill. I went to Washington, D.C., for a full-day interview. In total, there were 60 finalists and only 30 were selected for the fellowship. While I was selected as an alternate and ultimately not chosen as a fellow, I spoke out to the Universe that fateful November day on my flight back to Jacksonville: I’ll be back.

I submitted the last of my school applications the first week of February, and the waiting game began. Timing worked out because as I had finished the difficult phase of applying for schools, it was remediation time for my students–time for them to review essential materials from 6th, 7th, and 8th grade science to prepare for the state test in May. In the beginning of the year, the goal for proficiency was set to 50%. In the December midyear test, my students scored an average of 52%, so the bar was set to 65% proficiency by May. I was stressing myself out, feeling pressured to succeed and deliver results. I spent countless hours creating lesson plans that I had to completely redo from last year. I assigned projects that were never done. My students lost investment because I was so hard on them. I was hard on myself! I was miserable, without much guidance or support. I was supposed to be the lead science teacher, everyone else was depending on me and the school grade is riding on me and my students’ performance.

But the Universe finally answered my call. I received my first acceptance letter from The Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, in Washington, D.C. They offered me a spot for the M.A. in International Affairs program, with a generous fellowship to boot.

After a few months of consideration, I decided to answer the Universe’s call. I’ve been back to D.C. twice since November, and every time I feel the same rush of energy that attracted me to it. This is where I need to be. This is where I belong.

And so with great excitement, I announce that I have accepted The Elliott School’s offer. While I will miss Jacksonville immensely, especially my students and the people whom I’ve gotten to know so closely, I cannot wait to see what this next chapter of life has in store for me.

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Room 401, we meet again.

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” —Aristotle

On my first official day as a Duval County Public School employee (aka when I got my new email address), I wrote this quote in my signature. Email signatures are kind of my guilty pleasure (who doesn’t love a good email signature??), but it also served as a small reminder to myself. First, to remain humble because I studied philosophy in college and became a teacher by choice, which means that I have so much to learn. Second, to remember that philosophy is and always will be a big part of my life. Third, and most importantly, that in this work, there are simply things that I do not know how to do—no matter how many Professional Development sessions I attend, how many veteran teachers I talk to, how many books I read—until I do it myself.

When I came back for my second year, I felt more at ease. And it wasn’t the kind of ease that came with preparation, considering I was in Indonesia for most of the summer and did zero school work for the entirety of my summer break. It was the kind of ease that came with familiarity. Seeing familiar faces—colleagues that I hadn’t seen all summer, a close friend whom I did everything with and who went through the same things as me last year, having the same people on my team. Coming back to my old classroom and discovering all the supplies that my Past Self had left behind for my Future Self to find. Knowing exactly who to talk to when I need help, rather than seeking out help whenever it finds me in trouble or feeling overwhelmed. Listening to admin and finding myself understanding more than half of what they’re saying—words like “differentiation,” “structured movement,” “IEP,” or “data-driven rotations” are no longer foreign to me.

I never thought that the girl who showed up to the first day of school last year flustered, having only half an hour before first period starts because she lived on the other side of town and severely underestimated traffic, is the same girl who became the lead science teacher this year. When I have conversations with new teachers (especially new Teach for America Corps Members), I look back on my first year and could pinpoint exactly when I felt the same way they did. Not much was different: I had schedule changes and difficulty with the curriculum; in fact, I felt that I didn’t have a good grasp of it until the third quarter. I felt insurmountable pressure teaching a tested subject that makes up a part of the school grade. I was depressed, I had terrible anxiety, I had to have my mother visit me for a couple of months until things started looking up. I cried on the dirty floor. I got a desk thrown at me. I was powered by denial and rationalized everything with, “It’s fine. It’s all gonna be fine.”

I always looked up to the second-years at my school, who all looked like they’re blissfully thriving. I remember spending so much time working—it seemed like all I ever did or thought about was work—yet every time I get to school, it felt like I had gotten nothing done. How do they do it? I thought.

