Winter Quarter 2017 Reflection

It feels like just yesterday I stepped foot on UCLA for the first time, awestruck by the beauty and warmth of the campus– a place which I am proud to call my second home. I am now two-thirds of my way through freshman year, and I’ve grown tremendously during these past seven months of college. Especially this past winter quarter.

Finals went well. I fought hard, tried my very best, and all I can do now is hope for good results. Straight A’s would be very nice, but I’m mentally preparing myself as best I can, should I fall short of the goal. Will I be disappointed? Of course. I’m only human, aren’t I? But, all I can say is, I have no regrets whatsoever, as I gave this quarter my all until the very end, even sacrificing my mental sanity in the fight to perform well academically (not something anyone should be doing, by the way). The first five weeks of the quarter was an overwhelming juggling act between school and dance, with a new Latin dance partnership and commitment to two different on-campus dance groups taking up a significant chunk of time. There were nights when I’d get back to the dorms around 10 pm after several hours of dance practice, wanting nothing more than to sleep, but pulling an all-nighter instead to get in the necessary studying. Coffee and Red Bull, both of which I had never drank prior to this quarter, became staples of my diet. I knew I was struggling when I took my first set of midterms around Week 5. While I didn’t perform terribly, I knew I could have done better, had I devoted more time to my studies. The latter half of the quarter, then, was a game of catch-up. I slowed down with dancing, ending my new dance partnership and leaving the Latin dance team. Ideally, I’d be able to do both school and dance and perform well in both. Coming in to college, I thought I could do it. It wouldn’t be easy, but my whole life has been a constant juggle between school and competitive gymnastics or dancing. Why would college be any different? So I gave it a shot, only to realize that the realities of UCLA’s quarter system and its academic rigor simply wouldn’t allow me to dance as much as I wanted to. Moreover, college is not like high school. It’s a whole other beast. Not only is the competition tougher and the stakes higher– you are also living on your own for the first time and learning what it means to be an independent adult. You are faced with new responsibilities you’ve never had to worry about while under your parents’ roof. Simply put, college is hard. Thus, I was overly ambitious to think that I could take on academics, competitive dancing and the transition to college life, and perform well in everything. During week 5 of this past quarter, I realized that I was sinking. My mental health was shot. I wasn’t sleeping nearly enough as I needed to. Every day was a battle against fatigue and mental breakdown. So I did what I had to do– reevaluate my priorities by cutting back on dancing and focusing more on school. Did I necessarily want to dance less? Did I want to end my dance partnership? Did I want to leave the Latin dance team? No, no and no. But I did as I must. This is called compromising to the limits of reality, and it’s a lesson I am slowly learning. I’m beginning to recognize that, in life, you can’t do everything at once, no matter how great your work ethic or drive, or how crazy you may be. Gymnastics conditioned me to believe that I could do absolutely ANYTHING I set my mind to. That I was a superhuman. I now see that such a mindset is a reflection of youthful, naive innocence… the inner dreamer. College has shed some of that innocence. I still expect a lot from myself, and I still hunger to make my mark in the world. But I now realize that, to achieve success, one must set oneself up for success. Prioritize. Don’t spread yourself too thin, to the point where you aren’t sleeping or taking care of your mental and physical health. Don’t hold yourself to completely unrealistic expectations, for you will simply set yourself up for disappointment. It is a great thing to strive to be your best… but a key ingredient to success is to KNOW YOUR LIMITS. As I realized this quarter, it simply wasn’t feasible for me to dance several hours each day and earn straight A’s. I know that, with time and experience, I will learn to manage my time better and study more efficiently and effectively. In the future, I will be able to understand a difficult chemistry concept in three hours instead of six. I will develop better study techniques and find out what daily routine works best for me. College is a time of trial and error, and that’s the real beauty of it. No one expects you to be perfect as you make the gradual transition to adulthood. Here in college, mistakes are forgiven more easily. Complete opposite of my gymnastics days, when all that was ever expected of you was perfection. But more on the suffocating nature of perfectionism later. 

