You went to high school in Baltimore. Looking back at that, and your decision to come to Swat, what are you thinking?
I’ve done a lot of thinking about what’s led me to different places. As I look through tropes of my life (which is a weird thing to be saying), I find that one of the big things that drives me to new places is a drive to experience things completely outside of my comfort zone. I went to elementary school in this very insular Jewish day school setting — where all the kids were white, Jewish, in the same tax bracket — and got really comfortable there. Then it was time to leave, and I wanted to be uncomfortable again, so I went to a school in the middle of the city, where I was very much a racial and economic and social minority. I did that because I wanted to challenge myself to grow. And I did.
It’s hard to relate to a lot of Swarthmore students… I’m really thankful for some Swatties who had the same schooling background, but what I learned from the whole process is that while education was always a given for me and my family, the price of education was pretty high for my fellow students (in terms of having to take multiple buses to get to school every day or working in unstable home environments). It was really inspiring and told me not to take anything for granted. It’s weird to come to Swarthmore — where so much is given to you in terms of knowledge and circumstantial comfort.
When you came to Swat, was this somewhere you thought would really challenge you? Maybe not in the same way as other places, but to the same degree?
I was ready for my challenge to be intensely academic. [Laughs]
Is that what you found?
Yeah. To the extent where I developed maladaptive techniques to blur my sense of identity with my sense of productivity. I had these bad notions in my head that if I didn’t spend three hours — it became very economic — on this paper, then I was a bad person. Which I think is an easy trap to fall into at Swarthmore. It’s easy to tie in productivity with self-worth. I think a lot of Swatties are in the same place as I am, where we come from high schools where we weren’t challenged enough, and we look to Swarthmore as an academic crucible, but we don’t recognize how much of our self-worth is tied into our academic identity. It becomes really problematic really quickly. At the end of my sophomore year, I needed to pull that escape thing again. So I went abroad.
We could talk about that, but especially in this context of self-worth and productivity, what did you find? What did you see about yourself? Where do you find yourself now?
It has been really hard. Swarthmore’s a wonderful place. Swarthmore’s wonderful! But I think at the same time, we code into this place — you can see it in misery poker, a lot of the conversations that happen here — an idea that we’re all somehow inferior. We’re not getting high enough grades. We’re not doing enough for social justice. We’re not doing enough extracurriculars. This process happens, and I’m certainly guilty of this, where at the beginning of the summer, I’m like, “Okay, I’m not Learning enough (with a capital L) and I’m not Doing enough (with a capital D),” so I take the hardest classes I can find — the ones that will challenge me emotionally and intellectually — and then I would join all these extracurriculars, and then somewhere around midterms I’d realize that I was overworked, spread too thin, and overcommitted. The rest of the semester would be this process of coping and also trying to wiggle myself out of as many commitments as I could. That is so unbelievably emotionally taxing. And it could have stopped, if someone had just said to me that you have to be nice to yourself if you want to see the progress and change that you want. Swarthmore doesn’t necessarily tell you that.
That would be the main trap I’ve fallen into, practically every semester I’ve been here. It’s been a little devastating. It’s an uphill battle. It’s almost courageous to think positively.
Would you say you’ve found any answers or practices that you want to maintain? Of course, we’re seniors, we’re not going to be here much longer.
The best two things I did for myself:
One, I got out. My senior year, I elected to live in West Philadelphia, which is a 20-minute commute to campus. I did this for a lot of reasons. Mostly because I wanted to see how I could contextualize my academic pursuits in more productive ways. Being in the context of a city, or not being surrounded by people who are in this same culture, has been really valuable. Plus it allows me to do other things. I’ve been taking something of a lighter course load, and I do things like yoga, and exercise more, and experience more culture in Philly. Also, not having things provided for me, like learning to pay rent and utilities and cook my own food, has helped me put myself in context, to see that my self-worth can be found in being able to do a headstand in yoga, rather than having the most cogently worded and succinct paper I can. That’s helped.
Although I suppose it continues this trope of escape. I escaped Swarthmore — twice. Once to go to Mongolia, once to live in Philly. I think it’s that yearning to find new contexts by which I can take what I’ve learned here and apply it to the outside world.
When do you feel like you’re going to be somewhere you want to stay? Where you see the problems and say, “Well, these are my problems now.”
It’s probably one of my biggest challenges. I got a Fulbright, for an English teaching assistantship in Malaysia, where my parents incidentally live. When I got this grant, I was jumping for joy, so excited, not at the prospect of spending a year in a foreign country on someone else’s dime, but just meeting the kids. I’m an Education major, and I recently had the experience of being able to teach for five months. This is what I want to do with my life. I want to teach English as a second language, and also study the teaching of English as a second language.
I’m moving more into putting knowledge into service. I’d still be at that job at the school if it weren’t for having to finish my thesis and graduate.
Was that rough?
It was heartbreaking. I knew what I needed to do, but at the same time, what I needed to do involved leaving an amazing group of kids.
So that was rough. But the job was amazing. If being a good student is exercising a bicep, then being a good teacher is exercising a tricep. Here at Swat, we’re so used to doing the biceptual work, but not the teaching. So it was learning really quickly, through a lot of mistakes, through a lot of blank stares and students being like, “I don’t understand what’s going on.” And also working with little kids and understanding what’s going on there. So I was sad to leave, but the kids will do all right.
What are you excited about for next year? What are you really looking forward to?
I’m going to answer your question in a roundabout way. I’ve discovered that one of our remarkable capabilities as humans is that we can get used to just about anything. For better or for worse. I want to be placed in a small village, I want to be placed in a challenging-for-westerners kind of environment. I’m so excited to get used to rural Malaysian life. I’m excited to get used to that. I’m not sure how much hot water there will be, etc.
What are you going to do with your hair?
I don’t know yet…
Dreading that decision?
[Laughs] Yes, I am. Long hair is part of my identity.
It’s certainly going to be different from where my parents live, different from America. I’m excited about that. I’m sure if you talk to me in a year, I might not answer the same way…
Bald Zack will be screaming, “Noooo!”
[Laughs] Yeah, well, we’ll see.
If you could give advice to an incoming freshman, what would it be?
1) Stay grounded in the world around you, not just Swat. When you get multiple contexts for the knowledge you learn, that’s when you can start putting knowledge into practice. Be proficient in multiple contexts.
2) Be kind to yourself. If it costs you a plus or a minus on a grade, it’s worth it, because you’ll keep that strength and serenity for later.