#TellUsTigers 2019

July 29, 2019 noon

“In my first year of college, I went off a ski jump to do a backflip. … I was 19. I was told there was no real hope of regaining use of my legs. … [F]rom my hospital bed, I gave myself a crash course in neuroscience.”

“When I was 16, my childhood friend committed suicide.”

“I learned that love and support sometimes come from unexpected quarters.”

“My mother worked two jobs as a janitor and a cafeteria lady.”

Princeton’s #TellUsTigers Instagram series, now in its fourth year, is founded on one principle: Everyone has a story to tell — they just need an invitation. But sharing your personal story publicly requires courage and a commitment to the power of community.

These first-person stories illuminate diverse aspects of the Princeton experience. They are infused with quiet inspiration, unexpected outcomes and moments of pure joy.

Below, we invite you into that community — get ready to hit the ❤️ icon — with recent posts from Princeton undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni. Click on each photo to view comments. Follow us on Instagram. The series is also shared on Twitter and Facebook. Members of the University community may submit suggestions for future #TellUsTigers posts via email at pusocialmedia@princeton.edu.

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#TellUsTigers: “In my first year of college, I went off a ski jump to do a backflip. I woke up in the hospital two days later to concerned faces of family and friends. I was 19. I was told there was no real hope of regaining use of my legs. I then spent two months in inpatient rehab. The reframing process post-paralysis has similarities to grieving after losing a loved one. My ‘denial’ stage was to beat the medical community. Post-injury, from my hospital bed, I gave myself a crash course in neuroscience, the start of the change of my career focus to medicine and neuroscience. I actually hit rock bottom after rehab. Up to that point, there were almost daily distractions thanks to committed family and friends. When I got home from rehab, I was truly alone with my thoughts for the first time. I got very depressed — having to finally face the reality of my new life. After a lot of soul-searching while on those rocks at the bottom, I found my new purpose in life: to help others and have fun doing it. I thought the best way to do this was to study both medicine and research with the goal of becoming a physician-scientist, facilitating translation of discoveries into therapies. I am currently in the Rutgers-Princeton M.D.-Ph.D. program. It’s relatively easy to imagine how a scientific idea could turn into a clinic therapy. But in reality, there are many barriers. The M.D.-Ph.D. program allows independent time for study in each field, enabling me to learn the intricacies inherent in each, before trying to build a bridge between the two. My journey, thus far, has been immensely rewarding and I’ve learned any handicap one faces can be both a gift and a curse. The balance between the two is influenced immensely by perspective. That said, I have my good & bad days. I constantly seek reminders to maintain a healthy perspective related to my disability & day-to-day challenges. Everyone has challenges in life — some are just more visible than others. If I can leave you with only one thing, it’s this: Remember everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” — Thomas Pisano (@tjpisano); photo by David Kelly Crow #Princetagram @rwjms #PrincetonU

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#TellUsTigers: "My mother worked two jobs as a janitor and a cafeteria lady at a local elementary school before an epileptic attack forced her to work as a custodian permanently. I remember wincing as one of my middle school teachers scolded in class — 'If you don’t work hard in school, you’ll either end up a McDonald’s worker or a janitor.' I didn’t know how to grapple with the connotations that my mother was uneducated, lazy, that this was the only job she could get. All false. People don’t know she worked in pharmaceuticals in her native China, has read and taught me about one of her favorite pieces of literature, 'The Romance of Three Kingdoms,' and can explain the elaborative concepts of Daoism and Confucianism without stuttering in her beautiful Mandarin dialect. When I wasn’t comfortable with my identity as an Asian-American, wanting to get rid of my 'smelly' traditional lunches at the cafeteria tables surrounded by bland ham sandwiches and juice boxes, I took to writing. My mother would bring home composition notebooks that hadn’t been quite filled up with words that had been thrown in the trash cans at her school, so I filled them with my own. I wrote about feeling invisible in a sea of people who didn’t look like me. I wrote about walking the tightrope between two different cultural identities, feeling 'American' and being fully Chinese. Most of all, I wrote because it was available to me as a #firstgen, low-income student. I focused my poetry on what it was like to be the first in my family to go to college, to not have the same privileges of other students my age, who could afford to travel the world when I had never even been back to visit my parents’ motherland. The part of me that was missing in terms of understanding my own identity slowly emerged as I learned to revel in the humility and perseverance that my parents instilled in me. Two years ago, I submitted a poem about my mother to a competition and took home one of the highest honors. For writing about a woman as simple as my mother, an occupation that is shunned, I was able to demand attention from the people who saw her as invisible." — Lucy Chuang '21 (@lucy_chuang_) #Princetagram

