Reflecting upon my yearlong leave of absence, the common, overarching theme of rediscovery emerges from my experience away from Yale. I have determined what a healthy relationship to campus life looks like, developed a more wholesome connection to myself, and reinvigorated long-forgotten passions. Interacting with people who had never heard about Yale or had merely known it as a far-away “good school” provided me with the opportunity to begin defining myself outside the boundaries of my academic major, extracurricular involvements, and social affiliations. There is very little within me that living abroad in Korea has not touched, but I think these three gifts are ones that are especially important to carry with me as I prepare to return to Yale this fall.
By disentangling myself from my identity as a Yalie, I was able me to think of myself as an individual who is simply going to and growing at Yale. In other words, the romanticized “bright college years” narrative associated with being a Yalie encouraged me to derive a sizable amount of my self-worth from my presence on campus. It is easy to believe that Yale is a guarantor of future success, an omnipotent safety net for its students, particularly in the way that it lends a great deal of privilege most other universities do not. Yet, Yale itself cannot provide the tools to find success and happiness. As I navigated the tensions between simply satisfying the demands of student life and the prospects of the world beyond graduation as a sophomore, I felt directionless, even though I experienced success in my classes and in my extracurriculars. Attending Yale implicitly generates an expectation of entry into the elite, occluding perspective: it is difficult to remember most people in our world have entirely different priorities, and do not care which club one belongs to.
I realize now I did not leave room to develop myself independently from campus engagements. I had allowed Yale’s purported greatness to blind me to the reason I came to college: to receive an education that would serve me, not vice versa. College, when properly understood by the student, effectuates personal growth, fosters relationships new and old, and promotes learning of skills and topics of interest. I faced internal conflict when I became too attached to the idea of the place where all this occurred, and neglected to really consider what it would mean to have a life beyond campus. Activities at Yale are impermanent—they are isolated to this campus and the people living on it. I imagine this realization challenges many imminently graduating students or freshly minted graduates, as they balance the separation from immediately accessible friend groups and interests sustained while having a job in, most likely, a new city. Having a year off to grapple with and set up a stable foundation for continuity between what I choose to pursue at Yale and in the future has allowed me to work through many of these considerations. As I return to campus, I feel I am in a position to move more confidently in the direction I want to take going forward.
In going abroad, I also did not expect to gain greater insight into something that I live with every day, and thus took for granted: my body. Throughout my academic career, I felt bombarded with the need to focus on the life of the mind, if I were to do well in my classes. I kept pushing my mind until my body forced it to yield. In hindsight, I should have understood that my lifestyle was unsustainable, but I spent so much time surrounded by and dedicated to abstract thought that my senses dulled to the needs of my body. Korea served as the perfect venue to disengage from the constant academic pressure to appear a polished intellectual, and instead, to reconnect with myself through food, something I have been passionate about for as long as I can remember.
It’s widely known that Korean food is delicious, but because of the inaccessibility of Korean ingredients, most Americans aren’t exposed to the full diversity of dishes and flavor. But, immersing myself in authentic Korean culture exposed me to access things I couldn’t have in the US and encouraged me to reexamine what food meant to me. Reawakened to an appreciation of the physical and emotional experience of eating, I regained my sense of taste, relishing food as something that could convey something new in every bite. I picked apart flavors in the dishes I was eating in a way I had not done since I was a nine year old, when I was determined I would eventually become a chef. In turn, I began to listen to my body: heavy meals were soporific, healthy meals and good sleep restored energy that I had not possessed since my early high school years. Food and daily pleasures, such as drinking tea, became ways to slow down, to reclaim a sense of alignment with the body I had neglected, and ultimately, to break out of an entrenched mindset of subordinating and sacrificing everything that was not serve immediate utility to doing well at Yale. Without having a definition of self and sense of location beyond the nexus of the college grind, “self-care” is, in my opinion, meaningless as a concept.
If I were asked to define self-care now, I would say it is a function of the lifestyle we dedicate sustained effort towards. Happiness is not a fundamental, static base state we should rely on past achievements to provide, but rather is something dynamic, attainable in the context and environment of one’s life at any given moment. Happiness requires work, or self-care, first to ascertain the relevant inputs, followed by implementation to receive the output of happiness. When I return to campus this fall, I certainly do not expect to pursue everything in exactly the same way as I had in Korea, but merely to incorporate moments of doing things on my own terms and to proactively assess where I am. I am excited to embrace intentional spontaneity by deliberately choosing opportunities, but accepting and adapting to unexpected directions and outcomes. And with that, I look forward to reuniting with old friends and meeting the Class of 2023 this fall!
By Lauren Lee.