Thursday, August 22, 2013

Reflections on Life (and Yale)

I’ve never been one to aim for convention, so I thought I’d start by heading straight to the arigatos (“thank you” in Japanese) to everyone who made my incredible ILC experience possible this summer.
Thank you to Don Gosney, administrator and tireless leader of putting together the Ivy League Connection each and every year.  Your ongoing efforts (and many emails) to make sure we’re prepared shows off your great care and insistence in creating a stronger college-focused atmosphere in the WCCUSD.
Thank you, Ms. Madeline Kronenburg and Mr. Charles Ramsey, for all of your work to put together the budgets to make this trip happen.  This experience could have never happened without you.
Thank you, donors of the Ivy League Connection, for deciding to invest in the leaders of tomorrow in a school district that many have written off.  Your belief in our potential is amazing and powerful.     
Thank you, Eric Wilson (E Weezy), Damian Wong (apparently my "twin" because we were both Asian and had similar Bay accents), and Liam Guevara (emphasis on the Gue-vaaaa-raaaa). You were an incredibly smart, funny, and charming cohort to spend three weeks with. Thanks for being great roommates while touring the East Coast and food mates. I had so much fun eating everywhere with y'all. Damian, thanks for backing me up on our Thinkin' Bout You cover. Liam, thanks for your awesome conversation and humorous insights. Eric, thanks for being the map guy - it's been a great twelve years and counting knowing you. 
Thank you, Ms. Tracey Singh-Poole, for being an incredibly warm, caring, friendly, understanding, and gracious chaperone. It’s been so much fun touring the East Coast with you and our cohort.     
Thank you, Ted Wittenstein, Emily Gustafson, Erin Schutte, Charlotte Pavia, Matthew Lyddon, Amanda Garrett, Aaron Weinstein, Cullinan Williams, Erica De Bruin, and the rest of the talented staff at Yale Young Global Scholars.  Your intellect and knowledge are unmatched, as well as your unique and sometimes unbelievable senses of humor (if only there was another week!).
Thank you, Mr. Chris Silva, for your assistance in helping me to grasp education reform and write one of the best pieces I’ve ever written.  Thank you, Mr. Michael Park and Mr. Patrick Jimenez, for your insight and encouragement toward my trip. Yale has only made me realize even more how lucky I am to have all of you and the rest of the terrific faculty at El Cerrito High School.
Thank you to my friends and family whose names would fill up this entire post. Your kindness and support on all my adventures never cease to amaze me.
Thanks, God.
And now, onto what you've all been waiting for. Let the reflections begin!

Nineteen days of travel. Our cohort received acceptance letters three hours before we were to appear before the school board to acknowledge our ILC candidacy for the first time.  We were not expected to perform well, the Yale staff having “passed over hundreds of more qualified applicants.”  The expectations were high. We were to be at our best and show Yale, heck, the world, what the WCCUSD “could really do.” There was this hectic balance between the stress of trying to live up to those anticipations and the calm peace that radiated from the support of friends and family.

What did we show for it? If it’s accolades that the reader believes shows competency, then the reader could believe that we had failed, with none of us receiving one of fifteen Director’s Awards handed out at graduation.  But how do you define success?  And, since our trip was acknowledged by the West Contra Costa Unified School District, what did we learn?

We were welcomed to Yale and promptly issued our keys and such.  As the lady (we’ll call her Cher) who helped me saw that I was from the Ivy League Connection, she remarked, “It’s important that I write down your personal information.  I’ll need to be able to call you when you’re late for class or lose something.” The sweet smile plastered on her face told me everything I needed to know: “Welcome to Yale.”

I walked inside Jonathan Edwards College for the first time, my eyes taking in my new home for the next two weeks. A lawn made up the middle of the courtyard, with a lazy rope swing tied to branches that swayed slowly in a slight breeze, as if to darkly chuckle on the rainy day it was. I swiped my prox card to find myself inside an incredibly stuffy common room that felt like a wave of humidity.  I groveled through the ten feet of air sweat to unlock my single room and unleash a new wave of warm oxygen tears.  I hate humidity.

