Great transformations are supposed to take a long time. Years. Decades. Sometimes even millennia. So how is it that I feel I’ve completely transformed in just a few months?
It started last spring, at the end of my sophomore year. I was accepted into the Yale Young Global Scholars (YYGS) program in biological and biomedical science. I was excited and honored that I got in, but I was stressed and nervous to travel so far from my family and friends and home. Maybe that’s how great transformations work. Before they happen, we’re excited and honored and stressed and nervous. Afterwards, everything feels like it happened just the way it was supposed to.
My family drove me up to Connecticut the day before the program. Our dog sat on my lap for the whole drive; I was probably going to miss him most of all. We checked in at the hotel, then walked to a Thai restaurant for dinner. I was quiet throughout the meal. Some of my silence was due to my eavesdropping on the stories the medical resident at the next table was sharing with his date. He was living my dream, and I silently considered what my life would be like when I was in his shoes. The rest of my silence, however, arose because the reality of being excited and honored and stressed and nervous was breathing down my neck.
Nobody really tells you how hard transformations are, do they?
After dinner, we walked around New Haven and looked at the Yale campus. There were high school students everywhere, laughing and hugging and saying good-bye and celebrating their accomplishments. They wore different colored YYGS badges that represented the various programs. There were faces and fashions and accents from all over the world, but every student shared a glow of joy. Every student, it seemed, was undergoing a transformation, just like me.
I went to sleep that night thinking that, just maybe, this would turn out okay. The next day, my mom and step-dad helped me register and unpack and get settled in my dorm room. I was torn because I wanted them to hurry up and leave but also to stay just a little bit longer.
Then they were gone, and then it began.
For two weeks, I spent my days immersed in medicine, studying questions and problems that I never even knew existed. Is it ethical to save the life of a terrorist who admits he will kill again? Do I have the tenacity to advocate for the social programs that can improve health outcomes for millions of Americans, or would the frustration of fighting against seemingly impenetrable barriers exhaust me? Can I support cloning a woolly mammoth, even though it might lead down a morally slippery slope of cloning our pets and loved ones? Am I willing to build awareness of a worthwhile cause by empathetically telling the story of a single victim, even if it means not telling the stories of thousands of others?
For two weeks, I experienced what I imagine it’s like to be a college student. I was pushed to think differently, and I had no choice but to stretch my limits and consider things in new ways. For two weeks, I spent my evenings working with a small group of fellow students to see if we could find and defend a new cause for childhood obesity. And for two weeks, I spent the hours before bed walking around town with my new friends, eating at cafés, sharing conversations, and learning who we all were.
For two weeks, I lived a great transformation without ever realizing it.
The end of the program came too soon, and the return to my normal life was bittersweet. I loved the independence of living in a dorm room filled with history and experience (I wondered if, just maybe, former Secretary of State John Kerry or FedEx founder Fred Smith slept in this room when they attended Yale’s Jonathan Edwards College), but I looked forward to being back in my old bedroom. I immediately missed my new friends – Tommy from New York, Victoria from Ontario, Julia from Florida, and Andrew and Nathan and everyone else – but I was excited to see my friends from home again. Most of all, as I re-entered my normal life, I sorely missed being pushed to think differently and stretch my limits.
Slowly, however, I began to realize that thinking differently and stretching my limits were now part of my normal life
My first awareness of that was when I had to teach a class on a project I had been researching for two years. I looked at the lecture I’d prepared before I went to Yale – the slides and speech that I was really proud of just a month earlier – and realized it wasn’t very good. Every night for two weeks, I’d sat with my “family” (what YYGS calls the small teams of students who work on projects together) and studied childhood obesity. Nick and Rahim, our leaders, not only taught us how to do more effective research, but they also taught us how to give interesting and informative presentations. Now I looked at my slides and groaned at what I imagined Nick and Rahim would say.
“Danny, why do you have complete sentences on your slides? You’re not seriously going to stand up in front of a bunch of doctors and read to them like they’re in preschool, are you?”
“Danny, don’t just be the expert; be the expert who tells great stories. Put a couple of words or a picture or a graph on the screen, and then tell your audience a story about what it means. Even better, tell them a story about what it means to them.”
The night before I taught my class, I reworked my slides. I simplified them and added more graphics, and most importantly, I found the courage to rely on stories, humor, and expertise rather than simply reading words off the screen. My presentation still wasn’t as great as I wanted it to be, but it was completely different than what I had planned before I attended YYGS. It was transformed, just like I was.
My next realization of how much I had changed was when I finished my driver’s education course and decided to take my test on a manual transmission vehicle. Yes, there was a risk I’d stall during the test and fail. I knew I could do it, though. I had worked hard to learn the skills I’d need. I spent Sunday mornings driving up the steepest hill in my neighborhood, I learned to stay calm when I stalled the car at a traffic light (even if the person behind me honked), and I practiced driving in every kind of weather. Whether because of luck, practice, or confidence, I passed the test on my first try, and I did it using a manual transmission. Overnight, I transformed from a kid who walks to a young man who drives a stick shift.
Transformations like this have happened over and over to me since I attended Yale’s summer program. I went from sharing my research locally to becoming the first high school presenter at a large medical conference in Orlando. I received an offer to spend the summer working in one of the most renowned emergency rooms in the world. After almost 10 years of being on a bowling team, I bowled my first 300 game. I started to talk to more people at school, and I even found some new friends among the faces I’d seen for years.
Maybe the most important transformation was realizing that I can – I will – be fine if I decide to go away for college. Yes, I love my family, and I’ll really miss my dog, but I learned that I can be independent. I can live on a college campus, and even when I’m overwhelmed by the amount of work or the exhaustion, I can handle it.
Great transformations are supposed to take a long time. Years. Decades. Sometimes even millennia. Somehow, though, this one happened in just a few months. Maybe this is normal, and this kind of transformation happens to every teenager. It seems like my time at Yale prepared me for big changes, though. I’m no longer passively sitting around waiting for life to happen to me. Instead, I’m actively seeking out life’s changes and greeting them with open arms. I couldn’t wish for a better transformation.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.