A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a Twitter thread describing the antics of Nadya Okamoto. Here is a summary. At the time of writing this Nadya is a rising senior at Harvard primarily known for founding the non-profit PERIOD when she was 16. PERIOD has over 800 campus chapters in the US and across the world and fights against the stigma of menstruation and period poverty. A quick google search of her name brings many articles listing the adversities she has experienced as well as her awards. I’ve read articles that mention her experiences with housing instability, homelessness, and women’s shelters, and how this inspired her to start her organization. As a result, Nadya is now incredibly decorated and celebrated by many organizations typically considered credible such as Forbes and Bloomberg. She has not only published a book but also co-founded a gen-z consulting organizationㅡall while being a student. Nadya is undoubtedly a passionate hard-worker.
This particular Twitter thread brought to light more context to Nadya’s experiences. The housing instability and homelessness mentioned was actually describing the period in which her family rented their home as income while they stayed with close friends. A lot of these articles, including her own website and foundation, emphasize the narrative of homelessness by mentioning different terms like legal homelessness and housing instability that are technically true but misleading. This is because most readers naturally attach these terms to the real and painful struggles of homelessness such as food, income, and healthcare insecurity01 and many, many more ㅡnot just the legal definition of the lack of a permanent house address.02 To be very clear, I do not want to diminish the adversities she and her family have encountered. At the same time, I think it's incredibly dishonest to hide behind a blanket term without or barely any clarification. Housing instability turns to legal homelessness turns to homelessness turns to disingenuous claims about the magnitude of her success. To clarify, by magnitude I mean the difference between where she started and where she is now. We all love a rags-to-riches story, and so do all the writers who penned articles titled ‘Homeless to Harvard’ or some variation of that.
The disingenuity doesn’t end here. A couple of weeks later I would read an article detailing how Nadya undermined and exploited other people’s organizations and their works to amplify her own. I implore you to read Ileri’s article titled “A Call for Accountability: Anti Blackness in The Menstrual Justice Space”, which carefully deconstructs PERIOD’s and Nadya’s manipulative tactics. After more digging, I learned that the person she co-founded the gen-z consulting firm with was the same person who gained some notoriety for writing #BlackLivesMatter 100 times on his Stanford application and being admitted. A few months ago, it was revealed that he applied to Stanford to appease his parent; his BLM essay response was essentially a careless stunt with no expectation of admittance as he didn’t want his parent to force him to go to Stanford over Yale. He has a host of other blatantly insincere moments, but that’s another story. The point is that her partner in this start-up is just as disingenuous.
Personally, I think the epitome of her deceit lies in her campaign for a seat on the Cambridge City Council as a freshman at Harvard. Nadya spent less than a year living in Cambridge, and the time she did spend in Cambridge was living in the dorms of the richest university in the world. Her campaign’s top priorities included housing affordability and sustainable living, citing her personal experience with housing instability. But, of course, the actual concerns of Cambridge residents and livelihoods are secondary to receiving titles such as “youngest Asian American to run for public office” and “Forbes 30 Under 30 in law and policy”. When a friend first told me about this, my initial response was “I wish my head was big enough to do this”. It didn’t take long to realize the irresponsibility of this decision, but I digress. I honestly couldn’t imagine having the audacity to even consider seriously running. I want to talk about that. I want to talk about opportunities, privileges, and confidence. This is a long introduction, but the picture needs to be painted in detail to fully appreciate its gore.
One of my deepest insecurities is the idea that I will never catch up, which manifests itself in different ways. I feel like I missed a critical period in my life where I could have nurtured talent. If I was introduced to different resources and information at a young age, I would have grown up to be a math or art prodigy because my brain would still be malleable and I would have more time to hone my skills. But if I take an interest in chemistry at age 17, then I will never be good. Specifically, I will never be the best or one of the best because distinction is a clear standard and goal to strive for. And if I’m not going to accomplish anything or be accomplished, then why even do it? Leave it for the people who know what they are doing. I will never catch up to talent that works hard no matter how much I try.
