文/ Ming Hsu
译/ Wenwen Guo; Xirui Sun
在Ivy Labs，我是一名国际教育规划导师。工作的第一年，某天办公室迎来了一位访客，他是耶鲁大学医学院的著名教授（现在已成为Ivy Labs “未来学者”项目的专业咨询师），他的儿子当时在Ivy Labs授课。简单的问候之后，他询问起我的教育背景。当得知我是布朗大学工程和应用数学专业的在读博士生时，他不由面露困惑之色，质疑我是否在职业选择上犯了个严重的错误。随即这位教授便被介绍给办公室的其他同事认识，由于拥有与这份职业更加“匹配”的教育背景——譬如教育学和心理学，同事们的回答则并没有引起相同的困惑与质疑。
每次和学生的集思广益都是对脑力的极大考验，甚至包括那些课堂之外相对随意的对谈，而通过和学生们交流，我得以突破思维局限的例子也不胜枚举。我至今记得和Jane的面试。Jane是我们2017届来自北京的学生，现在是耶鲁大学的大一学生。当时，Jane来Ivy Labs参加我们本科生学生导师项目（College Mentorship Program）的选拔。 她对环境正义研究有着浓厚的兴趣，并主张通过制定国际烟尘排放税法来对抗气候恶化，这让我对她肃然起敬。谈话结束后，我开始反思自己的日常行为，例如哪些购物选择可能在不经意间加重全球变暖问题。
给我留下深刻印象的还有Sue。Sue甜美、细腻，总是面带亲切的微笑。不过，你可别被她温柔可人的外表欺骗了，Sue对自己的梦想有着惊人的执着和追求。平时柔声细语、身形纤弱的她，为了理想所展现出的那般刚毅和果敢，让我都为之诧异。这种力量源自何处呢？我猜她平时在香港超市（我们纽黑文办公室隔壁一间家庭式亚洲超市）疯狂扫货的那些超辣方便面和常年不离手的星巴克咖啡功不可没！言归正传，Sue的本科申请过程并非一帆风顺，当然这也和她不甚理想的标准化考试成绩有关，此外，她的一些个人问题，以及她长久以来的拖延症 （仿佛是现在高中生的通病），也导致了她没能在早申请阶段斩获好的offer。但得益于精神上的鼓励和正确的疏导，在Alice家渡过许多个伤心的夜晚后，Sue重新振作起来。渐渐的，她学会发挥决断能力，并且常常主动来办公室找我商量对策，就这样，我们商榷出一份风格独特却又令人信服的申请材料，帮助她争取了梦校的一席之地。就在上个月，Sue收到了纽约大学工学院发来的ED II录取通知。我坚信她将崭露头角，并成为一名出色的女性机器人专家。
然而还不止于此。随着团队的壮大，除了我自己的学生，上文提到的“大学生导师”项目（College Mentorship Program）也提供了绝佳的平台，通过这个项目，我有幸认识了许多优秀的年轻人。
A counselor with a "mismatching background" and the lessons he learned
By/ Ming Hsu
My first year working here at Ivy Labs as an international educational counselor, a noted professor at Yale’s School of Medicine (who is now a consultative member of our Future Scholars Initiative and the dad of one of our tutors) came to visit our office. A few short pleasantries later, he inquired about my educational background. When I said I was a PhD student studying engineering and applied math at Brown. A bemused look quickly gave way to one of concern as if I had just made the biggest career mistake. He was soon whisked away to be acquainted with other colleagues who I’d assume didn’t get that same look of bewilderment because they had had more “proper”, or perhaps conventional, training in the fields of education, psychology and such.
Though the exchange was brief, what was left unsaid was loud and clear, and it still rings true, and that is that engineers-to-be and mathematicians-in-training should always aspire to be just that – deviating even a little bit from the prescribed path is wasteful of the years toiling in the lab and even sacrilegious to the fields as a whole. I exaggerate, but only a little bit. After all, these are often regarded as the hard sciences, and as such, the thinking goes, “hard scientists” shouldn’t dabble in anything “soft” and fluffy lest it dilutes and softens the critical and convergent thinking that characterizes most of the STEM disciplines. And he is not alone – a nationally representative study from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the percentage of career transitions in 2015 and 2016 from STEM to education at barely 3%. Now, the question stands, why did I make the switch? And more relatedly, how has this “questionable” career change that had obviously raised the ire of a tenured professor in biophysics at Yale played out in my everyday work as an international educational counselor?
