OPINION: Don't you lose hope: an open letter to my freshman self

By Chivon Ou | April 28, 2023 10:00am

Photo courtesy of Chivon Ou.

Dear freshman Chivon,

You’ve made the right choice coming here, and in the end, you’ll be darned to realize you are actually quite sad once your chapter here at UP is over. I can’t put in words what makes UP special, but I can tell you it’s not the kind of school you’re used to, and I mean that in the best way.

I want you to remember for a minute what school was like for you as a queer, Asian-American student who was oftentimes the only person of color in your classes, despite how much you might want to forget. 

Remember when you were told your skin color and even your culture was a “mistake” by God — that God somehow “overbaked” you when he made “people like you?” Remember when you were told your name sounds like “s***” and so at one point you were given the nickname “s***-von?” 

Remember when that old “friend” said your smile and laugh were ugly, so you swore to never smile or laugh out in public again? Remember when… Let’s not remember all those things. I think you get the point. These were the things you grew to expect in every school — the bullying, the taunting, the lingering feeling of constant hopelessness that makes you want to escape.

I know you dreamed to travel far far away for college, but now you’re on track to go to college in Oregon, the place you were born and have only ever known. Trust me, you will go farther than you could ever imagine by staying here, accomplishing your dreams by making friends all over the world, but I won’t spoil that chapter for you. 

I know that because of that trauma, you swore to yourself on your first day at UP that you would open your heart to no one. 'This is a school, don’t make connections, just get the darn degree in four years and leave,' I used to tell myself. I used to tell myself college will be just like high school but with more people. I know that on that first day of coming to UP, you would expect more of the same. 

Well, looking back on these past four years, I’m pleasantly surprised and glad to say you will be disappointed — the people here are not like the people you knew growing up. The people you meet here will help you to look inside of a mirror and smile for the first time in a long time, laugh loudly in front of others, and most of all find joy and hope when you came in with so few of those things. 

You will recover your smile and your laugh again.

Things will not always be bright. It is Oregon after all — the sunshine comes and goes — you should know that by now, even if your intolerance to cold makes you forget. You will learn about disappointing revelations and endure turbulent changes to plans, but you will also find friends who would become your “found family” and gain lifelong experiences that will enrich you with a feeling of hope that you once thought was irrecoverable.

But as I said, the sunshine comes and goes; whatever happens, don’t you lose hope. There are lots of things that are left unresolved at this school, more work is to be done, lots of “unfinished” conversations, but all of these experiences will be relevant as you enter the workforce. 

These experiences will be relevant as you enter into new chapters, new places where your worth as a human being and as a nurse might be called into question by bullies and the powers that may be. The world is a scary place, and being part of an institution, any institution for that matter, may make you feel small and powerless. Don’t worry. Your friends will teach you otherwise; they will help you discover your voice and put your fears and anxieties to rest.

Your friends will free you with the realization that your toxic, unsustainable pursuit to achieve 100% marks on everything is rooted in the trauma of being taught that you weren’t good enough. You were taught that there is something deeply undignified about your being as a queer person of color, and that 100% marks were the only way to weigh your worth. 

These friends you find here will enlighten you that you were wrong. These friends will teach you that it’s not something to pride yourself on averaging two hours of sleep per night like you used to in high school to achieve high marks. They will actually teach you how to set healthy boundaries and scold you for not getting enough sleep. 

(Don’t worry though, you will surely discover in your senior year that you are absolutely a night-shift nurse and your sleep schedule will need to be re-calibrated once again since your classes just have to be during the bothersome daytime). 

These friends will awaken in you a sense of pride and confidence you have never known before; they will teach you for the first time that there is nothing wrong with being queer and trans, despite what others in positions of power may have to say. In fact, you will meet friends and read stories about people who identify from other cultures, like Hawaiian Māhū or Native American Two-Spirit. They will enlighten you with the knowledge that there are actually cultures and religions out there that center and celebrate LGBTQ+ people like you with pride and joy rather than the shame and persecution you were so used to. 

These friends will teach you that being trans is not a “social experiment causing irreversible damage” to you, but rather it is in fact an inherent part of your being and contributes to rather than detracts from your humanity. These friends will teach you that there are allies in this vibrant community who are determined to engage in intersectionality and call for reform to create a Catholic community for all people —  despite those of us who may believe that such a reality is impossible and that people can be as different as “the two poles of the Earth.” 

As a queer, trans, and Catholic person of color, you and the community of friends whom you will have all gathered will stand as the antithesis to that archaic way of thinking. You will form friends in the most unexpected places, solidifying your faith and hope that things will get better for people like you as time goes on.

Even as the national dialogue around trans identities proves grim and people like you may be bullied into silence for speaking your truth, you will find a beacon (pun intended) of light right here at UP to remind you to always keep your head up.  

I’ve now come to the conclusion after meeting all these people and friends that if God intentionally created entire cultures or people who look like me or who have fulfilled me as much as the ones I’ve been so honored to meet here at UP, then maybe perhaps I am not a “mistake” that was “overbaked” in God’s metaphorical oven of creation. Maybe there is hope for me after all that I am loved by God. 

I know after coming here, meeting all the people I’ve met, a part of me will always remain here at UP. These friends will teach you that you are human and that you are loved — don’t doubt you won’t find them, you most certainly will. 

I’m not able to list everyone I’ve had the honor of coming across here at UP. I shared so much joy, so many experiences and moments with too many people to count that brought a smile on my face, but I’m sure they know who they are and they know the profound impact they’ve had on me.

Just as you had to say goodbye to many friends along the way, Chivon, it is now time to say farewell to UP. I’m proud to say this chapter ends with a feeling of gratitude words simply cannot express enough — I can’t help but smile even as I write goodbye, much to your surprise I’m certain. But I’m glad to prove the old me wrong — it means I’m doing something right perhaps.

Chivon Ou is a senior at the University of Portland. She can be reached at ou23@up.edu.

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