My friend and partner teacher last year, who was a second-year teacher, would tell me often, “I wish that you could have seen me during my first year.” At the time, those words didn’t offer me much solace because I was far too overwhelmed to find comfort. But recently, my Assistant Principal reminded me of my former partner teacher’s words. After visiting my classroom in the second week of school, she told me, “I wish that I could have a time machine. I’d record you now and go back in time to show you, at this time last year, that you will be this teacher in a year.”

And I realized then the truth of Aristotle’s words, the virtue of the phrase that we hear so often: that it’s all “part of the process.” If I hadn’t gone through the lows, I wouldn’t have had the highs that I did at the end of last year and the highs that I do now. I wouldn’t have received an email from a former student inviting me to his home football game if he and I hadn’t butted heads for a whole semester. I wouldn’t have received texts from former students if I hadn’t had some difficult conversations with them or kicked them out of my classroom a few times. Save for the details and idiosyncrasies of different contexts, personalities, and life experiences, overall, what I went through in my first year wasn’t entirely unique to me, the same way that the experiences of the current first-year teachers aren’t unique to only them. It’s all about trusting that process of growth.

Learning never stops and I continue to learn from the compassionate people in my school community, the resourceful and empathetic staff members at Teach for America, but especially my students. While I enjoyed great successes in my first year of teaching, like contributing to an improved school grade, I’m excited to become a leader in my school community and within Teach for America. I now teach high school Physical Science Honors in addition to standard and advanced sections of eighth-grade science. I’m a sponsor for my school’s chapter of National Junior Honor Society. I’m also starting the year as a facilitator for a Professional Development session in Teach for America.

I’m excited for this school year and the endless opportunities to continue making a difference. Here’s to another year of growing and learning by doing.

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My Weekend in Japan

When I was planning my trip to Indonesia to see my family, there was a possibility of taking an extended layover in Japan. I’d fly to Narita airport in Tokyo, but my connecting flight to Indonesia would leave 20 hours later from Haneda airport, about an hour away from Narita. Knowing that one of my best friends is living in Japan (she’s an English assistant language teacher with the JET program), I felt like the Universe was sending me a signal to see her. Finally! Instead of spending 20 hours in Japan, though, I took the whole weekend to go on adventures around Japan with my best friend, Ivy.

I flew from Jax to Houston at the crack of dawn (thanks to my friend, Lynn, for giving me a ride at 4 am!) and made it to Tokyo-Narita around 4:30 pm local time. From there, I got a bus ticket to Kofu, the largest city in the Yamanashi prefecture. It was about a 3.5-hour ride from Tokyo to Kofu, and once I got to Kofu, we had to take a 30-minute train ride to another city in Yamanashi, and then drive an additional 30 minutes to Hokuto, where Ivy actually lives. Whew, what a journey!

Once I got there, though, I didn’t have much to complain about. Hokuto is a beautiful countryside in the mountains.

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Originally, Ivy was going to take Friday off and travel to Tokyo with me. But after telling the staff at her school that I was visiting, she asked if I would want to come to her school and meet her students. Of course, I said yes! I know I’m supposed to be on vacation, but naturally, I find myself back at a school.

Ivy teaches at an elementary school and a junior high school, the latter of which I got to visit during my trip. Her students are so cute (or, as they say in Japanese, kawaii-desu)! The teachers and staff at her school are equally lovely and very welcoming. She’s in great company. It’s evident that her faculty and students appreciate her. I got to introduce myself to her students and tell them my story abut how I came to America, what I do for a living, and how I got to know Ivy. I answered a few questions (the most popular question, which I get from her students and mine, is “How old are you?” …smh) and assisted Ivy and her English teacher with playing Bingo and working a few workbook exercises. It was so much fun and I really hope the students enjoyed it as much as I did.

We left the school early and had lunch at a nice restaurant in Hokuto called The Rock. We had some delicious Japanese curry. Then, we took a little excursion to get soft serve for dessert. Her area is also well-known in Japan for their milk production. Let me reiterate once more how beautiful the region is. So much greenery and nature, and I especially loved being in the mountains. Seeing the mountains in the backdrop was lovely and nostalgic—it reminded me of my hometown, Greenville.

