Getting In: Stories about making the grade

It’s that time of year — application season. So this week, we’re presenting two stories about the (literal and figurative) struggle to be accepted.

Part 1: The only thing standing in the way of Jennifer Landa’s dreams of studying art in college is her grade in chemistry.

Jennifer Landa is an actress, host, and crafter. Her work and YouTube videos have been featured on sites such as BuzzFeed, Craft Magazine, Huffington Post, LEGO.com, and more. As an actress she’s appeared in various commercials over the years and on tv shows like ABC’s Better Off Ted and MTV’s Awkward. As a host, she has appeared on Collider’s Jedi Council, Fusion’s Star Wars: A New Gaming Era, OraTV’s Dweebcast, and more. Currently, she cohosts ForceCenter, a Star Wars podcast dedicated to celebrating all things in that galaxy far, far, away. Jennifer is also a DIY contributor for the official Star Wars blog on StarWars.com. She sometimes goes by the nickname of “Landa Calrissian” and if you haven’t guess by now, Jennifer is really into Star Wars.

Part 2: When she’s accepted into the conversation fellowship of her dreams in Washington, DC, Emi Okikawa must break the news to her family that she’s leaving their home in Hawaii.

Emi Okikawa grew up surrounded by the beauty of the Hawaiian Islands. Her childhood spent exploring tidepools, snorkeling over the reef, and hiking in the mountains led her to fall in love with the natural world as a young child. She is also a child of the Asian-American diaspora, and has spent much of her time peering into the chasm between her hyphenated existence. Most of her work draws inspiration from the sacrifices, struggles and triumphs of her family’s intergenerational search for “home.” She's a former RAY Fellow from Ocean Conservancy where she focused on highlighting the stories of communities of color leading the environmental justice movement. Currently, she is the Digital Comms Fellow at the Washington State Sierra Club. You can follow her on Twitter @EmiOkikawa.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jennifer Landa

I am bad at science.  Luckily, I’m an actor so my job has nothing to do with science unless I become a scientist on TV one day. 

I’m also a huge Star Wars fan, so knowing that a parsec measures distance not time is about as sciencey as a I get. 

 Jennifer Landa shares her story at the Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles. Photo by Mari Provencher.

Jennifer Landa shares her story at the Lyric Hyperion in Los Angeles. Photo by Mari Provencher.

My failure in science isn’t from a lack of trying.  When I was a kid growing up in the ‘80s, my favorite TV show was 3-2-1 Contact.  Yes!  PBS.  I remember spending hours with my kid microscope kit, carefully placing a strand of hair or a drop of liquid onto the glass slides. 

I loved science and science loved me back, until high school.  Suddenly, conducting experiments wasn’t about discovering answers.  It was about getting the answers right.  And when it came to high school biology class, I kept getting the answers wrong. 

So what’s a scientifically-mathematically-challenged gal supposed to do when she sucks at science?  Become an artist, of course.  I wanted to be a real artist, one that hangs out in coffee shops, wears all black, speaks in Morrissey lyrics.  I had it all worked out.  I was going to be a cool emo kid.

So of course, like any cool emo kid, I picked up a vintage Minolta camera and began taking photographs.  What I loved about photography is that my perspective in how I viewed the world mattered, except to my high school classmates who were like something out of a John Hughes movie.  I was surrounded by white preppy kids wearing polo shirts who were named Blane, who got BMWs for their sixteenth birthdays, and I was the brown Molly Ringwald.  Like Andie in Pretty in Pink, I hid my vulnerability by embracing thrift store clothes and of course put on an I-don't-care attitude. 

Being one of a few people of color at my school meant I had a choice.  I could either spend four years trying to fit in our four years trying to stand out.  I chose to be invisible.  I wanted to be invisible so badly I spent every lunch break in the darkroom of my photo class or eating alone in the school library.  My plan was that I could just fly under the radar until college and that’s when my real life would begin.  I had it all worked out.

But when I told my high school guidance counselor my master plan, she was not impressed.  “Okay, yeah, you have good grades all around but that C in biology and that C in chemistry class, you'll never get into any school with those grades.” 

