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Freshman Reflections: The Honu in CS

15 mins read

I didn’t feel like a Swarthmore student until I stepped foot in Sci 256. It was my first class in two years. COVID had snowballed into a complete disruption of my life, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually sat down at a desk that wasn’t my own with a computer that wasn’t my laptop. We all dealt with pandemic-related repercussions. For me, staying back home in Hawaii for a gap year before attending college across the country made the most sense. 

——

I remember receiving my decision from the Swarthmore College admissions office. It was mid-March 2020, in between senior year zoom classes. I was sitting at a makeshift desk in my bedroom. The email notification scared me more than actually opening the admissions portal. 

I do this thing when I’m nervous, or excited, or both, where I pick my lip. I remember doing that all the way down the stairs, carrying my computer to the kitchen where my father and step-mum were making lunch for all of us. (It had become an unspoken rule that we all took our lunch breaks from online school/work together at 12:15 p.m.)

My parents are separated, and COVID gave me a chance to spend an equal amount of time with both of them and their partners. We had grown so close with all the time I was spending at home. In that way, I’m strangely grateful for the stay-at-home environment and all the uncertainties. The pandemic has taken so much from all of us, but it also gave me a chance to get to know my parents in a different way: as an adult and an almost-equal — “almost” because I was still fully dependent on them and living under their roof.

Once I sat at the kitchen table, they could tell from my nervous movements that something was happening. We’d spent enough time together that they had begun noticing things about me that they had never known before, and the same was true for me with them. It’s funny because I don’t remember my application portal password or what we were eating that day, but I can still vividly see the smiles on their faces. I can still hear my father’s “YES!” and can still feel just how tight that hug was. They were so proud. And as our tears mixed together on my shirt, I let myself feel proud too. It was a dream come true.

But the happiness was short-lived. We were living during a pandemic lockdown, after all, and Swarthmore was thousands of miles away, practically on the other side of the country. After our meal was over, I was back at my desk, logged into a zoom class, nervously picking my lip and rolling around the idea of going to college under the current circumstances of COVID. Would it make sense to pack my life up and move from Hawaii to Pennsylvania for school in four months? Would things be okay by then? I didn’t know what to do.

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My parents knew Swarthmore was my dream school, but there was an obvious shift in support when we talked about finances. Of course, it’s a sensitive topic to discuss, but I’ve never felt as helpless as I did during those conversations. They’ve been separated since I was a baby, and that’s always complicated personal matters like these. I remember our countless arguments through financial aid appeals and decisions and feeling like my choices were unnecessarily overcomplicating their lives.

My father spent hours talking to faculty from different institutions about cost and financial aid. His efforts and support proved vital in my final college decision. We compiled a list of expenses for each school so I could visualize the financial differences in a spreadsheet. 

I will always be grateful for the way my mom supported me. We dealt with the school’s financial aid decision and looked for scholarships together, and it was clear to me that she wanted Swarthmore to happen just as much as I did, if not more. Regardless of money and cost, she fought and is still fighting for my dream, and I’m so thankful. 

My parents always do their best to help me make my goals a reality, and in many ways, I will never be able to repay them for the endless support. I admit that there are days when I wake up feeling guilty or worrying that my education is just a burden, and I have to remind myself every second that she doesn’t see it that way. Since the start of college application season, I knew I wanted to be at Swarthmore, I’ve worked to contribute, and I study hard to make it all worth it.

——

The decision to defer my admission culminated in a ten-slide presentation to convince my parents and my aunty, one of my greatest advocates, that Swarthmore was my “perfect fit” and that things would be less “unknown” after a gap year. At the time, I wasn’t even sure of my own choice to defer admission for a year, but I knew I needed to propose a well-thought-out plan in order to secure their support. Though a pandemic is a valid excuse for a gap year, internally it still felt like I was making excuses and delaying my dreams over something I could get over and learn to live with. I was hard on myself because I thought I was being selfish for taking time off from school.