The first day felt just as uncomfortable and unwieldy as my room.  The first lectures felt sluggish, and I wondered if I would get anything important out of the program.  The first two days or so were concepts that I had learned already from some of my teachers at El Cerrito High.  The first week was filled with introductions: there was my roommate Isaiah from south Florida, Collins from Kenya, the guy who lived in Dubai but was from India but before that…the lines began to blur. The funniest introduction was on day one, when I met someone named Julia from the South Bay. After I'd told her some things about ILC, she paused for a moment and then said, "I think you guys ate dinner with my dad." That took me a couple extra seconds to respond.  Several students there, once they found out I was from the Richmond area, asked me if I was “from the hood (for the record, no)."  As a member of the middle class who was met with reactions from the class extremes on this trip, from the poor rapper in New York who had told me to go f—k myself because my middle class self wouldn’t buy his mixtape, to the wealthy musician who talked condescendingly to me, how was I supposed to respond? Should we respect those who have not respected us?  This trip helped me see, in better focus, the large POV divide. Class conflict bears no punches. It was interesting to see the contrast between hearing poorer demographics of my school demean “rich kids” and see some stuffiness that those wealthy kids inflict on their idea of “the poor.”  I want to make it very clear that I’ve only met a couple of those people at my school and a handful at Yale, but the contrast was so strong and so intriguing. 

The Golden Rule, people.  And not the one that says, “If you have the gold, you have the rule.”  Google it.

I soon learned that everything there was to learn about grand strategy was taking place at every (very few) free time and meal.  The geopolitics of human relationships was happening, and I was failing.  Miserably.  I had a very difficult time balancing work and play on week one, feeling like I had something to prove to the others.  The director introduced himself to me twice, which definitely helped my self-esteem (it’s difficult to type sarcasm).  Every time someone answered a lecturer’s question with some intelligent answer or asked a really intriguing question, I felt just a little more insecure. 

I got about the same amount of sleep as I would’ve on a typical school night.  However, the course load (about 11 hours of class everyday) was so intense that it wasn’t enough.  Caffeine, as usual, had no effect on me, so it was my red eyes and wavering mind that had to try and smile and be funny when meeting people. 

Of course that didn’t happen.

"Oh, yeah."
Awkward Josh was a common theme throughout week one.  I joke to myself that no one ever met the real Josh – they only talked to half-asleep Josh or three-quarters-awake-me.  Lots of incredibly funny (now) moments happened throughout Awkward Week.  Ongoing hijinks happened with a Korean named Dennis and a Texan named Catherine.  They were both really friendly people who always said “Hey Josh!” when they saw me.  Now, normal me would’ve said “hey” back or something clever and hilarious (most of the time).  Half-awake me managed comments like, “Okay” and “Sure.”  Dennis threw me a “hey” one time as we exchanged glances through the dining room doors.  I responded back with, “Oh, yeah.”

Cricket. Cricket.

I must admit that I was extremely jealous when I met people who were extremely talented in multiple facets – but then they still managed to hang out with their friends all the time or had lots of free time on their hands.  As someone who’s somewhat of a perfectionist, this feat is very difficult, if not occasionally impossible, to pull off.  My mind was in shambles, both from the rigor of the course and the lack of much social stimulation, and I was tired.  I was broken.  After all the positive advice and feedback I’d picked up over the summer, I couldn't even make my way to a second or third conversation with most people.

I met a guy late on the last day before I left who bemoaned the fact that Yale was over.  “I met so many people, but never really got to know anyone.”

From left to right: Chancellor of the Exchequor, Foreign
Minister, Ambassador to the UN, Defense Minister
It wasn’t until the second weekend of the program, day eight, until the simulation began.  As the UK Chancellor of the Exchequor, I found myself working with Global Scholars’ roles, forced to balance business and casual.  Like a polo and slacks, it eventually started to feel more comfortable.  The simulation provided a central topic of discussion for everyone to contribute to, and it was one of the best Yale moments.  Together, we attempted to come up with an agreement at a biological and chemical warfare summit and completely failed, but had an immense amount of fun while we did it.

