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What happens when things don’t fall into place?

Nina Li, VC '24



It was only five minutes before I opened up this google doc when I got off the phone with my mom. Our conversations were just as usual. She began excitedly as she picked up from where we left off last week on the never-ending family drama. Every two minutes or so, she would get tired and stop talking to catch her breath. It was only then that I could interject with news from a small liberal arts college in a country an ocean away from her. The U.S. is a chaotic place. A place that not only my mom but my whole family have little understanding of. However, despite the limitations, they are still excited about the possibility of potentially moving here one day. And that dream of theirs started when I enrolled in Vassar College.


If I were going to find a job that was enough to support bringing my entire family here, I was going to work hard, real hard. I had a roadmap detailing every milestone I was expected to achieve: a 4.0 GPA, a challenging campus job, summer internships, winter internships, summer research, networking, connections, GRE, grad school, etc. But, right off the bat, the course of my plan was interrupted.


As a first-generation international student, I was quite lost when I first got to college. Well, that’s not entirely accurate, because I didn’t quite “get to” college. If you are one of the people reading this blog post at the start of the next big pandemic, I kindly suggest that you refrain from enrolling in anything you look forward to. Take me as an example. For my orientation, I was expecting to be placed in a student fellow group (a tradition at Vassar where you are assigned to a group of first-year students living in the same hallway as you for an entire year under the guidance of an upperclassman), to participate in the house games, to go to acapella preview concerts, to scavenger hunt across campus, etc. You can probably tell from the tone of my voice that none of these happened. But it was okay, I managed. Although I did not get a campus job or a summer job, I had good grades, found friends who loved and supported me and did end up joining one of the acapella groups.


Life went on. The pandemic went on. Some friends left. Made new ones. Bombed some tests but scored higher on the later ones. A lot of things happened, but it seemed to me like a lot more didn’t. But look here, I’m resilient, I can take it. Throw me lemons all you want. I’ll make spanking good lemonade out of them. I was slowly zigzagging my way towards my final goal. But as long as I was moving forward, it was fine by me. I kept telling myself that until the summer of my sophomore year, because I couldn’t say that anymore. I was seriously off-track.


The summer of 2022 started well. I was applying to be a Ford Scholar at Vassar College, working with a professor in the philosophy department and designing a critical-thinking curriculum. I had a great interview with the professor. The kind that went overtime because you had so many other things to talk about. My major matched. Interests matched. I consider myself to be a very competent individual. All in all, it was looking quite promising, so promising that I didn’t even go looking for other opportunities because I believed that I had it in the bag.


Well, you already saw the title of this blog.


I had never felt so scared in my entire life. I was going to be without a job, without a place to stay (couldn’t go back home because I needed to buy tickets months in advance), without friends (my friends bought tickets), and without anything to put on my resume. Goodbye grad school. Goodbye, my family’s approval. Most devastatingly, goodbye to my self-esteem.


I’ll save you the story of how I went to three therapy sessions that week and how I couldn’t stop crying thinking to myself that my life was over. The one thing you really need to know is that once I have hit rock bottom, I couldn’t go any lower. So I started reaching out to people I would never have reached out to before because I didn’t want to be embarrassed. I sent so many emails, talked to so many people, and asked so many professors if they could take me as their research assistant. And then in the second to last week of school, Scott Campbell, executive director of Persist Nashville, texted me and said that he heard from Deb Macfarlan Enright ‘82 that I was looking for summer opportunities and asked if I wanted to work as the community fellow for Persist Nashville this summer.


The internship at Persist turned out to be one of the best experiences I’ve had in college. Scott and Kristen put together an internship that fitted my interests, challenged me intellectually and creatively, and helped rebuild my confidence and self-esteem. I’ve learned so much and am grateful for everything that happened in order to bring me to this exact moment.


At the symposium for Vassar’s community fellows


So what happens when things don’t fall into place? The moral of my story is that things never just fall into place. And when that happens, believe that your contribution is truly needed in this world, do whatever you need to do to reach your goal, and know that you’ll be wonderful no matter where you end up. Be present, be hopeful, and, seriously, make plan Bs.


Nina Li is a junior at Vassar College (VC '24). She is a double major in Psychology and Education. She loves to sing and has been a member of the Disney acapella group at Vassar her since freshman year. She is passionate about early childhood education and education policy. The Macfarlan Group was honored to include Nina in our growing number of summer interns who are determined to do good in the world.

Please check out Persist Nashville to see how you can get involved.

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