(I’m aware there are many things wrong with this thinking that I myself can point out and rebut, but play along)
The infamous College Confidential reaffirmed a lot of these beliefs in high school. If you have not heard of College Confidential, good for you. College Confidential is an online forum where parents and students discuss college admissions, testing, financial aid, and other topics. I think I fell into this demon-hole the summer before my junior year. College Confidential is known for its ‘Chance Me’ threads, where people list their ‘stats’ (numbers about them such as their SAT/ACT scores as well as a list of their activities) and invite users to rate their chances of getting into certain universities which were usually selective universities. There are also threads on acceptances and rejections, where students once again post their stats and whether they have been accepted at a certain school or not.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I started caring deeply about getting into a selective college. I have no recollection thinking about college before moving to America,03 </span>I would say most 13-year-olds aren't thinking about college but I feel like my peers would say otherwise but my mom tells me she always thought about it. She says she knew she would have to send my siblings and me to college abroad because my parents didn’t believe there were good colleges in Ethiopia. So, they started applying to different visa programs and saving money. Eventually, my mom would get a job offer in America that would move the whole family. It was clear from the start that the primary reason for our move was the pursuit of better educational opportunities. So, I’ve always felt a responsibility to succeed academically to pay back my parents for all the sacrifices they made to move to America. Additionally, being the ‘smart kid’ was my identity for all of grade school both in Ethiopia and America. Admittance to a top college seemed like the culmination of a successful academic career, the fruit my hard work had to bear. Again, the distinction of getting into a selective university is a clear and validating standard. And the ‘smart’04 </span>people who cared a lot about academics than the average student American crowd I hung out with seemed to really care about top colleges, and I’m sure the peer-pressure of sorts fueled a growing obsession with colleges.
So, when I first found College Confidential, I was elated! Of course I immediately signed up for a place that was supposedly going to unveil the mystery that is college admissions. But instead, I saw students applying patterns to determine people’s fates. If you had won an international science fair, Olympiad medal, or another similar distinction, you were a shoo-in. If you had started a charity or a non-profit organization, you had a high chance. If you had attended prestigious summer camps like RSI, you should expect likely letters from colleges. I read profiles of students who had been playing the piano for twelve years while founding a club and playing a sport.
And then there was me. The most I might have done was creating my school’s art club, but I had to change high schools the next year so that didn’t matter. What hurt the most was that I knew I was capable, I just didn’t even know of the opportunities, and it was too late by the time I found out. I remember finding out about the President’s Volunteer Award around the time I was applying to colleges and being so angry because that was something I qualified for twice over but I just didn’t know about it. Around the same time, I discovered the online writing scene for high school students and again was incredibly frustrated because I’ve always loved writing and this was another opportunity I could have potentially excelled in. You can’t shoot for the stars if you can’t even see them.
Most of the things I learned about were through seeing what other friends were doing and talking about. I did activities and clubs that interested me, volunteered for causes that I liked, and kept up my grades. But when I saw those threads filled with national and international awards, I thought I could never get into a top college. I still continued to put effort into school because at that point academic success was my metric of self-worth and I owed it to my parents. But I had lost a lot of hope, especially because I felt like I had no excuse. If other people could do it, then so can I.
I looked up how to conduct research at universities. I emailed some professors, and I don’t remember anyone responding. Even if they did, the closest college was at least 30 minutes away without traffic, which was highly unlikely, and my parents already had to commute upwards of 90 minutes to and from their office. They couldn’t drive me after class, and I didn’t have a car nor could I even drive. Yet there was a girl who went to my high school and lived in my neighborhood who had placed in the Intel Science Fair. I looked up how to win olympiad medals. I spent a good portion of my very first paycheck from my internship the summer after junior year on a chemistry textbook to study for the chemistry olympiad. But between my almost two-hour commute to and from my summer internship as well as another online summer program, I barely found the time to even sleep. The textbook hides in my closet now as a reminder of my laziness.