The night before, I had thought about everyone at Yale and wondered if I would miss them. I realized that at some other camps I had gone to, I hadn't really gotten to know anyone that well, but had managed to still miss them - as if they were like the school that got demolished nearby my house. I didn't like the change in scenery - and my feelings of sadness were almost artificial, as if people were just things. That fear that that could happen at Yale helped drive me forward toward building stronger relationships in week two.

The talent show provided me one of the first opportunities to see everyone having fun.  To be honest, this was one of the first summer experiences where the relationship between the staff and the students was so – serious.  Everyone was so academic and intellectual that things always seemed a bit prickly.  I’d seen little bright spots during meals and such, but that was all.  To see the staff and the students show off their talent and humor made everyone seem so much human and less superhumanly smart, which was a large relief to me.  My roommate and I would practice our imitations of the staff after seeing a skit that had student parodies of the staff and getting inspired.  We got pretty good, if I do so say so myself.  Be sure to ask me to do them for you!

Josh and Matt Lyndon, Leadership Ethics seminar leader.
Wales accent not available in this picture.
Throughout the summer, I’ve come to realize that my fatal flaw is my lack of confidence in myself.  I’ve disguised it with fake charisma and by isolating myself from the world and burying myself in projects and distractions.  I discovered this fact at Camp Royal and had trouble applying it at Boys’ State before coming to grips with it once again at Summit and at Relay for Life.  And there I was, studying Grand Strategy at Yale with some of the “smartest students from all over the world.”  I was cracking like a green pistachio and didn’t know how to come out of the shell.  It was my family and friends who came through.  Their cards, emails, and Facebook messages were encouragements that slowly helped me knock down that shell.  And as the program went on, I grew more confident.  I spoke up more often in seminars as I was more comfortable with the intimate setting, but I soon grew to ask a couple questions in lectures and such.  I presented a 21 page policy proposal with three other amazing people to members of the staff dubbed “the Murder Board” on getting the World Bank involved in SEZs being built in Myanmar.  Was I confident?  I was, until she walked in.

“She” was one of the heads of staff, who we’ll call “Ellie."  She was thought of as “Giggling Ellie” at the beginning of the program due to her voracious laugh and likable personality.  As the program went on, she had to play the role of disciplinarian for most of the Scholars, and the likability took major hits.  She was merciless at the Marshall Brief policy presentations, and it was my turn!  It was a rapid-fire attack toward the end, and we tried our best to combat the knives in our policy.  Thirty minutes later, when the last question had been asked, my heart stopped pounding.  I had tried all of the approaches to find calm that I had learned this summer, but none of them had worked.  I had to just…do.  And I did it.

At the next policy presentation after us, Ellie played the FBI director.  When someone mentioned something about the “U.S. not doing anything to combat domestic terrorism,” she replied, “I’m offended,” and left the room!  As she left, she turned to the back, where I was sitting, and winked at us. Now, I’m not 100% sure about this, but this narrative fits into the story I’m trying to tell perfectly.  Ellie is not a natural disciplinarian. For all of her reprimands, there were jokes in the mix as well.  I had the opportunity to have lunch with her and talk about career paths.  She laughed at one point and said, “I went down the path I went on because it was the hardest thing I had ever done and I had to learn how to do something well.  It was really just a perverse reason.”  That comment made me reflect on myself.  Are we meant to be the people we’re “supposed to be?”  Or are we supposed to fit in the roles that people need us to be? Grasping people’s humanity, all kinds of people, was a thread that played out throughout my summer.

