There has always been an immense pressure on me to succeed, to make the voyage to a strange foreign country, to make every sacrifice worth it. I have no right to exist on my own, I was born for a purpose greater than myself. I wrestled with this purpose that had been assigned to me by my family. As the firstborn daughter, I was going to be the one to redeem my family’s legacy and heal from the cycles of generational trauma. My grand parents came to the Unites States from Mexico in the 1970s in pursuit of career opportunities and safer living conditions. However, my parents, having grown up in acute poverty and influenced by neighborhood gang violence, were influenced to drop out of high school, but later returned to receive their GED, or high school diploma equivalent. Then, they began working to financially support our family. My mother was 20 years old when she had me, and my dad was 22. A special gift or potential was seen in me from a very young age. I remember how my grandmother would say, “Esa niña es muy viva,” when I’d use my gifts to cause mischief for her. For example, the only time I’d ever received a failing grade was in second grade when I refused to pay attention to the math lessons because I understood that if I just “played dumb” a specific student would always come to my rescue and give me the answers to the classwork.
As a result of this pressure I developped and equally immense fear of failure. I hated getting answers wrong, hated disappointing my elders, and was highly competitve. My parents did not rejoice or celebrate over acceptable grades, but only exceptional ones. Meanwhile, the same expectations were not placed on my younger sibings. My parents used to always tell me that they were so hard on me because they didn’t want me to have to experience the financial hardships they had experienced. For most of my life I was driven by fear and anger. In elementary school and middle school I never really needed to study. In high school, the most I studied was reviewing the notes I had taken during the class five minutes before the exam. I became very prideful and I based my worth and identity in my achievements.
When I began at Northwestern University, I experienced what is very common for first generation, low-income students to experience: imposter-syndrome. Once I had finally achieved this long-term dream, my tower of expectations came tumbling down. I had finally proven myself, my worth to my parents, so I had nothing to motivate me anymore. Moreover, I was no longer the brightest in my class. The lecture halls were so large and time in class so limited that my questions were never answered. Quizzes and tests were designed to be short to help to the teaching assistants and professors quickly grade the sea of work, however, it also meant that a single wrong answer would drop my grade to a C. In my entire academic career I’d never felt more neglected. I didn’t understand how I was going to develop a deep enough understanding of any of the course material if I am never allowed to ask the professor questions in class or during office hours (which were typically bombarded with students unless the professor’s explanations were notoriously unhelpful), an enormous amount of information is packed into a single hour-long class, and minimal practice is given. Consequently, I bore a greater responsibility to interact with the course material outside of the classroom. My first-year I felt like succeeding at this university seemed impossible. In fact, many students come to Northwestern with the same pride and merit-based identity, failing their first classes and falling into an existential crisis. However, I noticed that I performed well in every class that was not a science course. Eventually, I came to realize that reason for this trend was subtle differences in class structure, size, and practice.
After being at Northwestern for 3 years now, I affirmed myself that I am a competent student, but certain aspects of my character influence my learning-style. I am a detail-oriented, meticulous, creative, and naturally inquisitve person. I am cautious and thorough, therefore, people or situations that place limits on time and space, create in me a suffocating anxiety. When our fight or flight response is activated, higher order thinking capabilites, such as language, are put on pause to give way to our survival instinct. This is why I performed poorly on timed examinations in large rooms filled with students. A common issue I would run into on every standardized test was that I would never finsh the exam, but the work I was able to complete was always high quality work. The courses that I performed the best in were ones in which I was able to apply to a real-world context in a way that was personally meaningful to me, ones in which, I was able to make connections to a skill or topic I already had an in-depth understanding in, or ones that I could engage with in a creative and non-conventional way. For instance, my favorite classes at Northwestern have been my global history sequence because the professors take familiar and beloved symbols or objects, like chocolate and coffee, and explain why we feel the way we do as a society about these symbols by connecting them to the social, political and economic contexts that made these symbols what they are today. They tell a story about these symbols or characters, with slides that are filled with pictures and performances in changing tone of voice and body language, consistently leaving me with a sense of wonder and a curiosity to know more. I also greatly enjoyed a course on women’s horror and weird fiction, which often began with a student led presentation to demonstrate their understanding and level of engagement with the text. The texts themselves were written by contemporary authors that drew inspiration from classical literature. We also dug into the history and social contexts for reoccurring usage of specific images, icons, and archetypes. What struck me was that I was able to apply these same techniques to describe the role different individuals in my life, and other’s lives, played. I saw greater feedom and mobility in my ability to communicate through writing. I developed a personal annotation style for every text that I read, writing reactions, finding the definitions of unfamiliar words, writing summaries of large texts, and connections other previously read texts or ideas learned in class. Sometimes, if I am moved by the text or lesson, in such a way that it can be applied to my life I write a short poem or story about it in my free time. This class helped me to find solace in writing as a form of expression and identify with the women that were doing the same.