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#TellUsTigers: "Baton in my hand and @GustavoDudamel — renowned music director of @LAPhil — at my side, I step up to the podium before my 100+ friends in the amazing @PrincetonUOrch; what follow are the 20 greatest minutes of my life: a conducting masterclass with Dudamel, artist-in-residence @PrincetonUniversityConcerts. At #PrincetonU, I've been granted opportunities beyond belief — to conduct PUO alone is a great privilege! But to conduct them in a masterclass with Dudamel? Now that's an idea beyond my wildest dreams. After a gleeful exclamation from Dudamel, the crowded room falls silent. The air hangs so thick with anticipation that I swear you could taste it. All eyes now turned toward me, I give a slight flick of my wrist, and the orchestra launches into Berlioz's ‘March to the Scaffold.’ Silence is replaced by the sonic scene of a heartbroken artist hallucinating his own demise. With strings roaring, brass blaring, and kettledrums thundering, we reach the gallows, and I deliver our hero's fatal sentence. In a carefully-coordinated dance, I lead the forces of the orchestra through the execution and close the story with a grand swipe of my baton. Out of context, my passion on the podium would render me mad, but my intense hand-waving is how I channel the energy of my conducting heroes — Mahler, Kleiber, Yannick, and, of course, Dudamel. But what sets Dudamel apart is that he's not a hero; he's a superhero. Beyond conducting the world's greatest orchestras, he drives worldwide programs that bring free music opportunities to underprivileged youth. Dudamel teaches us that music is more than tradition — music is community, and it's the conductor's role to inspire this community with ideas. In his words, conducting is a philosophy of leadership, and this is why I pursue the craft even as a computer science major: the skills of a conductor apply to all aspects of life. To those who made this event possible — the University, friends, family, and Dudamel himself — I offer my sincerest gratitude. Thank you for giving me these 20 minutes to remember forever. Thank you for making my life truly exceptional." — @reillybova ’20; photo by Nick Donnoli #Princetagram

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#TellUsTigers: “When I was 16, my childhood friend committed suicide. The morning after, I woke up expecting the whole world to have stopped, but the sun still rose. I didn’t want to be alive. The only moment I felt close to peace was when I was in another world, reading a book or watching a film. On roadsides I wrote for hours, listening to passersby, studying their shadows. I grew so distant from my family that I lost all sense of what home was, convinced of my inability to love or be loved in return. A part of me wanted to prove myself wrong. That’s one reason I’m in Bolivia, on Princeton’s @NovogratzBridgeYear Program. Late October marked 2 years since my friend’s death. I had only just met my homestay mother, but that night we mourned together. She understood me through all my broken Spanish, holding her 7-year-old daughter, who, in turn, held my hand. It occurred to me that loss was everywhere & touched everyone, but so too was love. Being alive, having the opportunity to love, and grieve even, was a privilege, a responsibility I could no longer shirk. I felt lucky, for the first time in a while, to be able to breathe. I’ve immersed myself in stories again, this time not to escape but to heal, making a documentary on gender-based violence in Bolivia. A pattern surfaced in conversations at home, on walks, in trufis (minibuses), with strangers & friends alike. After hearing 90% of women experience some form of violence in their lifetime here, I contacted various organizations in Cochabamba, where our program is based. In 3 months, I collected over 30 hours of footage—interviews with rural community leaders; lawyers; anthropologists; psychologists who work with violent men; founders of movements seeking justice for unsolved cases of abuse; and countless women who’ve not only survived, but lived through their pain & grief. The film is first & foremost for them. I launched a @Kickstarter in hopes of coming back to continue my work here. Search for ‘Nina Part II’ on Kickstarter.com; the ‘all-or-nothing’ campaign closes June 8. Bridge Year is ending but the story is never over. I refuse for it to be.”—Athena Chu ’23 (@athenagone); 📷 @codyy.mui_ ’23 #Princetagram