Allow me to enter Gogo here, the first student for whom I was the head counselor. Gogo was a well-rounded (though spikier in his STEM subjects) and cerebral student, always quick-witted with a healthy dose of skepticism. His quirkiness and divergent thinking were only matched by the speed at which he spat out his words.
Apart from being an efficient autodidact – having managed thirteen AP classes in two years and aced them all, Gogo had taken on many leadership roles at his school – being the perennial class monitor since primary school and all – he was, and I hope he still is, a diehard fan and enthusiastic critic of Apple gadgets. Oh, did I mention that he LOVED watching airplanes take off? Ask him about it and you will come away with either a newfound appreciation or disdain for the aviation industry. Yep, he’s that persuasive! Yet, his weakness was just as obvious – molded in by the years of traditional Chinese education – whose vestiges I could still tell, through conversations as well as in his English writing. But Gogo’s mind was simply too adventurous and his interests too diverse that the educational system he found himself in couldn't and wouldn’t adequately support.
It was frankly frustrating to see him struggle with his divergent mind at a school that still awarded convergence. So our brainstorming sessions became an outlet for him to voice his seemingly crazy ideas and get validated, though I did shoot down many that were too out of touch. Soon enough, his love for traveling and keen palate for gourmet food eventually found expressions in his college application essays that ended up screaming his personality, so much so that the admissions director at Case Western wrote on his EA acceptance letter that it was a memorable and enjoyable read. However, I want to emphasize that in between the knowing nods and probing questions during my conversations with Gogo, it was as much an exercise for him to seek intellectual solace as it was for me to get to know a student – his tenderness, his brand of humor, his thoughtful musings on his fading grandpa and the consequent ethical reconciliation of technology and humanity... More importantly and perhaps more selfishly for me, it also became a venue to stretch my own mind. And that was so precious!
So, Gogo came to me wanting to study bioengineering and I’m gratified to witness a fine bio-engineer he is becoming one and a half years later – at Northwestern where practicality meets intentionality and overachieving multipotentialites are not only tolerated but celebrated – the perfect destination for him.
I can’t remember how many times my mind was figuratively blown as the brain storms with students raged on, even in contexts where I wasn’t strictly teaching. Like the time when I interviewed Jane (one of our 2017 students from Beijing who’s now a rising sophomore at Yale) for the College Mentorship Program that I manage here at IVY LABS, her palpable passion for environmental justice, and in particular, advocating for carbon tax to combat climate change, on the international stage, was humbling. And that conversation forced me to reflect on my daily actions and the purchasing choices I make that might have inadvertently contributed to global warming. Or Sue of this cycle, a sweet yet sensitive girl always wearing a disarming smile. But don’t let her agreeable countenance fool you, as she is a fierce fighter who clings on to her dreams with such tenacity that you would be left wondering where this soft-spoken and slim-figured young lady got all that feisty energy from. My hunch is all those uber-spicy instant cup noodles she has gobbled up from the Hong Kong Market (a mom-and-pop Asian grocery store near our New Haven office) and the Starbucks coffees she has wolfed down over the years. Jokes aside, Sue’s college application process was not without bumps and moments of doubts – coming principally from her lackluster standardized test scores, personal issues as well as the perpetual tendency to procrastinate that seems to plague most high schoolers these days – all these factors have conspired to cost her the chance to apply in the early round. But with emotional support, proper guidance, and many tearful nights at Alice’s, she regained her footing. Later on, her re-surging execution skills coupled with the willingness to “badger” me in the office have allowed us to put forth a quirky yet compelling application package that has earned her a rightful spot at her dream school – NYU Tandon on ED II. And I have every confidence in her potential to make a name for herself as a budding female roboticist.
Or perhaps Kjo, a walking contradiction who is at once precocious and childlike. But it was his twin passions for architecture and rowing that have helped me see what artistic creation, and by extension, the design process, and the pushing past of physical limits of athletes have in common. Had it not been for Kjo’s candid sharing and his trust of us to lay himself and his personal experiences bare, I wouldn’t have been able to steal a glance at, or perhaps live vicariously through his eyes, what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi aptly called the “flow”, that elusive state of being laser-focused (or more colloquially, in the Zone) for which top artists and elite athletes strive.
