Finding Opportunity in Uncertainty
For as long as I can remember, all of my major life events occurred in a timely, sequential manner. Graduating elementary school brought three years of middle school, followed immediately by four years of high school; each major segment of life filled with the constants of academic challenges, unforgettable moments with friends, and lots of swimming. I grew accustomed to morning lifts, practices after class, and daily team dinners with people I consider my closest friends. I found comfort in relying on what felt like a linear trajectory. That path, or “my path,” has gotten me to where I am today.
As planned, I graduated high school and completed my first year of college. When I first arrived on campus as a freshman, I was very aware of the fact that I was walking into a completely new experience. I did not know who I was going to eat dinner with, what classes I wanted to take, or even what I wanted to major in. Yet, I found comfort in knowing that I had plenty of time over the next four years to figure everything out. By the end of sophomore year, I would declare my major, get a summer job related to that field, and in four years I would graduate. As my mind swam with the unknowns, I clung to this rigid outline for security.
The year came with its share of changes and challenges, but I had anticipated their arrival and felt ready for the change. New friends, new swim team, new campus, new professors. Surrounded by a sea of “new,” I was anchored by a few essential constants: the rigid schedule created by assignments to complete and exams to study for, many late nights spent in my dorm room goofing off with friends, and the countless swim practices where I pounded my stress into the water.
Spring of my freshman year rolled around, and everything was right on track. I packed up a few outfits for spring break and said goodbye to my friends hastily, knowing that I would see them again in a week. Leaving campus, I had no idea my world, and with it, “my path,” was about to be completely altered.
When spring break concluded, the world was fighting a pandemic, and I was not allowed back on campus. The rest of the school year was entirely remote, and I quickly became burnt out from the endless zoom lectures. Pools were closed or unsafe, and after long hours online for school, I did not have much energy to FaceTime friends. Everyone spoke of adjusting to a “new normal” while I struggled to ground myself without my anchors of a normal class schedule, regular practices, and the comfort of being surrounded by friends.
The summer slowly progressed, and I clung to the idea that I would return to school in the fall, fearful of the possibility of straying from “my path.” The thought of changing my trajectory to better adapt to the world around me was terrifying. The school year approached, and with it came the regulations and restrictions put in place to keep the campus safe. It was all very clear; the school year would not be “normal.” The competition swim season was canceled, and many of my friends would not be returning due to a reduced campus occupancy. Much like the rest of the world, I was faced with the harsh reality that this year would bear no resemblance to the year I had envisioned.
It was in the midst of packing to return to campus when I, still feeling very much burnt out from remote learning in the spring, emailed my Dean and declared my intent to take a leave of absence. Wading into uncharted territory with a drastic change in direction, I was forced to switch gears. I decided to focus my year on the world around me, rather than the textbooks in front of me.
For the first time, I had no vision of what my immediate future would look like, no direction indicating what step I should take. I was equally overwhelmed by the blank slate in front of me and the chaos in the world surrounding me. In order to make the year meaningful, I devoted my time to learning how to harness the freedom that accompanies uncertainty. It was scary to take a break from school and declare my intent to graduate a year later. I consistently reminded myself that meaning is not always found in productivity, and I challenged myself to find meaning elsewhere this year.
I started by finding little ways to ease my anxiety and bring back a sense of control to the world around me. Feeling paralyzed by the issues the world was facing, I knew the only way to move forward was to start addressing the problems. I became more involved in politics and a louder advocate for human rights issues I am passionate about. My weekends were spent delivering meals to families struggling with food insecurity. Each seemingly little task or project helped me regain a sense of agency and grounded me in purpose.
Little projects turned into larger undertakings. Lacking connection during the pandemic, I started teaching English classes in the middle of the night to students abroad. I began with the hope of meeting new people, but I never expected that I would become so inspired by my students’ drive and enthusiasm for learning. Then again, at this point, I was learning to expect ― and embrace ― the unexpected.
As someone who was spending far too many hours in the solitude of my house, I quickly recognized how privileged I am to have a safe place to call home, and I began working as a mentor and advocate for children and teens in foster care. I spent my days working with kids who were facing the uncertainty of a global pandemic while trying to adjust to living in new environments, often without the support of a family unit.
Finding meaning in my life aside from school, friends, and swimming, I was able to navigate the unexpected and get my feet back under me. Now that I was standing, I wanted to support the kids I worked with so that they could do the same. While uncertainty can easily make anyone feel unmoored, I strive to be a constant that helps these kids find opportunities to create positive change in their lives. I know the impact one caring person can have, and I wanted to be that person for these kids.
Some days I feel really good about the work I do. I spend countless hours trying to convince kids that change is good; identifying and highlighting how change could be beneficial in someone else’s life comes with natural, thoughtless ease. Then I remember how hard it was for me to take a year off and not even necessarily change my trajectory, only delay it, and I am faced with the hypocrisy of my own advice.
Even as I pause to recognize the challenges I have overcome this year, I recognize that the kids I work with are even braver, even more resilient. For these kids, change is a necessity rather than a choice. I admire the way they face life’s challenges head-on and will forever be thankful for the lessons they have taught me.
Together, we have spent the past year empowering each other to find meaning in circumstances outside of our control. And, by supporting each other through the hurdles of today, I am confident we are prepared for the challenges of our future.
Bio: Laura Strachan is a sophomore at Swarthmore College with academic interests in psychology, biology, and computer science. At school, Laura is on the varsity swim team and works as a Student Academic Mentor for her peers. In her free time, Laura enjoys hiking, reading, and snowboarding.