Don stopped by my house the other day to pick up items I had borrowed from him.  He jokingly asked if I could top the testimonial given by a parent whose entire family’s life and lifestyle had changed because of the ILC.  Well, Don, no, I can’t.  I can’t honestly say that the Ivy League Connection was solely responsible for changing my life.  But the story, the narrative of the summer that weaved its way into my life changed it.  Yale took a big role in working to resolve the loose threads that hanged: from the “pause, breathe, smiles” at Camp Royal to the “corruption” I saw at Boys’ State to the social environments and speaking improvements made at Summit to the deep discussions I had at Relay for Life.  I truly believe in the interconnectivity of life, and that was never made clearer than this summer.  Every conversation and action played its part in the narrative of my life. 

I’m not sure if I proved the naysayers wrong. That’s not an issue anymore.  I didn't have confidence in myself and I took that drive and placed it into trying to please others.  I’m proud of myself for the accomplishments I made for myself at Yale as a scholar and as a person.

Who got to still meet people on the last day at 3 AM?
These guys.
I’m back home.  My once-eleven-hour-day has gone to a three-block, on average six hour day filled with electives.  The struggle I have now is to keep up that work ethic and build on the lessons and humor of the summer.  Throughout the second week, I was able to better balance myself and meet people.  Of course, I met a ton of people on the last night, and it was only a couple hours before we would all have to leave and return to our forty-five home countries.  It takes work to build relationships, but when that “work” includes karaoke, pool, and couch chillin’, how bad can it be? 

On returning, there’s so much work I want to do to create change in my community.  The challenge is making sure I don’t kill myself (which I successfully avoided at Yale).  I want to ask the question, “How can we determine what the brightest or the smartest means?” and question the assumption that environment is the only factor that will determine success.  I want to find the means of looking at racial and class conflict and bring them to an end.  I’m back in an environment where many students are dropping classes because they think they’ll be “too hard.”  That mindset of settling for less or the easy route needs to be addressed to turn our district into an even stronger college-going culture.

After returning to my high school, I’ve realized how stark the contrast is in intensity between my education now and last week.  Yale pushed and challenged me, and the intellectual rigor was extremely intense. My current schedule, as a whole, is not challenging me, thanks to scheduling boundaries, and I have to do activities on my own time that force me to push myself.  While public schools in California may be better funded than in the past couple years, the economic disparities in terms of geography are staggering and a factor that isn’t talked about nearly enough. 

These ideals mean nothing without being put into practice.  I’m working on a short film with a powerful message, learning more about video production, taking on Co-Vice President of our Interact club (community service), trying to bring the Acts of Random Kindness club to Northern California, and creating a White Student Union at our school to build controversy and make people forcibly question racial identity.  I’m going to be controversial. I want to be a kind, understanding Global Scholar who can empathize with everyone I see and work with others to build lasting change.  There’s a plethora of other things I’m involved in, and I’m going to have to say “no” to a lot more.  There’s this balance between getting enough done and leaving time for relationships.

I have so many thoughts.  I couldn’t find the right place in the narrative I wanted to tell for administrative politics, fascinating partisan debates, and intellectual discussion.  Is the narrative of your life the one that happens, or the one you decide?

I wonder if I have trouble communicating because there’s so much I have to say that I’m not sure when the time’s right and I falter.  The irony is that I’m planning to major in communication. What can I say - I'm human – or I'm just insane. I think we all yearn for some kind of connection.  We hide behind our screens and our fears and ourselves.  Relationships where people actually care is something to look past our guards and distractions at and move forward towards.

Soon, my senior friends will be leaving for college and going off to build new relationships.  And I’ll find myself in a new place, wondering what comes next.  I learned so much more from the people at Yale than I would’ve ever learned from just taking the lectures and seminars.  I learned that I won’t just wonder – I’ll get up and do.

Thanks so much for following me on my Yale adventures this summer! Send me feedback and get updates on future Josh writings by commenting below and emailing And for a more intimate look at my Yale experience, follow me on Instagram @joshthebosh to see a more visual Ivy League Connection. It's been a lot of fun being a part of the ILC and Yale class of 2013. Thanks for reading my thoughts and insights through it all. To stay in the loop on future Josh updates, pop out an email or check out my LinkedIn profile at And if you're really apt, I'm sure you can find me on one of them social networks. Bye for now, y'all.

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