The summers I knew were gone. Instead of flip flops, I wore sensible pumps. Instead of immersing my toes in the cool waters of the Atlantic Ocean, I dipped my feet into adulthood.
When junior year ended, I didn’t feel that same tingly sensation of freedom and excitement. Instead I felt nervous. Ahead of me was a leadership conference, an elective summer-long math course, and an internship at South Bronx Health Clinic. All would be incredibly rich experiences moving me another step closer to my goals of combating economic inequity and a public health career. With a lump in my throat, I leapt forward, feeling eager yet anxious about how I might fit into new worlds.
My summer officially began with a train ride to Washington, D.C. Nominated by my dean, I was selected to be an AnnPower Fellow and attend the Vital Voices Leadership Forum where accomplished female leaders mentor 50 young women. My application included a plan to develop a high school course on economic inequity for privileged youth. Over the past two years I have become increasingly sensitive to inequity in my environment. Traveling around New York City, I’d gone from seeing extreme privilege to seeing people scraping by within minutes. Following Hurricane Sandy, I carried non-perishables to families stranded in public housing while replaying in my head television images of people with resources sheltering in luxury hotels. Seeing people struggle while others wined and dined made me angry. Why should different income levels afford different solutions in times of disaster?
At the Leadership Forum I talked to women from all over the world: a congresswoman from Argentina, a presidential candidate for Cameroon, and a graffiti artist who uses art to prevent domestic violence in Brazil. I encountered the go-getter lifestyle by workshopping elevator pitches, developing platforms, and networking.
The encouragement of mentors and other fellows was life-changing. I cried every day because I had never felt such empowerment. I came home with stars in my eyes looking at my passion to tackle economic inequity and health disparities. I began my internship the following week.
I made the 90-minute trek from Brooklyn to the South Bronx Health Clinic in one of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. I sat for hours at a lacquered wooden desk. My job was to approach strangers and cheerily ask them to sign up for trips to the farmers’ market, Zumba classes and nutrition workshops. Some said yes and never came. Others were forthcoming, politely saying, “Oh, well, it says you can’t bring kids — necesito a llevar mi niño,” or “I have to work.” To that I smiled, though it probably looked more like a grimace, and said, “That’s a shame.”
After weeks of incessantly pitching programs, participation was low. I told my supervisor that potential clients were forced to choose work over activities and urged her to change the activity times. She refused. I had to accept that I couldn’t change her agenda because this was her job and I was just an intern. However, it didn’t defeat me or the fervor I had gained from AnnPower. I still loved speaking to patients about programs every day.
Previous summers now blur together like dream sequences. I move freely from tightrope-walking on a college campus in between classes to manning a four-woman canoe in camp regatta, and eating Chipotle until my stomach hurt. Last summer, I didn’t frolic like I had in the past. I did not indulge myself in the ephemeral bliss of unadulterated liberty that only a child knows as vacation months. Rather, much like diving from a cliff, I plunged into the realm of career-building and risk-taking, and I grew. I put myself out there, spoke my mind, and pushed myself forward.
By summer’s end, despite their drabness, my sensible pumps had become more comfortable. So comfortable that I haven’t rushed to put my flip flops back on.
Kennedy Austin, a 2015 Graduate of the Berkeley Carroll School, will be a freshman at Wellesley College in the fall.