The thing is I just wanted to study art at a university.  I tried to pitch my extracurricular activities to her but she was not buying it.  She actually cut me off and said, “You know, if you want to be an artist, why do you need to go to college?” 

I was shocked.  “Well, I want to study art.”  I could feel my face getting hot. 

And she leaned in closer.  “You know, a trade school would be great for someone like you.” 

Someone like me?  Did she mean someone like me, a talented artist?  Someone like me who was bad at science?  Someone like me as a brown kid?  I suddenly felt like I was two inches tall and if I were to try to plead my case to her, she would never hear me.  All I could say was, “Okay.” 

I remember walking out of her office in a daze until I got home later that afternoon when my mom snapped me out of it.  “Well, what did you tell her?” 

“I said I wanted to be a photographer and that even though I’m bad at science.” 

“Oh, well, why did you say that?” 

“Which part?” 

“She's doing this because you're Mexican.” 

I used to hate when my mom would say that, because she was always right.  But her calling it out it meant that I had to deal with it and that went against my motto of being invisible. 

“Jennifer, if you want to go to college, you apply and you will get in somewhere.  You'll see.”

Moms are always right because I got into the school I wanted, except for one little catch.  You see, I had to take a chemistry class at a community college and pass.  If I failed, my admission would be revoked and I would have no plan after high school graduation.  I had one chemistry class standing between me and my dream of studying at a university. 

In May that year, I met with a director in the admissions department.  When I met Anita in person, she was so kind and empathetic and she said all I had to do was get a C or better at a chemistry class at college and I'd be able to enroll in the fall.  Easy. 

At the end of our meeting, she gave me parting words of encouragement.  She looked me in the eye and said, “I’m rooting for you.” 

In the words of Master Yoda, “Do or do not.  There is no try.”  So ‘do’ I did. 

Unfortunately, what I was doing wasn’t working.  I had spent weeks studying, carefully listening to the professor’s lectures but it was clear that my old friend science had now become my enemy. 

When the professor posted our grades week after our last class, I was so nervous I took my mom and younger sister with me go look at them.  We slowly walked up to the classroom where the final grades were taped to the door.  I took a deep breath and looked beside my name.  C-minus. 

I tried to will that minus sign away but there it was in black and white.  I was not going to college.  I cried.  My mom cried.  My sister wondered why everyone was crying. 

But when I called Anita, she was actually very understanding.  Unfortunately, the final decision wasn’t up to her.  She said I had to appeal my case to the Board of Admissions by writing a letter stating why I deserved to go to their university. 

I spent a week drafting that letter.  Should I be professional?  Be comedic?  Desperate?  I decided I would scoop my heart out of my chest and squeeze it until every last drop of blood filled the pages of white computer paper.  I then mailed it and waited. 

Several days pass and I hadn’t heard anything from Anita, which was fun but, of course, you guys know, my mom was freaking out.  “You should have heard something by now.  Why hasn’t she called you?  I never asked you, but what did you say in your letter?” 

As I explained my heart wrenching process, I saw her eyes begin to widen.  Because while my motto was being invisible, my mom’s unspoken rule was that in order to be successful, you have to fit in and do nothing to stand out.  And according to her, my letter was going to stand out for being unprofessional because I had written a tearjerker story about, yeah, my triumphs but also some of the pain and prejudice I had experienced growing up as a Mexican-American girl in a predominantly white neighborhood. 

“But it’s the truth!” 

“Jennifer, they don’t want to hear the truth.  The truth is too uncomfortable and painful and sad.  No one wants to read that. You should have just said why you want to go to their school.” 

I did. One of the reasons I love art is because it’s subjective.  There is no right or wrong way to create art.  My mom liked science for the same reason I don't.  There's lots of rules.  But moms are always right and so, on that day, I listened to her.  I would rewrite my letter of appeal, hand-deliver it to Anita, and then tell Anita to throw the old one away. 

So I spent all day and night rewriting that letter.  The next morning I called Anita to tell her the situation but, unfortunately, she was on vacation for a week.  So it was over. 

 Photo by Mari Provencher.

Photo by Mari Provencher.