To be honest, it was a call with Dean of Admissions Jim Bock that really cemented my decision to take a gap year. He had left me a voicemail regarding the approaching decision date and offered to have a conversation with me to talk about where I was with everything. I can picture the way my mom and I stood in our living room, talking to him about how I didn’t know what to do and whether to enroll, defer, or move on. He even offered his own childrens’ experiences as an example for how I might make things work, and the answer became clear to me. A deferment would give me time to ride out the pandemic and better prepare myself for college life. So after enrollment, I emailed a request to Dean Bock explaining my reasons for a gap year before attending Swarthmore.

It had taken a few weeks to come to terms with the tension between my dream and reality. I already felt guilty about the financial burden I would be putting on my parents by enrolling at Swarthmore, and then I thought about what it would look like to travel across the country, just to sit alone in a dorm room for online classes everyday. I didn’t know if it would be worth it. 

It didn’t help either that Swarthmore College had zero information regarding housing and in-person versus online classes for the 2020-2021 school year. There were too many unknowns, and if I deferred, at least I had some control over what I’d be doing. A gap year would not only give me a chance to prove that I was capable of hard work, but it would also allow me to contribute what I could to my own living expenses once I was actually in school. It honestly seemed like the best option, though not my first choice.

——

Work was necessary, so I sent out job applications throughout the summer before the should-have-been-freshman-fall of 2020. It was a long year of food service, proctoring, retail, and internships, but I enjoyed every second of my glimpse into the workforce. I started saving, and I started feeling a little bit more okay about the whole dollar sign next to college.

Among the many hats I wore during that gap year, the role of a Teacher’s Aide at my alma mater was probably the most fulfilling one for me. I helped the students work through online school and hybrid classroom environments with a teacher online or zooming into the classroom television. Watching the seniors lose a year of traditions and milestones to the pandemic, I realized I was lucky to have had at least half of a senior year prior to the entire world’s collapse. But still, after everything, missing out on graduation, losing myself in an online community, and quarantining for nearly a year, it was hard not to disappear into a shell of my own making on some days. 

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Growing up, I held this fascination for honu, or “turtles” in Hawaiian. They are mostly solitary creatures, save for during mating season, which makes them difficult to study. Their eggs are laid in nests along beaches all over the world, and when they hatch, the baby turtles crawl up through the sand and slowly make their way to the ocean, each sibling forging their own path toward the same sea. Some days, I imagine that grown honu hide in their shells (which aren’t so much shells as actual bone structures that grow from their rib cage and spine, a part of them); they ‘turtle’ into themselves. Sometimes you can find one sunbathing on the sand. They are lonely but comfortable that way.

During my gap year, I felt like a turtle on most days. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing experience, but it was really difficult to adjust at first. Everyone I knew had made their way into the ocean and across the sea, but I was still wandering along the beach. I didn’t have classmates to bond with over homework anymore. I had finished my final high school projects and AP examinations, and I could no longer attend the club meetings and events that used to rush me out of the house. I had stopped doing everything I’d done to get into college, and thus I turtled. 

I remember losing touch with my high school friends because we had nothing to talk about anymore. I remember taking free online college courses only to slowly lose interest and drop out. I remember trying to rediscover my passion for reading only to realize that all my favorite books were those required in high school. I remember driving first to education podcasts on the way home from work before eventually moving away from philosophical topics and toward comedic talk shows. I remember forgetting what academia felt like, like I was moving towards a less education-focused experience, even though school was all I’d ever known.

——

Now that I’m actually here, I can feel myself reconnecting with learning. It’s been a roller coaster, but there’s something so familiar, so normal, about sitting at a desk in a classroom full of other students who are just as passionate about learning as I am. It really wasn’t until that moment when my foot crossed the threshold between limbo and freshman, stepping into the classroom, Sci 256, that I felt like a student again. That moment reminded me of so much. 

I’m still picking my lip. Sometimes I turtle. I’m nervous. I’m excited. But I’m learning.

“Welcome to CS21.”

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