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#TellUsTigers: “One of the most important things I’ve learned at Princeton is the necessity and importance of finding something that brings you inexplicable joy outside of academics and extracurriculars. As a soon-to-be graduate, I’ve changed a lot since my first year. I’ve learned that while it’s important to set goals and strive to meet them, it’s even more important to learn from every success and failure along the way. For me, the best way I was able to accomplish this was by relying on my skateboard to refocus myself amidst challenges. I have a habit of adding too much to my plate — something I believe most Princeton students may be guilty of. As a premed neuroscience student on the varsity soccer team (@princetonwsoc), it took me awhile to find my stride, but I wouldn’t change anything about these amazing four years. Looking back, I acknowledge the pressure I placed on myself to perform — in academics & athletics — realizing that the successes and failures from both worlds shaped me into who I am today. My best tool for learning how to benefit from these challenges has been my incorporation of daily self-care. For me, this self-care has been #skateboarding. My skateboard — which I received at age 10 — has become a trademark of my Californian identity on campus and has seen me through every challenge over the past four years. Looking back on a night from my sophomore fall, I vividly remember leaving an organic chemistry midterm feeling especially overwhelmed. After turning in my exam, I immediately headed to the main road that runs through campus (Elm Drive) to skate down the hill and focus my mind elsewhere after the long day. By the end of Elm Drive, my anxious reaction to the exam was replaced with a new sense of joy and appreciation for the opportunity to be outside. To #princeton2023: I encourage you to think about what self-care may look like for yourselves and utilize it during your own exciting journeys here at #PrincetonU, understanding that every challenge you face is actively shaping you into the experienced leaders you are destined to become.” — @aliwhiting_ ’19; photo by Sonya Isenberg ’20 (@incandescently.happy) #womeninSTEM #Princetagram

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#TellUsTigers #Princetalove: “We met ten years ago, on the first day of orientation for Princeton’s inaugural Bridge Year Program (@novogratzbridgeyear). I noticed Joe right away — he was very serious and very quiet (and, I thought, very cute). We were two of five Princeton students based in Varanasi, India. Joe was with an NGO that worked on poverty alleviation through adult literacy programming. I worked for an organization combating human trafficking. Bridge Year challenged what we thought we knew about the world and our place in it. It humbled us by revealing our privileges, cultural biases & simplistic views of service. Bridge Year gave us the confidence to admit our weaknesses and uncertainties, and the humility to work with those who best understood the obstacles facing their own communities. At #PrincetonU, we looked for ways to continue to serve our local communities. We volunteered as tutors in New Jersey prison classrooms with the @PeteyGreeneProgram and advocated for fairer justice systems with Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR). Joe now works at the Center for Court Innovation (@courtinnovation), where he plans projects that provide alternatives to prosecution and incarceration in New York City’s criminal justice system. After I graduate from law school this spring, I’ll be a public defender at the Center for Appellate Litigation, representing low-income people in post-conviction proceedings. Bridge Year shaped my priorities, showing me how I wanted to live my life. But it also showed me who I want with me on that journey. Last summer, Joe and I planned a return trip to India. On our last day in Varanasi, Joe asked if I wanted to go down to the Ganges River one last time before we left. We walked to Tulsi Ghat, a staircase down to the river that was just a few hundred feet from where we’d first kissed. There, he asked me to marry him. Bridge Year, Princeton and beyond, Joe has been there with me. He serves as a daily reminder of everything we’ve learned & been working toward. I feel incredibly lucky to have him as my partner.” — Shaina Watrous, with Joe Barrett, both Class of ’14. Photo: @lilyszabophoto #Princetagram #bridgeyearindia

