Opinion: Losing Your Parents During College and the Importance of Vulnerability

By Jennifer Sugawa | May 9, 2018 12:14pm

Jennifer Sugawa is a recent alumna from the University of Portland ('18).

Watching my close friends celebrate with their parents and hearing how proud their parents were of them was conflicting. I was filled with jealousy and sadness when I was supposed to be celebrating my accomplishments.
At any age, losing a parent is devastating. I lost my mom when I was 16, and my dad unexpectedly passed away during finals week of my junior year. It was the hardest, most heart wrenching thing to experience; but through it, I gained valuable insight. 

I felt alone, pressured to get through school, like I wasn’t good enough, and slowly pushed away my friends and people I cared about to focus on my work.
Like many of you, I grew up with parents instilling the importance of school, good grades, being right, and being organized to set myself up for success. This unrealistic goal I set for myself and that my parents set for me, inevitably skewed my idea of self and who I am, and more importantly, who I should be. Tirelessly, I worked to make sure I graduated on time. I took a semester off and in trying to deal with both of my parent’s death, there was an incredible physical and emotional toll that it took on my body. 

I spent the last 3-4 semesters taking 18-20 credits a semester, working 30-40 hours per week to make sure that I could pay for rent, buy food, stay alive, all while maintaining a decent GPA. I ran myself into the ground, and during my last semester, I hit an emotional wall.

It is so easy to push aside feelings of sadness, depression, mourning, grief and sweep these feelings under the rug and focus on making money and getting the good grades I felt like I needed to have… But that's just it. Regardless of how hard I worked, how many hours I spent studying, writing papers, and working at my job, I never felt like what I was doing was enough. Thankfully, we have incredible professors and faculty who help us acknowledge our accomplishments. Multiple times over the past year, I have been told that I simply do not give myself enough credit. And it's true. We don't.
The importance of vulnerability is something that I learned from Dr. Lovejoy this semester. Although it’s a concept that we used to navigate difficult problems in internships, it’s something that I have taken to heart and seen as important in my everyday life. 

Be vulnerable and accept the fact that we cannot and will not have all the answers. We can’t always perform the “strong” self; happy, successful, stress-less…

Look at what we've accomplished! For anyone reading this, one piece of advice I'd like to give you is just to let yourself be vulnerable. Allow yourself to have a break, cry it all out, and congratulate yourself for how far you've made it, and give yourself credit where credit is due. You don’t need to know everything, you don’t need to be perfect 100 percent of the time, and most importantly, you don’t have to do it alone. Reaching out and asking for help, emotionally or financially (Hellooo Com scholarships!), is the best thing you can do. 

Let yourself be vulnerable, tell your parents you love them, reach out to your friends and family who may be going through difficult times. The difference in “how are you,” and “how are you REALLY,” can be the smallest thing that lets a friend open up and talk about those difficult and uncomfortable feelings. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable; truly let down those walls of “toughness” and being “strong” shows more strength than shoving down tough feelings and emotions every day. You feel better, live better, and can create real interpersonal relationships with those around you. Trust me on this one, you won’t regret it. I am in no way perfect, nor will I ever be, but in the past 6 months, I've seen a miraculous positive change in my life since implementing this concept.

Thank you to all the professors and friends who have made such an enormous impact on my life, career, and relationships.

Jennifer Sugawa is a recent alumna of the University of Portland ('18). She can be reached at jreikos@gmail.com.