On my last night as a UCLA student, I went for a run around campus.
A group of giddy graduates gathered around the Bruin Bear, their Class of 2016 sashes gleaming blue and gold as they climbed atop the statue’s metal back to pose for pictures. A calmness hung over Bruinwalk, the area cleared of flyer-flapping, donut-selling students–open space for me to zip through with rosy cheeks and short breaths. I passed by Kerkhoff, where I’d bought many a shitty vanilla latte, and Powell Library, where I’d written some of the most crucial pages of my honors thesis. I took a left at Schoenberg–the music school, where I had my first job ever as the Front Desk Assistant in the main office. The Humanities Building, home of the English Department. Haines, the site for Westwind meetings. I saw Bunche, aka the “waffle building,” up ahead and remembered lectures on Henry James, linguistics, Asian American history, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales…The first Writer’s Den meeting that I’d ever attended was in Bunche.
Royce glowed as majestically as ever that night, the brick golden against the night sky. I slowed to a stop and stood there, craning my neck back to take it all in. Every now and then, throughout the last four years, I’d look up at Royce in all of its collegiate glory and realize how privileged and honored I was to call myself a student at this university.
This particular moment, on my evening run–this is when it began to sink in.Wow. I traced the arches and the pillars with my eyes, drawing a picture to store in my memory. It’s over.
* * *
When I arrived at UCLA on move-in day, I was terrified. The campus was a foreign land, and the masses of students and parents milling up and down the hill were strangers. For the entire summer, I had been eagerly awaiting this opportunity to reinvent myself, to put the lonely and quiet years of high school behind me and reemerge a more “interesting” and “outgoing” person. But once this opportunity arose, I didn’t know what to do with it. As I trudged up to my new home, Saxon Suites, I already felt myself retreating on the inside, ready to go through the next four years with a shell over my head.
Admittedly, I spent most of my freshman year with this mentality. Despite having an amazing roommate (Danielle) with whom I bonded instantly and deeply, I spent most of my time cooped up in my room by myself, watching Dawson’s Creek and eating Rendezvous quesadillas.
Now, as a UCLA graduate, I’m happy (and relieved) to say that I found my way out of my dorm room and into a community. I began by attending meetings and socials for a creative writing club called The Writer’s Den, the island of misfit toys, where all shades of dorkiness and uniqueness were welcome. I went on to enjoy many adventures with these beautiful people, from beach days to book festivals to bonfires. I also met some of my closest friends.
Then, as a sophomore, I joined the staff of the Writing Success Program, a student-run, student-initiated project within the Community Programs Office, a department founded on the importance of community and peer support. I started as a neophyte counselor, who hopped on the team mid-year with no training and concluded three years of growth and hard work as the Assistant Director.
(I blogged about my incredible, life-changing experience with WSP on their blog. I’ll just leave this link here and a quote below or else I won’t be able to stop flooding this post with love for this program and all of the people involved.)
From organizing over three workshops to curating WSP’s first literary magazine–[…] I honed and embraced my ability to gather people around a common goal. I realized that a leader is not necessarily someone who distinguishes themselves from the pack; instead, she is someone who builds community by fostering collaboration.
Confidence is no longer this omnipresent but seemingly unattainable desire; rather, it is a foundational part of my identity. No longer preoccupied with self-doubt, I can now see outside of myself and focus much more of my time and energy on the team, the program, and my students. […] I am a leader. And it wasn’t until I claimed that title and believed that I deserved it that I actually became one.
I continued to find community in my short story workshops, where I met some of the most creative, talented, and compassionate students on campus. Every time I went to class, I thought to myself: these are my people. I’d found my corner of creativity at this immense research institution. In these small classes of twelve, led by two of my favorite women, Prof. Michelle Huneven and Prof. Mona Simpson, my peers and I got to know each other through our stories, our writing. I’ve always believed that the bond between storyteller and reader/listener is special and intimate, and these workshops reinforced this belief.
My wonderful experiences in these classes inspired me to pursue a creative honors thesis, to tackle the task of writing a much longer work than the three-paged stories that I composed for the workshops. I didn’t expect my honors thesis to be a community-building experience. Aside from working with my advisor (Mona Simpson), it was to be, more or less, an independent project that I’d slave away on in the secluded corners of libraries and crowded coffee shops. Or so I thought.
Well, my guess was partially correct: I did gravitate towards libraries and coffee shops for the actual writing process. But I did not anticipate the invaluable and impactful bond that I would form with my colleagues, Ruth Livier and Vera Burrows. Since Prof. Simpson was to advise all three of us on our projects, we decided to band together as a writing group. So, every Friday, we’d meet in a study room in Young Research Library (YRL) and read aloud our pages and offer feedback. Often we’d discuss our dilemmas and our discoveries, helping one another flesh out ideas and troubleshoot obstacles. Like gym buddies, we motivated one another to keep going, to push forward. At the end of those nine months of brainstorming and writing and rewriting and revising and editing, I had a novella. I received Highest Honors, as well as the Shirley Collier Fiction Prize for this novella–empowering accomplishments that I will never forget. These ninety-plus pages would not be what they are without the guidance and support of my colleagues, whom I now consider dear friends and inspring mentors.
* * *
At the end of the year, all of us at WSP gave one another an “award.” My boss, our Project Director, granted me an award that she called “JoAnna–with a capital ‘A.‘”
“I want to recognize JoAnna for being JoAnna,” she said. For the past couple of years, she’d watched me gradually embrace and love myself. I’d finally taken ownership of who I am and who I strive to be, allowing no one but me to define who I am. While I’d already sensed this change in myself, this recognition made me that much prouder of my growth.
All of the graduation ceremonies have come to a close. I am back in my family home, in the room where I’d spent much of my adolescence, surrounded by posters that I’d tacked onto the walls ten years ago.
I don’t have my future figured out just yet.
But here are some things that I do know:
I can now say, with confidence, that I am a leader; I am a writer; and I am still a passionate dreamer. I belong to many communities that uplift me. Yet, I also know that the most consistent and significant source of love in my life is myself. I just needed the support of my communities to help me realize that.
This (self) love will carry me through fear, failure, success–and yes, even through uncertainty.