After our delicious lunch, we took a cat nap before traveling to Tokyo; another 30-minute drive to a train station, then a 2-hour bus ride. It was around this time that my jet-lag started to settle. I slept the entire bus ride… I was in such a deep sleep that once we got to Tokyo, I totally had forgotten that I was in Japan.

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Me, post-bus nap.

Finding our Airbnb from the bus terminal was an adventure in itself that I won’t go into full detail. Sometimes Airbnb advertises a place that is “6 minutes away” from the nearest public transportation when in reality, it was closer to 9 minutes. Also, when the public transportation system is as complex as the one in Tokyo, you’ll likely run into multiple stations with the same name. We ended up spending about an hour or so trying to find our way to the Airbnb, getting lost and perhaps being in a neighborhood one would likely not want to find herself. Once we found it, though, it was in an area central enough to all the places we wanted to visit.

Since we had lost a lot of time in between getting to Tokyo and finding our Airbnb, plus we were also tired from traveling, we decided to grab dinner and call it a night. We went to the main street of Harajuku, where we also learned that most shopping places in Tokyo open quite late (around 11 am) and close pretty early (around 8 pm). Most of the shopping places were already closed since we got there close to 8 o’clock. I was getting pretty hungry, so Ivy directed me to a creperie, which Harajuku is known for. We had some delish strawberry ice cream crepes to fill our bellies while we find a dinner place. Our friend Shane, who is also in the JET program and serving in Tokyo, gave us recommendations to places in Tokyo for the weekend. One was a Western place with many pop-up restaurants that had a hipster feel to it, called Commune 246 or simply “the Commune.” I saw a lot of foreigners and heard English spoken widely. We had a couple of beers and a savory seafood platter. Then, we hopped on a train and got some rest for the next day. (Since I didn’t get to take many pictures at the Commune, here is a cool article with lots of photos that describes my experience well.)

I surprised myself the next morning by sleeping through the night and waking up right when the alarm rang! We left our Airbnb around 7:30 am, hoping to make it to the Tokyo Metropolitan Building by 8. According to Shane, the building has observation decks that allow you to see spectacular views of the city for free. But after about 30 minutes of traveling by subway/train and by foot, we still couldn’t get to the building even though we could see it from afar. Google Maps also said that the building was closed on Saturday. Not sure if it was true or not (it is a government building, after all), but we gave up the quest and opted to go to our next location instead. Plus, I was getting hangry.

Our next location was the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. We stopped by a conbini, a 24-hour convenience store that has a variety of deliciously fresh foods on the go, to pick up some breakfast foods that we’ll eat picnic-style at the garden.

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The garden was impeccable—it was beautifully well-kept and massive! It’s made up of French and English gardens in the north area, and a Japanese traditional garden, with Japanese tea houses, in the south. We only saw the latter, but it was enough. I loved being surrounded by so many beautiful florae, breathing in the fresh air and feeling harmonious with nature. Upon researching, the garden is a popular spot for cherry blossom viewing. Sadly it’s not cherry blossom season, but I can imagine how beautiful it must be.

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Next up, we made the trek to the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest tower in the world (and the second tallest structure to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). Before going up to the tower, we stopped by a shop that sold Studio Ghibli merchandise. I was so excited because we couldn’t get tickets to the Ghibli Museum, which apparently you have to purchase a month in advance. If you aren’t familiar with Studio Ghibli, it is a Tokyo-based production studio behind famous anime feature films, such as My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery ServiceSpirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and most recently Ponyo.

Once we got to the Skytree, we paid ¥3,000 (about $30) to go up to the first observation deck, which was 350m high (1148.29 ft for scale, #merica). The elevator went up so smoothly that it didn’t even feel like we had moved, but my ears definitely popped on the way up and down. Once we got there, the views were spectacular. Floor 350 had 360-degree views of the city and Floor 348 had glass floors that you can see down from. For another ¥1,000, you could go up to the 450m-high observation deck, which is all glass, but we didn’t think it was worth the price. I got to see some pretty nifty views of the city, but overall, the Skytree was one of those “touristy” sites that you just had to see once when you visit Tokyo.

