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Why are you here and nowhere else?

By Conner Chapman

image1I felt like I was in a Dr. Seuss book walking the hallways of Google’s Chicago office last summer. The sleek, white modern architecture contrasted the vibrantly-colored bean bag chairs, producing a creative and inviting environment.  I visited Google Chicago with the LEAD business program at the University of Illinois. My peers and I prepared presentations for a team competition to determine who could most effectively sell Google to an educational institution.

The LEAD Experience brought me “here.” It awakened my drive to enter the world of business. I guess you might say that I’ve always been a businessman, using my naturally expert negotiating skills in getting a ride home from friends or dividing three slices pizza left for two people. At LEAD, I met executives, managers, and entry-level employees in large companies; however, the experience also made me curious about small startup businesses. I hope to explore the multi-faceted roles of entrepreneurs by creating my own startup.

There was another place surging through my consciousness when I was at LEAD that helps to complete my sense of “here.”  It is where I learned how to fry chicken, cook collard greens, and set tables: the Bridge Street African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. The teachers were my grandmother’s friends at the curch. Since middle school, I have been part of a community of volunteers at the soup kitchen operated by Bridge Street. I cook, serve, wash dishes, and mop floors. Often, I am the youngest volunteer and the only teenager. In fact, most of the fellow workers are beyond 60. Sometimes we serve peers my age. When I was younger, we talked about toys. Now we discuss sports, Hip-Hop and video games. The elders love to bestow lessons on the lone teenager like: “We are all God’s Children.” Though I am not as religious as the elders, I politely nod as if I have never questioned the existence of God.

How could I create a national organization pooling the talents of people I met at Bridge Street with the goal of ending hunger in a way that could be profitable for an organization? I am “here” to pose that question in the process of pursuing my academic interests in finance and management. In other words, how do I combine the missions ingrained in two of the most meaningful experiences in my life–LEAD and the Bridge Street Soup Kitchen? I am here to discover solutions to world hunger on a much larger scale than I ever could at Bridge Street.

I hope to start a business that will possess its own unique blend of creativity, compassion and profits as I am “here” to build a future that combines my capitalist drive with a commitment to ending poverty.


Conner Chapman, a graduate of Long Island’s St Anthony’s High School, is a freshman at the University of Chicago.

Following the Crowd as an Individual

Following the Crowd as an Individual

by Matthew Gilbert

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A stampede gushes my way. Teenagers jump, leap and holler. They want to get closer to the stage, but a low fence is in their way. Security guards scramble to keep everyone from rushing over it, but it’s too late. Hundreds of charging fans overpower them. In a split second decision, I choose to run with the fans to avoid being trampled. I can’t think of a better place to spend my 17th birthday than the Mad Decent Block Party, a music festival.

I’ve always loved the animation and excitement that comes with large, loud crowds. My first memory experiencing this intensity is a New York Liberty basketball game with my father when I was eight. I couldn’t get enough of the electricity generated by the screaming fans. Years later, I would experience the same rush at a Red Bulls game as I cheered, waving my “Red Flag.”

It wasn’t until my junior year sociology class that I discovered Durkheim’s theory which explains that electric feeling: collective effervescence. It’s the feeling of euphoria and social bondage large groups of people experience when acting together. Cavemen felt it chanting songs and performing rituals around fires, and they named it “God.” The emotional experience of the devout at church is similar to my feelings at a concert. I realized something else in that class–my love of sociology and my desire to explore its many applicable concepts. I am not in love with just being in a crowd. My passion is analyzing crowd behavior when the sociologist in me goes to work.

Beyond crowded concerts, I look for the social forces influencing the actions of those around me.  The subway ride from Park Slope to school on the 3 train allows me to apply the concepts from class in a real world paradigm. Graffiti tags in the train tunnel compel me to question how the deindividuation of this “art” will increase crime rates. In the hallways, I notice the impact of socioeconomic status on education when comparing my public and private school friends’ SAT scores, highlighting the differences in their college preparedness. I see the irony after school, when my friends jokingly make fun of “raging feminists” for “exaggerating gender inequality,” but they don’t see the misogyny all around us as we walk through Brooklyn Museum’s featured exhibits filled exclusively with male artists. The sociological laws of group behavior affect so much of our lives that we fail to realize how little control we actually have.

However, I find freedom from social pressures by studying the forces that control behavior. Interpreting the motivation behind group behavior allows me to make decisions as an individual while remaining an active citizen of a community. True individuality can blossom when the restraints of social mores and folklores are lifted from the subconscious. As I scroll through music on iTunes, I know to not let the popularity of a song determine if I like it. Studying the “Bystander Effect” gave me the responsibility to overcome this powerful situational force and call the police when someone outside my friend’s house on Suffolk Street was attacked with a hammer. The laws of group behavior don’t hinder my individuality, but understanding them gives me the tools to fully develop myself.

