At my college graduation, the Center for Asian Studies organized a small reception and ceremony for all graduating students and their families.
All graduating Asian Studies majors including myself also had a chance to present our senior projects or thesis.
Despite jittering with nerves, I somehow managed to give a pretty passionate speech about the value of study abroad. Spending a bit of time overseas inspired me to create my first company (which was the topic of my senior thesis) and it opened up my eyes to the world.
But I must have surprised and accidentally shamed many of the parents because some of the things they said about me came back to me a few days later.
“Is she even an undergrad? There’s no way that she’s an undergrad. She clearly has a lot more experience than any other student.”
“She’s probably used to getting whatever she wants and having people gush over her achievements.”
“She obviously has an advantage in Asian Studies, being Asian and all.”
What many of these parents saw was just the veneer of success. Up until the time that they described me like this, I never really saw myself as being that. Ambitious yes, but not necessarily impressive as they made me out to be.
That’s because I knew all too well what it took to get here. Not only with all my achievements as a student but paying for my own education and getting to graduation was a feat on its own.
I wrote about this in length in another blog post, but it’s true. You would think that an impressive winner of over 30 scholarships would have just blazed through high school.
But not me. I barely graduated high school on time.
And it wasn’t my fault. Certain life circumstances derailed my high school education and left me 3.5 years behind most of my peers. So it took an immense, herculean effort to catch up and graduate with my class.
While most seniors were ecstatic about being done with high school, I was fighting through real blood, sweat, and tears to get to my high school graduation.
Even though I am pretty much a self-professed scholarship master now, it definitely didn’t start off that way. Right out of high school, I applied to over 100 scholarships to try to find a way to finance my college education.
I was so desperate for the support that I pulled out all stops. I submitted some applications online, emailed a good number of them, mailed out the ones I really coveted, and even personally hand-delivered applications.
I really thought that all these little collective efforts would help increase my chances of winning a single scholarship.
But to no avail. I didn’t win a single one of them and most of the time, I wasn’t even notified of it. I just waited and waited and waited until it became obvious that I was rejected. It wasn’t until I started my freshman year of college did I win my very first scholarship.
Despite all the achievements and accolades, I picked up, I rarely ever felt like I was good enough in college. And even now, there are still moments where I don’t feel worthy.
Instead of thinking of myself in all the successes I’ve had like winning $200K in scholarships, graduating from college debt-free, or being able to lessen the financial burden of my parents, I often magnify my own failures.
I get stuck on thinking about all the scholarships that I didn’t win, the programs that I desperately wanted to be a part of but only managed to become a finalist, or the universities that I wanted to attend but never applied to because I was too scared of rejection.
These are the underlying experiences that the parents at my Asian Studies graduation weren’t able to see. But these are the real experiences that helped define me and ultimately contributed to my success.
The real success, I believe, is not in the ultimate results but leaning into the struggle, fears, and insecurities that helped set me apart. And I hope will continue to do so in the future.