Next up was a Shintō shrine in Tokyo, the Nezu Shrine. I’ve always been fascinated by different religions and having spent my childhood in Asia, the images of Japanese temples are not unfamiliar to me. I wanted to make sure that I visit one of the beautiful Shintō shrines while I was in Japan. While we were at Nezu Shrine, there was a Japanese wedding happening! It was so fascinating, though I’m sure the bride, groom, and guests must have felt a little weird having visitors “crash” their wedding.

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After the shrine, my stomach was growling (and my feet were starting to feel pretty sore). Since I was in Japan, I had to have sushi, duh! I wanted to go to one of the restaurants that serve sushi on a conveyor belt. I’d been to one in Jakarta but I wanted the authentic experience. We headed the direction of Harajuku and made a stop at Ameyoko, a market street with lots of restaurants and shops along the street. We found a restaurant that serves kaiten sushi and my stomach was singing!

A couple of observations at the kaiten sushi joint: most of the sushi served were a variety of raw fish meat. While there are sushi restaurants that serve the rolled “sushi” we’re all familiar with, this restaurant seems to be more fast-food-like, so while the food isn’t necessarily the fanciest, it was nonetheless delicious (if you like raw fish). As for drinks, these places serve unlimited green tea. Unlimited! Grab a ceramic mug, get your own hot water from the tap, serve your matcha, and boom. It’s amazing to me how matcha, the wondrous green tea powder with high antioxidants and is attributed to weight loss in the U.S., costs about $20 at your local fancy grocery store, yet I got to drink mine for free at a fast-food sushi joint.

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Moshi moshi, Oryza-desu?

Bellies now full, it’s time to go shopping. (Pro tip: never go shopping on an empty stomach.) We went to Harajuku and hit up a few places for some eclectic Japanese fashion finds. I bought a dress, a few makeup items, and some souvenirs for my family. I also got this phone case that Ivy endlessly made fun of me for (later on, I found that my mother actually wanted it as a gift). In Ivy’s words, “This b— thinks she’s Japanese now.” But in the words of Icona Pop, “I don’t care, I love it.”

After shopping in Harajuku, it’s time for our last stop: the famous Shibuya crossing. Aptly nicknamed the “scramble crossing,” getting there was tricky because there are about 20 different exits at the Shibuya station. I guess it makes perfect sense when you’re going to the “busiest crosswalk in the world.” A short Google search led us to the wrong exit initially, so we went back inside the station again to find the correct exit, which was the Hachikō exit.

Hachikō is the name of a famous Akita dog, known for his loyalty. The story goes that Hachikō would see his owner off to work in the morning at the Shibuya train station and then in the afternoon when he comes back. One day, his owner died unexpectedly at work, and Hachikō waited for his owner at the train station who never came back. While Hachikō gained a new family, he still waited at the Shibuya station every morning and afternoon for his beloved owner until his death. A statue commemorating Hachikō’s loyalty is erected outside the Shibuya station.

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The views at Shibuya station mirror those of Times Square in New York. I’m glad that we got to see it at night when all the lights and electronic billboards were illuminated. It was a sight to behold.

According to articles on Google, the best views of the actual Shibuya crossing is from a Starbucks overlooking the crosswalk. After crossing the street ourselves (which was so much fun, I’d never been surrounded by so many people at once), we went to the Starbucks and saw what we had just experienced. We saw some dude dressed up as Pikachu who’d run to the middle of the street as people are crossing, pretending to be a wild Pokémon waiting to be caught. It was so absurd. Japanese locals just went about their business and walked around Pikachu, but others thought it was fun and they all took pictures of him and his friends, one of whom dressed up as Ash. The things people do to amuse themselves.

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Behold, the famous “scramble crosswalk.” Just seeing this picture stresses me out.

With sugar in our system, we ventured to find literally any restaurant we could find within our vicinity. At this point, the only thing on my food bucket list that I haven’t eaten was katsu, Japanese breaded and fried cutlets. We found a restaurant where you’d order and pay for your food at a slot-machine-type thing, a ticket comes out, and then you go inside and hand your ticket to the cook. Ivy told me that this is also a fast-food-type of a restaurant, where the focus isn’t so much social aspect of food where you get waited on and such, but how quickly your food comes out. I also noticed that most people who ate there were eating alone. Being a huge foodie myself and loving the experience of eating more than anything, I didn’t mind the fast-food restaurants at all because the food was so good and it was exactly what I wanted at the end of a long day. I had no idea what I ordered (I just saw a picture and went “yep that looks good”) but it tasted like some kind of chicken katsu cooked with fried egg on top and steamed rice with sweet soy sauce underneath. I also got a side of noodles to go with it. Mmm.

