In my four years at Vassar, I learned things I never expected to learn. I learned that you can use dishwasher soap just like hand soap. I learned that Main has the highest concentration of toilet paper rolls within a two mile radius of campus. I learned to make a decent-but-not-fantastic stir-fry in less than five minutes at the Deece. I learned that the people like you more if you have a bike. But on a serious note, at Vassar, I have also learned other things. I learned about belonging and identity. I learned about love. Growing up in a single-mother immigrant household, I knew that life does not come easy. Whatever I wanted, I would have to fight for it and I learned how to fend for myself constantly. I also faced the reality of living in between Chinese and American cultures: my mother urged me to watch Communist war movies but I stayed in my room and worked through an assignment, taking notes on the last chapters of The Great Gatsby instead. Coming out, I found myself facing the many cultural and social walls of Chinese culture as my mother asked me to leave our home because I was gay. So I channeled this frustration to my work ethic and pushed academically. I learned to make more friends. I looked elsewhere for sources of strength and self-worth.
At Vassar, I became intensely aware of the worlds which were not my own. I met people
who, as I slowly discovered, had very different priorities than mine. I grew up constantly and inescapably concerned with money (I remember my mother hunched over Costco coupons every Saturday morning) while many of my friends didn’t worry about costs as much as I did. I said “Yes” to everything because I wanted new experiences. Sometimes, I felt alone, dejected and alienated. I didn’t have the confidence to be doing the work that my mother had worked so hard to pay for me to come here and do. And in these moments of loneliness, I found people who comforted me and supported me, who gave me the confidence to keep going—and these are the people I cherish and admire and who I hope to have in my life after Vassar. So I channeled my energies into my academic work, social networks and extracurricular activities—I wanted to belong to something. At Vassar, I pursued experiences that enabled me to build language, leadership and social awareness as the president of French Club, a student government representative, editor-in-chief of the college’s literary and arts magazine (Vassar Student Review). I was also co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of the social justice-oriented publication known as Boilerplate Magazine, a forum to facilitate conversations about identity that Vassar needed. I turned initial feelings of self-hate into self-pride. At Vassar, I also found comfort in literature. Because I was pre-med (and still am), I had intended to major in Neuroscience or Biochemistry. But after taking a class on African-American literature with Prof. Eve Dunbar, I said to myself: “This is what I have to study. There’s no going back.” Ever since, I have been amazed with the honesty and truth that I have discovered in the books that I’ve read for my many English classes. Vassar has also allowed me, with its open
curriculum, to have the academic flexibility to pursue my interest in both literature and medicine, as I was able to pull off an English major while taking my pre-medical coursework. I have found professors who endorsed my independent study in Narrative Medicine, a field that incorporates both the humanities and medicine, which I intend to pursue while in medical school. In these four years, I have found that the Vassar faculty are an indispensable and sometimes magical resource. I have found not only professors but life-mentors and friends who have taken the time to get to know me during office hours, talk about my post-Vassar plans over a casual mid-afternoon drink and to dig deep with me on my senior thesis.
Vassar was also the place where I started to write about my personal experiences with my struggle to belong and to identify. During my sophomore year, I took my first creative writing course and for the first assignment, our professor asked us to write a “short scene.” I spent many nights in front of the laptop screen, typing and deleting, crafting metaphors, changing my tone and constructing dialogue between my father and me in the five-story restaurant in Beijing. When I got the story back, my professor wrote, “Fantastic writing, great ending.” Af
ter acknowledging the places I needed more work, I have pursued writing as a way to piece together the fragments of my life history and like patchwork, to synthesize—or at least, attempt to—my own coherent narrative. By writing stories, I began to see the beauty of what fiction can do, the ways that language can provide bridges instead of creating gaps. It felt like waking up from a deep sleep. I started to chart the walls I have internalized and unconsciously built for myself over the past thirteen years. Through writing, I also began to learn the financial and emotional sacrifices my mother and father have made and continue to make for me. In my writing, I learned to appreciate the complexity of human life, to delve into raw human emotional power, and try to grapple with the love and pain of families, friends and loved ones. Although there were many points during my Vassar career where I felt alone and rejected, Vassar has taught me, that in times of pain, I am cared for by friends, family and professors. Vassar has given me the tools to express my thoughts in prose. Vassar has shown me the lifelong value of literature. At Vassar, I have learned who I am accountable to and who to love. As I go ahead onto the next phase of my life, as I take the lessons I learned from Vassar with me to the world, I know that I will try to embody care and compassion in all that I do. I know that I will mess up and fail sometimes. I know that I will grow from these failures. I know that I will always try to love.
—Lanbo Yang is an English major. He has held many leadership positions on campus, including President of the French Club, a member of the Vassar Student Association, editor-in-chief of the Vassar Student Review and co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Boilerplate Magazine.