Or the eternal “town vs. gown” problem with which Johnnie’s unique coming-of-age story in Shenzhen serendipitously helped draw a surprising yet poignant parallel; or the recent influx in New Haven of Somalian refugees whose heartrending life stories Christine’s acrylic paintings so elegantly captured, and at the same time, provided viewers with a truer and more refreshing perspective of life’s proportionality, as the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor likes to call it in her memoir My Beloved World, not just in the sense of aesthetics, but in societal happenings to boot; or William’s Hayao Miyazaki-inspired effort to use filmmaking to further socially progressive messages that mainstream animation studios like Pixar repeatedly shun.
Were it not for my students, these headliners and buried accounts would simply have stayed just as that – another piece of news, or worse if I were in a sulky mood, rehashed political talking points, click baits, or even “fake news” pumped out these days by some massive agenda-driven media machinery if I really felt cynical, that I’d skim through or more likely skip over on…
I could go on and on with such examples, but will stop here because I hope by now the point is clear – and that is I owe my sharpened perception of this world and some of my most valued growth the past few years to these very students just as much as they owe theirs to me (or I sincerely hope they do). Let alone the privilege of being invited into the life story of another human being not just to be a spectator, but to participate in the shaping of it. It has always been a two-way street – much is given as much is gained. And the latter has continued to pay dividends in my life.
Thus far, I have come to realize that counseling, especially the type that interfaces with teens who are insistently evolving in this fast spinning world that they will soon enter, at its core is an iterative self-correcting process, and in a sense, it is life-gazing and life-replenishing. And I guess that is why I made the switch.
But it doesn’t stop here, in fact, it gets better. Apart from my own students, the aforementioned College Mentorship Program has also afforded me a wonderfully joyous platform to reconnect with some of the most amazing young people out there.
For instance, Debbie (a Wellesley alumna and a current college mentor), whose drive and positivity-infused empowerment stemming in part from her unorthodox free-ranging “model minority” upbringing in a first-gen Taiwanese immigrant family in Troy, Michigan was manifest in her long entrepreneurial journey to bring social and creative justice to Tanzanian villagers so that they too could be equally empowered. Her riveting story, which is still unfolding, made me scrutinize how we approach community service, especially when there’s an obvious socioeconomic power imbalance and a cultural divide, as we select volunteering programs and design service projects for our students. Or Linnea, a former college mentor who majored in Russian and Eurasian Studies at Princeton, with whom we bonded over our mutual love of creative writing and science communication. We even have the same favorite word (it’s “ephemera” for those who’re curious). What are the odds?!
Looking back, that Yale professor’s view now smacks of disciplinary parochialism and seems antiquated at best. But it’s hard to deny the fact that it is still a view entrenched in our psyche whether we like to admit it or not, and it is certainly one subscribed to in droves by many parents whose children we counsel. In fact, one of the things I hear most frequently during my one-on-one consultation meetings with parents is how we as counselors can nudge their kids to study something more “tangible” and “useful”. And many a family have reached out to me, either online or in person, precisely because of my background in a bona fide STEM field. I don’t intend to get into the weeds to debate the modern value of humanities, on which countless op-eds have already been written and argued almost ad nauseam, and it’s beside the point to this piece, though I’d assume it wouldn’t be hard for you to guess my stance, albeit there will be some caveats.
Going back to the first question I posed about the practice of discipline-hopping that I’ve been engaging in during my short career span of five years in education, I’d simply say it’s been worth it. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it has proved to be more than I had expected, and it certainly can be fruitful for anyone so inclined, as long as they are willing to take the time and make the space to introspect and to grow. So yes, I’m unabashedly proud to say that this job has indeed "softened" me, as it were. Because through it, I have gotten closer in touch with my own humanity.
Franz Kafka said, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” And I believe the same is true of counseling. I, as an international education counselor, strive to cultivate daily moments of empathies that go beyond the surface, so I could be shaken out of my accustomed ways of seeing and being, and replace my jaded and customary complacency with a sense of moral urgency while renewing my appreciation for our complex, fragile, and fascinating existence. I hope, through my work as well as the relationship we’re fostering together, students and their families may likewise find their own bearings, forget for a moment about life’s minutiae, appreciate its breadth and diverse richness.