Regarding my chemistry class, Chem 14B was more difficult content-wise compared to Chem 14A, which I took fall quarter. We covered topics like thermodynamics, electrochemistry, kinetics and organic chemistry. Eventually, all the concepts ended up making sense in my head, but only after many an hour of highlighting and outlining the textbook, going to TA office hours and peer review sessions, watching Khan Academy videos, collaborating with classmates and drilling myself with practice problems. Organic chemistry was a totally new realm of study, so I was a bit intimidated going into this unit. In the end, it didn’t turn out as scary as I thought it would be.

As I’m taking four GE classes spring quarter, I am very much looking forward to taking a hiatus from chemistry and math. There’s a chance I may never have to take a STEM class again, should I decide to switch to a non-life science major! However, I really liked my math professor this past quarter (reminds me of Mr. Skrable, a great high school math teacher), and I’m thinking of taking his multivariable calculus class sometime in the future. We scratched the surface of linear algebra this quarter in my LS 30B math class, and I found the subject pretty intriguing, so I may take a more in-depth linear algebra class in the future. 

My spring quarter classes:

  • Philosophy 7: Introduction to Philosophy of Mind (GE)
  • Theater 10: Introduction to Theater (GE)
  • GE Cluster Seminar: Sex and Rock’n Roles: HIV over Life Course (GE)
  • Theater 20: Acting Fundamentals (random theater class… thinking about minoring in theater)
  • Fiat Lux Seminar: “Shall We Dance? How Brain Controls Movement in Health and Disease” (1-unit class… literally my two worlds, dance and medicine, coming together as one!)
  • Fiat Lux Seminar: “Why We Disagree, and Can’t Agree to Disagree, on Trump Presidency” (1-unit class)

I have stretched myself quite thin for next quarter, with 22 total units, but all of these classes genuinely interest me. I’m especially excited for Theater 20, as I’ve always wanted to learn how to act. Such an art will brighten my stage presence on the dance floor and aid me in channelling the different characters of each dance. Acting is also super out of my comfort zone and directly combats the shy and self-conscious part of me that has cast a shadow over my life for so long. 

I’ve said this before, and I will say it again– there is beauty in leaving your comfort zone, even if you are afraid. This quarter, I’ve had many out-of-comfort experiences. I’ve adopted a YES mindset– that is, grabbing opportunities that present themselves, even if it means venturing into the unfamiliar. As a person with anxiety– social anxiety, in particular– I sometimes feel uncomfortable with being vulnerable to the judgment and scrutiny of people. However, I distinctly remember making a promise to my 16-year-old self, when first diagnosed with this anxiety disorder: I will not allow my anxiety to hinder me from being the best version of myself I can possibly be. The follow is a list of some of the times I’ve pushed myself this quarter to do something scary:

