The end of sophomore year came like a sigh of relief in the middle of a series of exasperated gasps. I declared my major and immersed myself fully into my academics. I developed relationships with my professors. I became a “leader” in my favorite on-campus organizations. I let myself be sucked into everything I thought an ideal college life was supposed to include. I even had my first official drink despite being afraid of alcohol for as long as I knew what alcohol was. It tasted like sparkling apple and left my mouth dry in a rich way.
All throughout the year there were days I felt that I was growing and there were days when I thought I had not truly moved forward at all. My usually optimistic outlook on life had all but depleted. Despite the admiration I had for my professors and the gratitude I felt for experiencing all the classes on my roster, the workload and my passion did not alleviate the symptoms of this new leveled sadness. There were periods of times when I did not eat consistently. There were weeks I dreaded going to class. Even a time or two when I had overslept through the first half of one because I was not able to sleep the night before. Everyone talks about the “motivated” students in college and with each new story, I felt increasingly isolated from the rest of the student body because I felt like they did not include or represent me. Each person I opened up to reiterated, You’re “good enough” to be here. But what did that mean? While I am “good enough” to be intellectually present at Pomona, I could not prevent the moments I felt emotionally absent.
This hurricane of emotion came at an inopportune time. At the end of the year most organizations or companies are accepting applications for summer research, internships, grants, or fellowships. Before you realize you are actually on vacation days, spring break passes and you have to juggle both applications and finals. I remember after a couple rejections or non-responses, sitting in the middle of the common room, tears slowly contouring my face on the very day I was declaring my major. On any other day, I would have accepted this one like the ones I received before it and the many I have received in my lifetime. Instead, my heart swelled up at the thought of all my efforts not being “good enough” perhaps because I felt that it was my most adequate application. In my head, I knew I was being irrational. Pools of applicants are always competitive and some decisions may be arbitrary; this perhaps was just not the time I was meant to have this internship experience. I reasoned that some of my rejections came because of the lack of time I spent on my essays or the formatting of my resume. I believed each new thought broke me away from the negative energy that engulfed this time, until I realized that the foundation of all my emotions was something much larger than wiping away tears. All the self-love advice that had floated around me since I had arrived in college had not really penetrated the walls I built around myself. At a time when no one else seemed to be giving me a chance, I realized I needed to give myself one.
When May came and I had no concrete plans for summer, I accepted that I would be going home for its entirety. After a while, I welcomed the thought because I wanted to be with my family. I knew that it would be emotionally difficult but I distinguished that I could spend time recollecting myself in a familiar space. I would be able to work and get paid, for one. I would be able to help with a program my friends and I started last summer at our high school too. Suddenly, all the opportunities I thought I missed seemed to dull in comparison to being home by the lake and eating my favorite foods. I deserved that. Worth far more than any prestigious opportunity, I deserved to be happy most of summer, a season I love dearly alone.
As quickly as my attitude started to change, so did my luck. The last few weeks of school, opportunities sprang up that tempted me enough from my newly envisioned summer to apply. The first came by email. Stocked between daily updates and usual announcements, I found that Pomona was looking for summer RAs to help throughout the summer. The job, although not life changing provided me monetary compensation, as well as room and board for the summer. By perusing the online catalog provided by our career center, I came upon the second opportunity. , I looked at potential organizations, attempting to find opportunities for next summer and discovered a fairly young nonprofit in downtown L.A. that was searching for an intern, Immigrant Defenders Law Center. Still overcome with the lingering sensation by my previous rejections, I stubbornly interviewed and applied for these two positions, in a final attempt to gain work experience in my field. To my surprise, I was accepted nearly on the spot for my internship. Over the phone, I could barely contain my confusion and gratitude as I waited for her voice to fade out of my ear. Why did sense of accomplishment become so foreign to me?
Although I could speak about my internship experience and my summer entirely, I wanted to write about the process of finding an internship experience and navigating the anguish that comes with applying to various postings post-high school, when you often have less direction and guidance. I also wanted to highlight the fluctuations my mental health has endured since I began college, specifically because the majority of the clients that ImmDef helps live with a disability or mental illness. My work did not only introduced me in a dialogue with professionals about law and its parameters, it introduced me fully with an aspect of myself I seldom confront.
I know that I am not always healthy mentally and sometimes, I do need help to feel better. I struggle expressing that to the people around me. When I am affected by negative thoughts, I prefer experiencing them alone because I rarely feel like opening up to someone eases the reality of my circumstances. Growing up, I was taught that you always have to be you “best” and do your “best” and no one ever stopped to say that included being depressed. No one ever told me it was okay to cry for something I was working toward, even it was to be my “best.”
I want to tell students that it is okay to experience a spectrum of highs and lows and it is okay to prioritize your own health. Your mental, physical, spiritual health is more valuable than anything anyone else could ever offer you. While you may feel alone in feeling lost, this experience is not unfamiliar to many first-generation, low-income students, even the ones who seem to know how to navigate various institutions. Emotions like guilt and frustration and disappointment are as equally important to address as our pride and our joy.
Whenever I feel like I am slipping into a negative space mentally, I try to remind myself of the many supporters I have around me. I remind myself of how significant it is that I am physically present at my college. I let myself feel a complicated appreciation for all that I have done and all I will continue to do, even if I do not complete my goals as soon as I want to. The waves of opposing emotions crash into one another and in the aftermath, I can breathe easy. I would like to think that the moment I acquiesced to waves, I finally started steering better.