I thought getting into prestigious universities would be the end of my comparisons. Earlier this summer I was updating my LinkedIn profile, so I was looking at other people’s profiles to see different ways to format mine. Predictably, that created perfect conditions for comparisons. But now I’m a little more aware of people’s environments. I’ve seen how students who come from rigorous high schools breathe through GIRs05 General Institute Requirements: classes everyone is required to take. because they had seen the material before. I’ve seen students whose high schools had special programs to encourage research. I’ve heard of students easily accessing labs because their parents or relatives were professors. Sometimes, it just takes having proactive parents or seeing someone achieve the goals you want. My sister told me about a time in high school where she was arguing with her counselor to take an AP class early (they denied her request), but a parent came in to argue a similar thing and they allowed it. The student didn’t even seem that interested, but the parent was fighting on their behalf. This is not to take away from the hard work that everyone puts in to get where they are now. In fact, I think I’m extremely privileged. I have supportive parents. I live in a suburban house where I don’t have to worry about shelter or food. I essentially won life’s lottery when my mom moved us to America. Even the way we moved was a privilege; we weren’t fleeing a war-torn country or escaping poverty. I didn’t face a language barrier. The list goes on. But context matters, and that’s something I still struggle to account for when I’m comparing myself.
Context is the reason why Nadya’s situation really struck me. The story behind Nadya makes it seem like if a homeless person, who doesn’t even have the most basic of resources, can found a non-profit, then anyone can. But the reality is that if your mother was a Harvard-Columbia educated lawyer working in social impact, you might have an easier time figuring out the inner-workings of starting a non-profit. I’m sure at some point she had good intentions, and her work truly is impactful. At the same time, it’s just so sickening to me to realize that a lot of these major accomplishments that are typically considered the key to the golden gates of selective universities are oftentimes most accessible to people who are privileged. That’s not a groundbreaking epiphany. I just wish people were more honest about that.
The reason comparisons hurt now is because knowledge compounds. A lot of opportunities to invest in yourself and grow in your craft happen when you’re young. Take college for instance. If you take two students interested in math, one who had taken advanced courses in high school and one who didn’t, then it’s clear that the former will be ahead. This gap will generally widen as the advanced students gain earlier access to internships, research opportunities, and grad classes. Last year, a friend confessed to me that they didn’t feel welcome in the physics department because the courses are geared towards students who already had exposure to the content. So even the structure at an institutional level can be geared towards advanced students. I don’t think advanced students are at fault; if I were a parent and had the resources, of course I would want nothing but the best for my child. This is just the reality of things. But the advancement of another shouldn’t (ideally) detract from your own. I used to be so sad about never catching up to the point of not even wanting to try. Now, I’ve given myself permission to acknowledge the sadness of the situation while also striving to be the best that I can be.
There’s so much more left to say like how my kids will benefit from my education and what different ideas of success would like. But I want to end this section with this. During my senior year of high school, I got close to a sophomore in my Spanish class. One day she told me she applied to a writing contest at our local library. I didn’t know she was interested in writing, and I had just found out about how you could publish poems and submit to contests held by online literary journals. I told her about it, and when I got home, I dumped all my bookmarked links in a google doc and shared it with her. A few months ago she called me, and told me that all those links connected her to a lot of opportunities. She even applied and went to a really prestigious writing program for one summer. She’s going to Stanford now. I think about how the twenty minutes I took out of my day to share a doc with someone about something they might be interested in had such a profound impact. So, I really encourage everyone to share what they know to anyone that might show even the smallest potential or interest. It takes one spark to light the biggest fire.