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#TellUsTigers: “In 2016, I was bombarded by a series of health issues. My life was suddenly filled with hospitals and doctors and the blackhole that is the ‘medical system.’ For months on end, I didn’t have the concentration necessary for reading and writing which, for someone like me, was emotionally and psychologically devastating. I tried meditation without success. A friend told me about an open art studio @OrangeDoorArtClass, led by a local artist @MicBoekelmann. I went half out of desperation in search of something and was startled by how much I could connect to the activity. The process of painting and the seeing and thinking that go with it engaged my mind in a way that felt attentive but not burdensome, inviting concentration but not stress. It has also been teaching me some life lessons: how to have a looser stroke (release the need to control everything); how to be ok with the necessary ‘ugly stage’ of any painting (not be a perfectionist and to have faith in my ability to effect positive changes), etc. For 3 hours a week in the studio, the act of painting holds my being. It feels like a tremendous relief and as close as I can get to experiencing mindfulness. I don't think what I found in painting is so unique. I believe all my colleagues have secret lives. They are creative, thinking people, so why wouldn't they? Last year I started the ‘Inner Lives of AMS Faculty’ on Princeton’s American Studies website, where I invite my colleagues — interdisciplinary scholars with vastly diverse interests — to share an aspect of themselves unrelated to academia. You will see amazing talents, passions & more. I hope students visit that page because I think it is good for them to see their teachers in a more three-dimensional way. People drawn to the life of the mind tend to be curious, and curious people do and explore. This is one reason I like to encourage the combination of theory and practice in my teaching.” — Anne Cheng, professor of English and American studies; photo by Sameer A. Khan (@fotobdy). One of Cheng’s paintings is in “From Within,” an exhibition of faculty and staff artwork on view in Dickinson Hall Room 113, through March 15. #Princetagram

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#TellUsTigers: “The terrifying moment in 2010 that I knew I was going to be a single parent honed my focus and rearranged my priorities. We had recently moved from South Africa to Australia. I anticipated a steady married life there: it was not to be. Losing everything else, I knew that what mattered was to give my wonderful, compassionate, insightful sons, Mateo and Hari, a stable and secure life. Our best option was a UNESCO fellowship at @UConn. After my MA, I applied to Princeton. My acceptance to the stellar history department was such a happy moment: the letter was so warm, generous and complimentary I was sure it must be spam, and ran it past my ISP! How wonderful to share this beautiful campus with so many inspiring people and to enjoy unique opportunities. How marvelous to experience @GustavoDudamel’s presence and joy during his yearlong residency on campus, for instance. My sons are talented, insightful, ethical people, but parenthood can be hard, especially alone and without money or local networks. Society is often dismissive of single mothers, and middle-aged women in general. I learned that love and support sometimes come from unexpected quarters: a fellow grad student who offered help when I was under tremendous financial pressure (I declined, of course!); a professor who hosted my sons so that I could have time to work; a lovely circle of undergrad friends. Our greatest source of strength is the kindness of others (and luck). I have profound gratitude to a few wonderful and inspiring colleagues, faculty and administrative staff at #PrincetonU, in particular the collegial members of my department. The care of those people touched my heart and helped me overcome the sense of isolation and strain I at times feel, like running a marathon that simply has no end. I am graduating this year and not sure what is next (we would love to stay in Princeton). This is one of those times of stress for a single parent, not having a second income: I need to move straight into a job. I would love to work in academic administration: students are an inspiring, thoughtful & diverse community.” — Kim Worthington, Ph.D. candidate; 📷 by @noelvphoto ’82 *86 #princetagram

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