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Lighting a Fire

At age twelve, I had little interest in learning about the world of engineering and even less interest in summer school. All I wanted was to do okay in middle school and play video games in my free time. Consequently, I was furious when my mother told me in the second half of my seventh grade year that she planned on placing me into the Prefreshman Engineering Program (PREP) for eight weeks during the summer. I already worked at the family restaurant my parents owned on weekends from nine in the morning to eleven at night. When summer started, I’d be spending six hours a day in PREP from Monday to Thursday, and then have to work at the restaurant on Friday and Saturday all day, leaving only Sunday for my enjoyment. Therefore, I adamantly believed my mother was asking the unthinkable, that she wanted to deprive me of my childhood. Feeling that she could not understand my struggle, I argued with her over the issue one day at the restaurant.

I wanted to fit in, like the average American kid who spent summers traveling. My Americanized perception of life clashed with my mother’s traditional Chinese values about the importance of schooling. We lived in America, not China, so to me, Chinese ideas didn’t apply; I ridiculed her stories of being the top student in her high school class. She hadn’t done well enough on the Chinese National College Entrance Exam to qualify for entry into a university education, so I saw no reason why she should force her old aspirations of higher education on me. “It’s not fair, no one else I know does this!”

I ceased fire when I saw my mother nearly in tears. I backed off my rant and came to my senses. I apologized but still made it absolutely clear I did not want to attend PREP.

Fast forward a month and summer was about to start in a few weeks. I again attempted to convince my mother to not put me in PREP, although this time around I tried a gentler approach. Fortunately for me, my mother had better grasp of my personality than I did. She made me a deal: if I agreed to attend PREP, she would give me $500 in cash on the spot. My resolve to not attend PREP was evidently much weaker than I thought because my greed trampled it underfoot and I acquiesced. I hid the $500 in the pocket of an old coat in my closet and thought nothing more of PREP detracting from my summer or the labor my parents had done to earn that money, only how I would spend it after PREP was over.

When the time came to go to the University of Texas at San Antonio for PREP’s first day, I swallowed any reluctance I had. After introductions and aptitude tests for all students, I placed into the highest ranking group, Thor. The rest of the day was spent getting to know instructors and our Program Assistant Martin, a college student supervising our group. Several weeks passed quickly and I realized the program wasn’t so bad; in fact, I began to enjoy it. The teachers were thorough and offered tutoring if anyone needed help on assignments. More importantly, I actually found the subjects quite interesting. In our engineering class, we would construct speakers out of paper plates and bits of metal or build a sturdy bridge out of toothpicks; in Logic, we would solve complex word problems by dissecting sentences one at a time until we could creatively implement a law or theorem that allowed us to reach the answer using the simple idea of “if p, then q”. There seemed to be no limit to what could be thought up or created, if I would only try.

By the time PREP was over, I had realized two things: that the summer had been hugely enjoyable and that my mother had always pushed me to excel, even though I contented myself with mediocrity. Dwelling on my anger at constantly being pushed to do more than I wanted, I had refused to acknowledge the truth. My mother stressed excellence and education so much because she saw more opportunities for me here in America than she and my father ever had access to growing up in villages on the rice fields of Taishan, Guangdong. Realizing the language and culture barriers my parents had struggled with in raising me up to that point, the day after PREP I gave her back all $500 and an apology for my previous bratty behavior. A fire in my mind had been lit in pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and that, to me, had more value than any amount of money.



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