Even after understanding the power of context, I struggle to accept my place at MIT. I already feel like I have to minimize the questions I ask professors or TAs so as to not appear stupid.06 </span>which is dumb. I'm trying to be better. Most of the time, I try my best to avoid telling people I go to MIT because the common assumptions of what an MIT student is like does not describe me. I’m hesitant to brand my experience as an MIT experience in my blogs because I just don’t think it is.
Recently, there has been some discourse going on within the MIT community after a student claimed that people who had earned gold medals in math olympiad were being rejected while people who struggled with GIRs were being accepted. This post made me feel so many things but more importantly, it was a reminder that my failure cannot be my own because I’m an unwilling representative of my race. And my failure and mistakes will solidify other people’s stereotypes and beliefs. On top of the pressure I put on myself to succeed, the pressure my parents and relatives put on me to be a good role model, and the pressure to make my parents’ sacrifice worthwhile, I have the added pressure of dismantling or at the very least trying to prove wrong preconceived notions about me. I can’t help but wonder if this person was or will be my LA or TA,07 Lab Assistant or Teacher Assistant and it scares me. Asking for help is already hard, but now I also have to think about how my lack of knowledge will affect this person’s idea of black people and how that will affect the next black person they interact with.
I know people might say that it doesn’t matter what people think of you. While that’s true to a certain extent, it’s also true that usually a lot of what is needed to succeed is based on what other people think of you. What people think of you can determine whether you get a job offer or an award. On a deeper level, people’s opinions can either break down the wall of a mental barrier or add a brick to it. If someone sees threads on threads diminishing accomplishments while putting other inequitable accomplishments on a pedestal, it’s honestly reasonable for one to not even try to pursue different opportunities. And if they do try, they have to drown out voices of doubt.
I’ve struggled to place value on thoughts and feelings because they don’t seem objective and aren’t concrete. Moreover, I feel like I have to be more cautious to avoid falling into a victim mindset because minorities are accused of that so much. Given all that, I want to acknowledge the time, space, and energy feelings and thoughts, especially of doubt, take up. Someone said that if I’m aware of these thoughts, then I have power over them. So, why can’t I just get over it? I don’t know. What I do know is the fact that I need to find the strength within me to push out and counter the doubts and downgrading opinions while many others do not have to. Instead, they are emboldened to disregard the liabilities of their actions and be audacious enough to run for city council in a city they don’t even live in.
The first time I saw Nadya’s name was in an anonymous post on a Facebook page for Harvard students. The student was saying that people like Nadya made them feel like a failure because they were the same age and attended the same university but weren’t as successful. I really related to this post because there are so many people at MIT that are amazing in ways I can’t even begin to count. It’s so easy to fall into the laps of comparison, and that’s where I spent most of my freshman year, which was a miserable experience. I still feel terrible sometimes but I’ve realized that being surrounded by incredible people presents a wonderful opportunity for growth. People are super passionate, and I’m lucky to even be in this space. I’m not that accomplished by any means, but I’m here. And if you’re a prospective applicant, you can be here too even if many people say otherwise. Finally, to reiterate:
- No one does it alone, and many of them have a lot more help than you think they do.
- And if you do have help, you still have to put in the work.
- If you get to the place/goal you’ve always wanted to be/achieve, don’t look down on people who haven’t. Share resources and return the help you received.
- I’m not going to tell you what to base your worth in, but try not to center it on grades or colleges.
- Life is not a race and there is room for everyone (I’m still trying to internalize this).
- Context matters. Your thoughts and feelings matter.
- and many, many more back to text ↑
- To be very clear, I do not want to diminish the adversities she and her family have encountered. At the same time, I think it's incredibly dishonest to hide behind a blanket term without or barely any clarification. back to text ↑
- I would say most 13-year-olds aren't thinking about college but I feel like my peers would say otherwise back to text ↑
- people who cared a lot about academics than the average student back to text ↑
- General Institute Requirements: classes everyone is required to take. back to text ↑
- which is dumb. I'm trying to be better. back to text ↑
- Lab Assistant or Teacher Assistant back to text ↑