I apply creativity to other subjects outside of history and literature as well. For example, In my general chemistry class while learning the properties of elements on the periodic table as well as bonding reactions. I often wrote stories about certain elements and compared them to people I knew, including myself. I thought of myself as being very similar to the element chlorine because in my natural form I am very carefree like a gas, I bond well with elements that carry a single valence electron because they stabilize my chaotic and carefree energy. My bestfriend at the time, who was also taking chemistry with me, was the sodium to my chlorine for this reason. I noticed that some bonds between my friends and family members could be characterized as either ionic, where one takes more than the other and the reason for this was because one of the individual’s personalities (or their chemical structure). On the other hand, some relationships between people, I noticed, were covalent because there was equal give and take of “valence electrons.” For some, the structures of these individual elements seemed to have less internal conflict and more self-assurance, in other words, less polarized and were thus stable on their own. In some cases, even if these bonds were covalent, they are not necessarily suited for each other, when put together they form a polarized or highly reactive compound. Another strategy I use to study is inspired by the fact that I have seven and nine-year-old sisters who enjoy asking me questions about the things I am learning. I am challenged to explain to them the material in its most basic form and in language that they may understand. Verbally explaining to them helps me to catch gaps in my knowledge and informs me of what specific areas I need to revisit. Finally, since I enjoy the visual arts. Diagrams, charts, and concept maps which illustrate the relationship between terms learned in a class help me to better conceptualize the terms better overall.
I recently had the privilege of participating in a course titled “Languages of Care,” which was led by various clinicians, professors, ISTUD faculty, and workers in the humanities with the aim of sharing experiences and practical applications of the arts and humanities within the healthcare sector to both support and enrich the practice. What I appreciated the most about the lectures were the activities such as literary and visual analysis of poetry and artworks created by patients and healthcare professionals, and the practice of placing oneself in the postion of a patient receiving art and even clown therapy. A key take away for myself, was that although I consider myself a strong proponent of implementing the arts in education and healthcare, I found how I had been taught to not empathize or employ my emotional intelligence in literary analysis. In the end, I was able to see the culture I grew up in from a different angle, adopt a new way of consuming art, and identify parts of myself that I would like to further develop. I left feeling a sense of relaxtion and rejuvination. All of these gained insights and experiences were precisely the learning objectives of the course.
In summary, I personalize my study habits to by capitalizing on my creativity and pragmatism, but they can be great time and energy committments. However, the teaching modalities the professor uses, the format of classwork, homework and exams, and relationships with peers and teaching staff can also make a difference in education. For me, learning a new subject is like getting to know a person, there is factually knowing things about a person and then there is intimately knowing a person to the extent that you can anticipate their responses and behaviors in different situations. I believe that knowing a person or subject matter superficially lacks integrity and dignity. Learning is an art that cannot be rushed or standardized. If you knew about a person and were asked to speak at the person’s funeral, you would be very hesistant about this opportunity because you are afraid to say the wrong things, and thus, called an imposter by those who truly know the person. This is how I feel about every subject I learn. The teacher has a responsibility to effectively introduce the subject, while the student, if they are willing, must take the initiative to engage with the material. This is why I changed my major, because the more I got to know biological sciences and pre-med, the more I learned that I couldn’t be married to it.