I am aware of all this as I stand in front of the blazing lights, feeling the energy all around me. I have no idea who is performing, nor do I care. The only thing I can feel is the heart of the show, pulsing in time with the bass. It’s impossible to think about anything else when the music is this loud. Individual lines blur into a larger collective. As the show picks up speed, my friends flash me gleaming smiles. In this moment I know I won’t be satisfied as just a member of the crowd; I must also study its behavior.

Matthew Gilbert, a 2015 graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School, will be a freshman at Wesleyan in the Fall.

Winning Without a Label

Winning Without a Label

by Sydney Webber

11082549_10205536740953368_2880924316986633246_nI remember Fridays when I walked home from school with Eric, rushed to change clothes and headed across the street to his house to play.  At dusk,  I’d head home to shower and put on my black dress, stockings, and flats and return to Eric’s for Shabbat dinner.  I still remember the distinctive taste of Challah and tons of food that his grandmother cooked.   I never felt out of place as the only person in the room who didn’t understand the Hebrew prayers.  Then there were my Tuesdays, reserved for the playground with Uzuri and Hector, my friends from Nigeria and Colombia.  I always found time every week to hang with Sam, my Venezuelan best friend.

It all changed when I turned eight. My family left Maplewood, a town known for its diversity, for Morristown, where we were the only black family on the block.  On the surface, Morristown lacked diversity, especially considering my overwhelmingly white neighborhood that matched the makeup of the honors courses that I took in high school.  I spent years looking for a label to fit in besides “black girl.”  I would learn the irrelevance of labels in the spring of junior year when my name found it’s way to a ballot that read Bill, Phillip, Joe, and Sydney–the typical “hot guy”, the “jock,” the “class clown,” and me.  There was not a label for me, which, at first, made me think I must be crazy for running for class president.  The girls would vote for Mike, the basketball team for Drew, and Matt’s speech would make everyone laugh. Didn’t I need a label to win?

In Maplewood, there were not any two people who seemed alike so I never thought twice about being myself.  It wasn’t until I was placed in an environment where the white majority was dominant and seemed to be monolithic that I experienced a discomfort with myself.  I tried desperately to be like my friends.  I straightened my hair everyday to get rid of my natural afro I wore as a child.  I listened to the bands that my friends loved even though I hated the music. I wore Abercrombie, even though the clothes weren’t meant for my Beyonce-like curves.  I became secretly thankful for my light skin tone because it made me look closer to the majority than those with dark skin. Throughout middle school, I felt ashamed to be black because it differentiated me from everyone around me.

My family’s Kwanzaa celebration launched my journey to self acceptance.  When I was thirteen my mom invited our white neighbors to the celebration.  At first I was embarrassed to share this part of me with my friends.  I thought they might see me differently if they witnessed this hidden side of me. I feared it would accentuate the obvious differences I tried to escape.  At that moment I thought back to Maplewood and remembered its okay to be racially different. The girl who now believes Kwanzaa is for everyone became one who realizes the school is not just made up of labels.

I changed my definition of diversity beyond race and ethnicity. I saw that white people should not be defined by being white just as I should not be defined by a label of race. I also saw the superficial constructs of the labels my opponents wore and embraced.  I discovered I was not the underdog in the election and that lacking a label was my asset. I wanted to represent the majority of our grade that didn’t have a “title,” like those who do not like the lunchroom social world, those unafraid of being smart or being called a nerd, and those who value eclectic interests.  I had started to see my classmates and myself beyond superficial labels. Moreover I won the election because my classmates were able to see me beyond any labels while my opponents epitomized typical high school classifications.

Sydney Webber, a graduate of Morristown High School, is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.

 

Faith & Science: Stages For My Imagination

Faith & Science: Stages For My Imagination

By Laura Telfer

UntitledI take a deep breath, close my eyes, and unlock my imagination. I allow my mind and body to become one, harmonize with my surroundings, and enable myself to find that place where I am perfectly content. Exhale. As I recollect, I am drawn to a scene from a movie. I try to concentrate on that image, but various sounds overwhelm my senses. A patch of blue dominates my vision. Suddenly, I am submerged in water. My eyes sting, and my imagination consumes my body. Silence. When I open my eyes, my senses are enlightened by the ocean’s clarity. I lift my head and am greeted by two familiar faces, Marlin the Clownfish and Crush the Turtle.

All things Finding Nemo are scattered about my bedroom––posters, stuffed animals and even a night light. Their presence causes the best scenes to replay in my mind when I meditate. I let my imagination explore and relive the lessons Marlin learned through his journey. Marlin’s experiences renewed his enthusiasm; he became a passionate, lively, and risk-taking child again. I no longer see him, but myself, learning the value of a creative engagement with life.