By the end of the day, we were exhausted but so proud of ourselves for making it to every place on our list. We walked a total of 28,091 steps (about 11.12 miles), stood for 16 hours, and burned about 653 calories. My Apple Watch was also proud of me for exceeding all of my daily goals.

The next day, I had to catch an airport bus to Tokyo-Narita at 6 am for my flight at 8:15. We woke up around 4:30, giving ourselves plenty of time to walk to the bus station in case we couldn’t find a taxi. Come to find out that the streets are bustling at 5 in the morning (do you people not sleep??) and we found a taxi outside of our Airbnb in less than 5 minutes. A little salty because I could’ve slept in. Anyway, we said our tearful goodbyes, caught our respective buses, passed out on our way to our destinations (another one of those “Who am I?” naps for both of us), and I hopped on two planes to Jakarta… another ridiculous, day-long journey in itself. But that’s all for now.

To sum up the aftermath of my incredible weekend in Tokyo, here’s a picture of a Japanese man at the bus station, courtesy of Ivy’s Snapchat. Until next time!

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Same.

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Most photos were taken with my iPhone 7. Photos of the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and the featured image from Nezu Shrine were courtesy of Ivy, taken by her Nikon D-SLR. The meme was from the Internet.

Dear First-Year, Post-Grad Me

dfmMy spring semester, junior year in college, I became the President of Furman Creative Collaborative, and my first event as president was “Dear Freshman Me.” We set up a booth in front of the library on the last day of class. On colorful cards, students can write a letter to their freshman selves.

I officially finished my first year of teaching and also my first year of adulthood. I’ve learned a lot this past year, and to reflect on a year of personal and emotional growth, I’m paying tribute to one of my fondest college memories.

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Dear First-Year, Post Grad Me,

I am writing you today from the day that you will wish would have come sooner when you’re exhausted, frustrated, afraid, and feel like a failure. By the end of this journey, you will be able to relate spiritually to this line from a Coldplay song: “Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be this hard.”

Right now, you are a bright-eyed, hopeful, naive 22-year-old with an open heart and mind, eager to take the world by the helm. With every passing year, you’ve overcome some of the most difficult challenges that life has offered you. You’ve graduated college and accomplished most of the goals you’ve set for yourself, even surpassing some of your own expectations. I’m proud of you—I know you are, too.

But life has only just begun.

From this point forward, be prepared to be overwhelmed all of the time. You’re about to embark on a new career that you didn’t prepare for, and at first, that feeling of unpreparedness is going to drive you nuts. You’re hyper-organized and have a Type A personality, and you’re going to want to excel immediately. So will everyone else around you. This is the culture at Teach For America; all the pressure, especially pressure emanating from your excellent peers, will exhaust you to no end. But trust the process, for it will only make you a better teacher and a much better person.

When you’re overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to ask for help, advice, and forgiveness. The worst disservice you could give yourself is silence. You’re impatient, stubborn, and a perfectionist, and you will relentlessly work until you get it right—alone. But you can’t go through this work and this life on your own. There are simply things that you don’t know because you haven’t experienced them, and the only way you will learn is by listening to others’ stories. Accept your ignorance and naïveté. Accept the fact that you don’t know a lot of things. Then, open yourself up to others: ask for their help and be open to receiving their help. Ask for advice and don’t be afraid to look foolish when you do, for you’ll only look like a fool when you fail to ask. And most importantly, be comfortable with asking for forgiveness. You will make a lot of mistakes (and I really mean a lot). But, just like you will tell your students, the earlier you make mistakes, the faster you will learn to become better. So, don’t hide under your pride or pretenses; people are more forgiving than you think.