  1.  I took on the role of dance instructor in UCLA’s new Dancesport club, which is rapidly expanding in size. Having never formally taught dance to others, let alone in front of a large group of people, I had my insecurities. What if people didn’t like my style of teaching? In all my teaching experiences, be it academic tutoring or coaching gymnastics, I’ve always reared more towards the stricter side, as discipline in training is the way I was brought up, and I want nothing more than to see my students succeed. However, I couldn’t expect everyone to welcome this strict style of instruction. And what if I was unable to effectively convey the necessary information? With only two years of Latin dance training under my belt, was I really qualified to teach? The familiar voice of doubt and fear was there, but I chose to silence it and, instead, focus on the PURPOSE of what I was doing– sharing my passion for Latin dance with others. When I turned the spotlight away from me, and more towards the bigger picture of how my teaching would positively impact the lives of fellow Bruins, I felt emboldened. 
  2. Questioning medicine. My whole life up until this past quarter, I envisioned myself becoming a physician. I came to UCLA as a “crazy pre-med student”, as one of my high school friends described me. As a senior in high school, I bought an MCAT book and began studying it. I practiced sutures on fetal pigs and styrofoam skin. In choosing UCLA over UC Berkeley, I thought I had cemented my decision to become a doctor over a professional dancer. Little did I know that, coming in to college, I would question BOTH career paths. Now, I don’t know if either dance or medicine is my calling. When I first experienced this uncertainty, I felt overwhelmed, to say the least. I was so scared. I find solace in planning out every step of my life. Knowing exactly what lies ahead of me… I spent many sleepless nights agonizing over what would come of me. What career path would I pursue, if not medicine or dance? What is my calling now? Then, something changed towards the end of the quarter. I began to lean into the uncertainty… to embrace it as a defining feature of college, of youth. I don’t need to know my entire life story by the age of eighteen. I began to realize that life is more than just setting goals and achieving them. Life is not just about the destination. It is the JOURNEY along the way that gives life its meaning and begets inner satisfaction. I know I’ve repeated such words many times before… but in all honesty, I’ve never truly believed what I preached until this past quarter, when thrown into a state of uncertainty and discomfort. 
  3. As my life is currently at an unstable equilibrium of exploration, self-discovery and enlightened uncertainty, I find that talking to more experienced individuals and hearing their opinions on what entails a “successful” life will help me in developing a personal definition of success. I made it a goal of mine this quarter to find as many mentors as I could in individuals who stumbled into my life. This meant going out of my way to network with professors, TA’s, doctors, dance instructors, UCLA alumni and other UCLA students, no matter how intimidated I may have felt in speaking to strangers. There was the kind neurosurgeon I accosted on Bruin Walk; the oncologist guest speaker; my professors and TA for my human aging class; caregivers at the service learning agency I volunteered at; random Uber drivers; 4th-year pre-med students; medical students; dance instructors; UCLA Athletics coaches; fellow floormmates. Through the many conversations I shared with such a diverse group of individuals, I’ve internalized multiple perspectives, mulled em’ over in my head and taken what I found useful. On Friday, during lunchtime, I spotted esteemed UCLA gymnastics head coach Valorie Kondos-Field in one of the dining halls and, despite being nervous (I’m a huge fan-girl of UCLA gymnastics), I approached her and introduced myself. Miss Val is the sweetest person ever. I expressed to her my admiration of her team and told her of my rhythmic gymnastics background, to which she replied, “You look like a rhythmic gymnast– you’re beautiful!” Funnily enough, Miss Val was never a gymnast– she was a ballerina. Knowing this, I yearned to get a sense of her motivations behind her decision to become a dancer. Her story: she was blessed to have a father who was also an artist. Upon graduating high school, Valorie’s father told her that, while academics was indeed very important, she could only dance while she was young. So if she really loved ballet, then by all means, she should chase her dream. Valorie herself told me that her body was not made for ballet. She didn’t have long legs, she wasn’t flexible and didn’t have natural turn-out. Yet, she decided on dance because she loved it. Her soul danced. To her, there was no decision to make. Her resounding message that moved me greatly: You don’t have to be the best at what you do to still have a meaningful career. If you love something enough, simply having the opportunity to live your passion is enough. Thus, should I decide on dance as my career path, I need not be the next Latin dance world champion to have reached career “success”. For you are the sole perpetrator of your own success. You define what it means to have lived a successful life. 

So there you have it– three challenging things I’ve done this past winter quarter. In leaving the comfort of certainty and anonymity, I’ve grown. A minor digression– I watched Beauty and the Beast after completing my last final exam, and I couldn’t help but admire what a brave soul Belle is. She jumps at adventure, doesn’t flinch in the face of danger, sacrifices her personal freedom to save her father and couldn’t care less about the judgmental opinions of those in her “provincial town”. Watching her on the screen, I wondered why I couldn’t be more like Belle. Fearless. But now, looking back at the person I used to be– unwilling to take risks, afraid of uncertainty, living for others’ approval, socially inhibited and withdrawn– and comparing that person to the woman I am now, I do believe I am brave, for I’ve overcome much to get to where I am today.