It was over a week later when Anita called and she said she had news.  There was no need for me to deliver a new letter because she had read my old one.  And she loved it.  She said that it had made her cry but that, more importantly, she had met with the board.  “Congratulations.  You've been admitted to the university.”

I cannot tell you how much joy filled our house that day.  I cried.  My mom cried.  My sister wondered why we were all crying.  And my mom said something that I will never forget. 

She said, “You were right.  I should have never told you to change what makes you unique because that’s why you got in.  But maybe you might consider majoring in English?”

Master Yoda once said, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”  So even though I failed at science a lot, it actually led to some great experiments in my life.  The only way to test a hypothesis is to take action and see what the data reveals, right?  So my bad grades in chemistry led me to discover that it is a recovery from failure that makes a hero. 

And even thought it can feel uncomfortable at times, when you share your most authentic self, good things can happen.  Maybe I’m not so bad at science after all. 

 

Part 2: Emi Okikawa

My last name, Okikawa, comes from the kanji ‘oki’ for grand and ‘kawa’ for river.  And for generations, the Okikawas have always been people of the water.  My uncle and my grandpa can tell the type of fish on the hook just by rhythm of the vibrating fishing line and my dad used to wake up every day before dawn to go surfing before school, known for dragging in sand and saltwater behind him before the bell rang. 

One of my earliest memories as a child is bawling incoherently, fat, heavy tears streaming down my face after being caught unawares by a rising wave from behind.  Every time I was buffeted by the waves or pearl dived into the sand, my dad would fish me from the churning shore break, set me on my feet and remind me, “Never turn your back to the ocean.  Treat it with the respect it deserves.” 

Now, I also had the pleasure of growing up in a conservative Asian household so there is another model that was ingrained in me since birth, which is, “Study hard and get to a good college.  Work hard and be successful.” 

 Emi Okikawa shares her story at Bier Baron in Washington, DC. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Emi Okikawa shares her story at Bier Baron in Washington, DC. Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

I’m yonsei, so fourth generation Japanese-Filipino, born and raised in Hawaii.  As a yonsei, I've had to shoulder four generations of hopes and aspirations.  What this meant is that I was put on a very different path than the rest of my family because that’s the goal, isn’t it?  With each new generation, you’re expected to take your family just a few steps forward into the future. 

One step forward, instead of going to public school at ‘Aiea High like the rest of my family, my parents saved all their money to send me to Punahou School, a private school whose major exports include lawyers, bankers, doctors and, of course, former president Barack Obama. 

Two steps forward and I announce to my family that I will be attending college at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, six thousand miles away from home.  My family looks at me like I am about to jettison off to a different planet. 

Three steps forward and here I am, distinctly not a banker or a lawyer or the leader of the free world.  Instead, I am a crunchy granola-eating, tree-hugging environmentalist.  Definitely not part of the plan. 

I grew up in Oahu surrounded by the beautiful nature of the Hawaiian Islands.  I have memories snorkeling over the reef, hovering over the bustling underwater metropolises, of scouring the shore’s edge, poking around in tide pools.  As someone from Hawaii, I grew up with the childhood lesson of respecting, revering and protecting nature.  These lessons that I learned as a child, it only made sense to me that I would take these lessons forward with me into my adult life as well. 

But when I looked at environmental organizations, so rarely did I see anyone that looked like me reflected in their ranks.  As a result, I had a really difficult time with convincing my family and showing them who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do when I grew up. 

This all changed for me when I was a junior undergrad.  I was doing a research project looking at Asian-American, native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander contributions to the Environmental Justice Movement.  What I found out was that one of the fathers of environmental justice was actually a Chinese-American man named Charles Lee, and this shocked me.  No textbook, no professor, no class had ever mentioned this before and it made me realize that even though I was one of a handful of people of color within my major and my department and my field, that someone from my community had been here before, paving a way in front of me.  And no matter what challenges I encountered, that I belonged here in this field. 

This realization really inspired me to apply for a fellowship that would take me a universe away, to Washington DC.  I was really drawn to it because it was called the RAY Marine Conservation Diversity Fellows and the position now, as advertised, is one that was a community-based storyteller.  So I would be highlighting the stories of environmental leaders of color and highlighting the stories that were so often concealed from mainstream media, like that of Charles Lee, and hopefully inspiring a new generation of environmental leaders of color and making them recognize that they too belong in this field. 

