BALAKRISHNA: Directing dreams

Annelisa Leinbach_opinion_1107 CUTOUT
Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Until three months ago, students at Malcolm X Shabaaz High School in Newark, N.J., never thought their dreams mattered.

For many of these students, survival trumped thoughts of the future; supporting their families trumped pursuing their ambitions. But at the start of the school year, in the halls of a struggling school in a struggling city, a new character arrived to change things. Divine Bradley — a community organizer from Brooklyn — stepped into the school as its Dream Director, one of 14 deployed to schools in Newark, N.Y., New Haven, and Washington, D.C., by an organization called The Future Project. It was his job to mobilize the students at Shabaaz to transform the school from the inside out, changing the culture and inspiring students to believe in themselves and their community.

On Saturday, Oct. 29, I spent the day at New York University with students from all 14 Future Project schools, brought together for the first ever “Dreamer’s Convention.” At DreamCon, students from each school had the chance to dream out loud and share their goals for the coming year.

I sat in on the presentation from Shabaaz. One by one, students got up to talk about their vision for a better school and a better Newark. Tired of being counted out, they pledged to show the world the power of their school and of their city — and they promised to support each other as they pursued their individual dreams. One girl dreamed of ending bullying in her school. One boy dreamed of playing professional basketball. Another simply dreamed of being legendary.

What I saw in the dreamers from Shabaaz — and in the students from the other 13 schools — was a dedication to chasing their dreams despite all odds. They said that if Divine had not asked them what their dreams were, they would have never thought to ask themselves. But as soon as he did, these dreamers became unstoppable.

Spending the day with these high school students got me thinking about the role of dreaming here at Yale. When I first arrived on campus my freshman year, I remember being overwhelmed with the passion and enthusiasm my peers showed for, well, everything. We were used to being asked what we cared about — whether on the Common App or in casual conversation. We joined a dozen clubs, we were premed, we did D.S., we jumped headfirst in our passions, ready to take on the world. But when I think back to my dreams from freshman year, they don’t really line up with the passions I’ve discovered during my time at Yale.

Just like many of my peers, I was terrified to be at Yale without clearly knowing my “thing” on campus. In the midst of a capella rush, improv tryouts and Dwight Hall info sessions, I feared not having a clear passion to define myself. Because I liked science in high school and because my older sisters wrote for their college papers, I quickly settled into a niche my freshman year: I was a premed who wrote for the News. For the first year of college, I spent my nights writing stories, doing problem sets and deeply doubting my “dream.” I was miserable, but I didn’t know what to do about it. After all, without these two identity pieces, who would I be at Yale?

In the fall of my sophomore year, I took the first step toward being my own Dream Director. How? I quit. First, I quit the News. A few months later, I quit being premed. At around the same time, I quit being straight, too (or pretending to be).

Even in my second year of college, I found that it was not too late to press the restart button and redirect the path to my dreams. Without the News, I had time to explore other activities; I joined the club Frisbee team, where learned how to be a team player and met my first girlfriend. Without chemistry lab, I actually read (and loved) my books for my American Studies classes. When Frisbee didn’t work out my junior year (I had back surgery and got dumped), I had time to devote to a new project: RevYale, a group I cofounded to help strengthen undergraduate organizations. For the first time in college, I found in RevYale a spark that lit me on fire — after quitting and restarting, I had found my real “thing” on campus.

When I first left the News and stopped being premed, my peers were shocked. They asked how I did it, or what I would do now, or how I would fill my new free time. We’ve been conditioned to have a clear idea of what we want and to stick with it. But for me, my Yale experience has been defined by taking a step back, considering my dreams and carefully chiseling out a place for myself.

As students at a place like Yale, we have both the privilege and responsibility to do justice to our dreams. Use college as a time to find your spark. Now is the time to hit the restart button — because if you do, you’ll enter the world ready to be legendary in your own right.

Anja li Balakrishna is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at anjali.balakrishna@yale.edu.

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