If there is one thing I wish I could have changed this past quarter, it would be to have taken better care of my mental and physical health. When you’re in a competitive environment like university, it’s easy to get sucked into a tunnel-visioned mode and put academics before your personal well-being. Surrounded by gunner pre-med students, I got carried away in the fight to earn those highly-coveted A’s. To beat the curve. To prove to myself that I was smart enough and diligent enough to thrive in college. It became an obsession, really. I adopted a very, very unhealthy mindset of equating my achievements to my self-worth. If I didn’t get straight A’s, I would, by default, be deemed a “failure”. These past couple days, I’ve had the time to look more deeply into why I am this way. Why, when uprooted and placed in a competitive environment where people are brighter than me, more talented than me, harder-working than me, I go crazy. By crazy, I mean obsessed with achieving. Obsessed with winning. It is, at the core, a need for external validation. Why else do I get depressed during times of rest, where there’s no end goal to strive for? Winter break is a case in point. So is the second semester of my senior year of high school. When the competition dies down… when the fight is over… when all that’s left to do is bask in the fruits of your hard work… I have nothing to live for. Because I put everything– my identity, my worth, my purpose– in the pursuit of achieving. So I set goal after goal for myself, never allowing myself to rest.

Why am I this way?

Well, I believe that, behind this “straight-A student, passionate dancer, socially confident” mask I put up… I am deeply insecure. This is my confession to all. I don’t know if I love myself. I’ve never been satisfied with the way I am. I want to be better. Academically. Socially. Physically. And the hunger for self-betterment is a good thing, but only when the motives are pure. If you are doing so for yourself, and only yourself. I think, because I struggle to find value within, I look outwardly for approval from others. I need other people to tell me I am worthy, before I can feel worthy. A lot of it stems from gymnastics. When, all practice long, you’re screamed at by your coach for everything you are doing wrong, isn’t it understandable for little ten-year-old you– wan in the face, breathing heavily, on the brink of tears from exhaustion and frustration– to hear is a few words of praise? Something. Anything. Just so you know you aren’t a piece of trash. Perfection is intertwined into the very core of competitive gymnastics, and athletics in general. Perfectly executed routines are rewarded with perfect 10’s. Validation from a number. Validation from judges. From coaches. From spectators. As a competitive athlete, you are conditioned to strive for perfection, and nothing less.

I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered from the unhealthy perfectionism gymnastics instilled in me. Gymnastics is not the sole perpetrators of my obsession with perfection, however. A lot of it is my personality, as well as the family dynamic I was raised in. Growing up as one of a set of triplets, my brothers and I were naturally competitive with one another, as we yearned to be distinguished as individuals through our achievements and talents. Adding up all those factors, I now understand where my perfectionism and obsession to achieve stems from.

Last year, when I received notice of my acceptance to UCLA as a Regents Scholar, I was dumbfounded. My first thought was… how? Do I even deserve this? I worked hard and did well in high school, but was I really worthy of earning such a title? I became a victim of what’s known as the “imposter’s syndrome”. Never thinking myself worthy of my achievement, I set out to prove to myself that I was, indeed, as capable as the admissions’ officers thought I was. I set out to be perfect. I worked as hard as I could to do well academically. These past two quarters, I felt that I needed to live up to my Regents title, lest my mask be unveiled. What if people looked at me and thought, how is she in Regents? With my fragile self-esteem, I didn’t think I could take it.

I’m glad I’m getting to the root of my perfectionism. After all, the first step towards healing is to find out where the problem lies. I’m being vulnerable with you guys because I hope my story will resonate with other high-achieving individuals who, despite their many accomplishments, feel immense pressure to be better. To those who’s definition of success is but a moving target, I want to tell you that, you are enough. No matter what you achieve or don’t achieve… you are worthy. I will keep telling myself those words each morning. I am worthy.

Spring quarter, I will prioritize my health before grades. I will find a therapist in LA and make weekly visits. I will try my best to curb the unhealthy thoughts that inevitably give rise to unhealthy behavior. I will study hard, but not fall apart if I fall short of personal expectations. I will adopt yoga and meditation as key features of my daily routine. I will do more things that make me happy– dance, writing, introspection, spending time with friends. I will stop preaching words I don’t believe, and start practicing what I preach.

I know this blog post was a lot. If you’ve made it to the very end… I thank you, wholeheartedly. Words don’t do justice to how much gratitude I feel to those who read my blog.

I’m emotionally drained after writing this, but I feel as if a large weight in my chest has been lifted. Writing is so cathartic, and I strongly encourage everyone to write for themselves.

It’s about 11:54 p.m. now. I’ll conclude this post here, dance a little bit in my living room, then go to bed. Have a great night, everyone!

 

 

 

With love,

Belicia

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