So after months of applying and waiting and interviewing, I finally got the phone call.  I can still hear the Director’s voice in my ear saying, “Congratulations.  You've been accepted into the next cohort of Roger Airliner Young Marine Conservation Diversity Fellows. 

I was still sitting on this information, sitting in my bedroom having just recently graduated and wondering how I was going to tell my family that I wanted to leave Hawaii and go all the way to Washington DC when I hear the doorbell ring.  I run downstairs and it’s already a flurry of movement.  Every Sunday night, the entire extended family comes over to our house for dinner. 

After dinner, my grandma and the aunties have a time-honored tradition of sitting around in a circle, drinking tea and gossiping.  It’s something I usually try to avoid but this time as I’m pouring the tea, one of my aunties turns to me and she asks the question that all recent graduates hate to be asked, which is, “So, what are you going to do next?” 

I kind of look at the floor and I mumble I say, “Oh, yeah, I might go to Washington DC to work in an environmental organization.” 

And one of my aunties interject and she goes, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Whatever.  But did you hear that your cousin is now head chef at IHOP?” 

Another auntie goes, “That’s cute, but I hear the environment is really the hip thing to do nowadays.” 

A third auntie interjects dealing the final blow, “Oh, that’s really nice, but what are you going to do with a major in environment anyways?  I don't know why you didn’t just try to find a rich husband?” 

I consider their reactions for a second.  They're exactly what I had been anticipating.  I say, “Yeah, you know you're right.  It is really hip and cool nowadays to care about the environment and to care about breathing fresh air and drinking clean water, and making sure the planet is habitable for human life.  And yeah, that’s a good question.  What am I going to do with a major in the environment?  I think I’m going to focus on communities that are at risk because of climate change, because we’re here in Hawaii, which is an island surrounded by water, soon to be submerged by rising sea levels but, you know, yeah.  Whatever.” 

Of course I don’t say any of that.  The dialogue runs in my head but nothing actually leaves my mouth.  Instead, I just bottle up all my feelings.  I can my face turning red with embarrassment and irritation.  My hands are shaking as I put the teapot on the table, excuse myself, turn around and run up the stairs into my bedroom. 

It’s moments like these that I feel like a waste.  A waste of my family’s sacrifices, of their money, of their efforts, and I’m sitting there thinking about this when I hear a soft knock on my door.  My mom pokes her head to the doorway and she says, “What’s wrong?” 

I burst into tears.  I tell her about the fellowship.  I tell her how stressed I am, how I feel like I’m letting my family down if I take it, like I’m letting myself down if I don’t. 

 Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

Photo by Lauren Lipuma.

She says, “Well, this position sounds like it has a lot of writing in it, which is good for future lawyers.”  We laugh a little and then she sighs.  She sits on the edge of the bed and she says, “Look, it sounds like a difficult decision but I think you already know what the right choice is.  I mean, it’s like surfing.  It’s always looking on the horizon for the next big wave.  It may take out another adventure and it may bring you back home.  But what I admire about you is that you're not ever taking the traditional path.  You're following your passions.  That’s what makes me so proud.  It’s like your dad always says.  ‘Never turn your back to the ocean.’” 

With her words, I feel the tension evaporate in my chest, the weight on my shoulders disappears and I can finally breathe easy again.  “Never turn your back to the ocean.”  The words that I had been so used to hearing as a child have now taken on a different meaning for me. 

Every day when I walked to work in Washington DC, I think about my family.  How their sacrifices and their hard work have led me to where I am today.  They give me the freedom to pursue the things that I’m passionate about.  I've come to understand that I’m proud to carry their hopes and aspirations.  It’s not a burden but a gift to have a heritage that spans generations. 

After feeling conflicted for so long, trying to choose between family obligations and expectations and trying to pave my own way in life, I've come to understand that ocean conservation is not something separate from my identity.  It’s integral to my heritage.  The Okikawas have always been people of the water.  It’s simply in my blood.  Thank you.