Imagination is the infrastructure of reality. When I teach at my church, I use my imagination to craft puppet shows for the children to keep them engaged with the material. I put a screen between the door and place a puppet in my dominant hand. I usually play the role of Fireball the Dragon, who often gets himself stuck in sticky situations. With the help of Ponder the Blue Monster, Fireball and the children learn the importance of friendship and Christian values. It makes me happy when I see them laughing and listening attentively during the show. My imagination allows me to connect with the kids on a more personal level, which helps me expand their horizons.

My creativity has also helped me throughout my science career. Last summer, I was selected to work with NASA engineers on eight extensive web-based assignments, which included designing a lunar colony, a Crew Transport Vehicle, and a space shuttle. At the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, I helped wire a rover that had an external structure of Legos and cardboard. I suggested adding the radiation shield of aluminum foil. Team Curiosity and I programmed the robot to respond to the inputs of a control pad, and we entered a challenge that required our robot to pick up Moon rocks and water samples under timed conditions.

When the competition began, our rover refused to cooperate and went out of bounds many times. Even after reprogramming it and replacing its arm, Curious George still could not pick up the rocks and bring them back to home base. Our failure was disheartening, but I didn’t let this experience discourage me from pursuing a STEM career.

I turned toward science when my mom was diagnosed with Lupus. Her symptoms did not become obvious until I was in middle school, and she began having difficulty climbing the stairs by herself. A year later, she started chemotherapy. Watching my mom battle with this has been extremely difficult, and I intend to use my knowledge of Lupus to treat others that are struggling. I will use my creativity to design advanced medical machinery that will save lives and help patients cope with pain.

Some days I wish I could go back in time to the childhood days with the adventure and curiosity that my unbounded mind translated into an undying love for Finding Nemo.  While my movie preferences have changed, my imagination is still here and still constitutes the environments where I feel most content. I build robots, play with puppets, and find inventive ways to convey my visions. Science labs and church are just two among many stages where I perform, and my imagination is still the foundation of all my shows.

Laura, a graduate from Jackson Liberty High School, is currently a freshman at Cornell.

A Chinese-Jewish Christmas

by Saru Nanda

I am a Hindu who always wanted to trade in her religion during one month of the year: December. I could never resist my adoration of Christmas. As a child, I thought it was unfair that I could not have a Christmas just because of my primary religious beliefs. Though my family never celebrated the holiday, I secretly honored the season in my heart; loving the music, the trees and the glowing lights I saw throughout the city. But I was never able to outwardly celebrate the holiday until I acquired my second family in my junior year of high school.

Members of my second family are Jewish and Atheist. In fact, none of us are actually Christian. We all love the trappings of Christmas and decided nothing could stop us from celebrating the holiday. On Christmas Eve last year, we met at my friend’s apartment on the Upper West Side. We dressed in our finest and set the table with fancy plates, beautiful silverware, and the embroidered napkins. We spread Chinese take-out on the plates and ate fortune cookies for dessert. In a sense, we were celebrating our friendships and diversity more than the holiday itself.

For me, the Chinese-Jewish-Christmas was an affirmation of a newfound independence that inadvertently came into my life with my second family. Before then, I had grown socially dependent on my six-pack.I became friends with six girls from Southeast Asia, other “Brownies.” We were inseparable in my freshman year. I always dreamed of attending Stuyvesant High School but it seemed like a foreign place in my first days of Ninth Grade. Initially gravitating towards people of my “kind,” other Southeast Asians, other “Brownies,” made the adjustment easier.

During the summer apart, I discovered more of my self beyond the group through my notebook. I started writing. My notebook started off as a diary almost, but it quickly became more. I filled it with everything I could: quotes I liked, scans of passages from books I loved, doodles and drawings, my own writing, lists of what my mother needed from the grocery store; anything. I let everything pour onto those unlined, recycled pages. These pages gave me a new view of what I wanted my life to become. So when I returned to school in the fall, it wasn’t a surprise when I pursued my interests more aggressively.

In the beginning of my sophomore year, I wanted to join so many clubs.  As I branched out into activities that my six-pack blatantly rejected, I made new friends and ultimately found my diverse second family. I joined the school newspaper, read my prose at Open Mic, and danced in a school performance. Though those experiences, I met the new friends who became my second family. When rehearsals ran late, I ate with them and took the train home with them. After the shows, the bond between us continued. We live in different parts of New York City but we make it easy to hang out by choosing a location that’s an even commute for all of us. To this day, they’re my best friends; they’re my second family. We may not agree on everything, but that’s why our friendship is so strong: we respect each others’ views and opinions.

I don’t avoid friendships with people who are racially like myself, but I have learned to see the limitations when I confine myself to a friendship based on skin color. Through my second family, I learned I can adopt elements of any culture I choose to embrace on my terms. I can be happy eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve.

Saru Nanda, a 2013 graduate of Stuyvesant High School, will be a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University in the fall.