Adulting is hard because adulting is awkward. Out of the college bubble, where proximity and convenience were your best friends, relationships of all kind in the adult world are much more difficult to start and even more difficult to maintain. First, you’ll fall for the novelty and thrill of dating in the adult world. You’ll meet a lot of people and realize that out of the “Furman bubble” you don’t repel the opposite sex as much as you thought you did. You’ll have plenty of stories to make others laugh, and no matter the heartbreak or headaches, you’ll be more thankful for the experience than regretful.

But you’ll also realize how much the male gaze is deemed important to many single, heterosexual females, including you initially. It’s going to become frustrating once you realize that some female friendships amount to boys at the end of the day; no matter how hard you try, you won’t be able to give your friends the kind of affection that they seek. But as a feminist, understand that your choice in focusing on yourself and others’ choice to pursue relationships are equally important and deserving of respect.

Therefore, seek friendships that push you to grow as an individual. What you put into the Universe, you will get out. The people you keep in close proximity will influence your thoughts, actions, and reactions from the Universe. List your strengths and weaknesses and be intentional with your friendships. Surround yourself with people who help you keep all the positive things you love about yourself and those who possess the qualities that you hope to imbue. Don’t meddle in people’s problems and offer advice only when asked—remember, no one needs you to be their “mom.” Always be honest and genuine with yourself and others. Have difficult conversations, be vulnerable, and embark on lifelong learning journeys with friends. Find your voice, advocate for your identity, push others to grow in areas you naturally feel your strength, and seek to understand. And, as always, never lose your ability to have fun with anyone, anywhere.

Choose yourself first. You know how flight attendants always remind you to put the oxygen mask on you first before helping others? In life, it’s no different. You’ll be pulled in so many different directions (remember, prepare to be overwhelmed all the time). Even when you’re fighting an internal battle, you have to show up ready at 9:05 am every morning in front of your students. Take care of yourself. The more time you take for your well-being (even if it’s just marathoning Law & Order SVU for 15 hours), especially when there isn’t much of it, the more time, patience, and love you will be able to give to your students, colleagues, family, and friends.

Keep your Saturdays work-free, go to the beach every week, decline a few invitations, and don’t ever apologize in the name of self-care. FOMO aka “fear of missing out” may be real in college, but in the adult world, it’s totally self-imposed. The truth is, nobody really cares when you don’t attend a party or a function… as long as it’s not mandatory for everyone. Miss a school meeting or the quarterly conference? Prepare for an onslaught of shady texts. But if you miss a Christmas sweater party? You missed out, but nobody missed you.

Children will forget the large things you did, like messing up your lesson or almost burning the class down, but will remember the small things you didn’t do, like forgetting to bring candy for their birthday. In other words, children need you to care about the things that they care about. Make learning fun—make your love for them and your passion for learning alongside them a priority for you. At the end of the day, your administrators might tell you that data and testing are important. But at the end of it all, you all know why you’re there, and it’s the kids. Remind yourself of your “why” every day, especially on the toughest days. It will not only help you carry on to June 2nd but also push you to be your very best for your students. They will see that you showing up every day and giving your all means that you care about their education, and in turn, they too will care.

Finally, love yourself. You’re not perfect, but you are enough. Take small opportunities each day to think positively about yourself rather than criticizing yourself for the little things. Always humble yourself, but do so not by deflecting praise or replaying an infinite loop of negative feedback in your head. Make peace with your shortcomings, find strength in your potential, and ground yourself in your dreams.

Finally, I pray that you will never create limitations within yourself, for there are already many barriers out there in the world. You always choose the road less traveled by, one filled with many challenges, but you choose this not because it is easy but because it is hard. As President Kennedy stated in his speech on the nation’s space effort:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people.

 

You set sail on this journey because you know that it’s more than just about you; this life is more than just your own. For whatever discovery you will come across, whoever you meet along the way, and however you act in response to challenges and acceptances, choose thoughtfully the course in which occasion and conscience demand, for you, those around you, and the people watching you, will become all the better for it.

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Post-Test Reflections & #SaveTFAJax

160 minutes – that’s what 3 years’ worth of science education culminates to.

This past Tuesday, my students took the statewide science assessment. Since August, I along with my school administrators and other teachers have drilled into my students’ minds the importance of this test. Passing this test means getting Biology in 9th grade. Getting Biology in 9th grade means you’re on grade level. It means you’re on the college-readiness track. It means you’re one step closer to a college education. It means you’re one step closer to freedom, to self-fulfillment, to achieving your dreams.

At this point in the year, they could recite these reasons verbatim.

When it was time to read the directions, I took one last look at my students, doe-eyed and brimming with hope, anxiety, curiosity, and determination all at once, and I stopped myself. I see students whom I butted heads with in the beginning of the year, but now we are on the best of terms. I see students who grew beyond the capacities of their own imagination—but not mine. I see inquisitive students who told me how they are interested in careers in science because of this class. I see 100% of students who have shown growth from the beginning of the year to this moment. In a few seconds, they were to be assessed on everything that they knew in science from 6-8th grade, and none of these things would matter on paper.

On paper, it was all about “mastery.” Did the student who have aspirations to work for NASA scored a 70% or above on the test? Did the student whom I butted heads with remember the difference between mass and weight? Did the student who grew 20% from the midyear to the April diagnostic remember the correct phases of the Moon?

So I spontaneously told my students that I loved them and am proud of them. I told them to remember that I was with them all year, and I am so proud of how much they have grown. Despite the importance of the test (because it’s still important) who they are as people is not quantifiable. Their test score doesn’t define their character.

AH

When I think about my students, I cannot help but think about Teach For America Jacksonville, and when I think about TFA Jax, I cannot help but think about my students. When I heard the news tonight that the Duval County School Board is about to cut funding for Teach For America, I was heartbroken.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, we would have vacancies in all tested subjects—that includes ELA, Reading, Math, Science, and Civics. Our school has one of the largest populations of TFA teachers. We have strong relationships with our administrators and our community. We are coaches, we do after-school activities, we work Saturday school, we continually go above and beyond, and we always stand alongside our veteran and non-TFA teachers. We support each other and we look to each other for support, TFA or not. That’s what makes my school great, that’s what makes DCPS great, and it’s what inspires me to continue my work in education beyond my TFA commitment.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, 100% of 8th graders at Jefferson Davis Middle School would not have had a science teacher.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, Duval County Public Schools—a county with 200 teacher vacancies annually—would have been short 600 more teachers since 2008.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, I would never have met my 121 Naturally Selected Scientists who have taught me more than I could ever teach them.

If it weren’t for TFA Jax, classrooms in Jacksonville will continue to be missing teachers who otherwise would have had a transformational impact on its students.

KA

Although the implications of the budget cuts would not affect me and my corps as much, it would impact the future of TFA Jax, the incoming 2017 Corps Members, and most importantly our kids. Currently, the School Board proposes to solve the classroom vacancies with marketing strategies to recruit teachers and retain new teachers—without Teach For America. Knowing the incredible staff at TFA Jax, the caliber of teachers that TFA Jax has recruited, as well as the people and community whom TFA Jax has built relationships with, students in DCPS—especially in Title I schools because that’s where 100% of us work—are at an extreme disadvantage.

At the end of 2016, I made a commitment to be uncomfortable, to be proactive, and to always keep going in the face of adversity. I never thought that it would hit so close to home, but the fight has begun.

SL

#SaveTFAJAx. For my Naturally Selected Scientists. For One Day, All Children.


Please help me spread the word to Duval County School Board members by sharing this post. If you live in the Jacksonville, FL, area or have family, friends, and/or connections in the area, you can help us #SaveTFAJax by contacting a school board member:

District 1: The Honorable Cheryl Grymes 904-390-2371
District 2: The Honorable Scott Shine 904-390-2386
District 3: The Honorable Ashley Smith Juarez 904-390-2239
District 4: The Honorable Paula D. Wright 904-390-2374
District 5: The Honorable Warren A. Jones 904-390-2372 (my school district)
District 6: The Honorable Becki Couch 904-390-2373
District 7: The Honorable Lori Hershey 904-390-2375

My kids, school, and Teach For America – Jacksonville thank you in advance.