Collegewise Alumni: The Road to Empowerment

By Sophia Yi

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Many of our counselors share how their past and present students often "wow" them—whether it's via a hard-hitting or inspirational essay with an interesting perspective, or through a fun story that they share, years later, as they look back at their college experiences.
Every month, we're featuring stellar writing by some of our former students (we like to call them "Collegewise Alumni").
This month, we're featuring Sophia Yi, who shares her story about finding personal empowerment in doing a very difficult thing: braving the wilderness of Alaska.


The strength Alaska gave me exists more in my mind and will than it does in my calves and shoulders. After all, it takes more than biceps to be willing to suffer the frustration and humiliation of having to share one’s mac-and-cheese with a cloud of mosquitoes.

I have found that my most empowering experiences are the ones in which I have no choice but to do difficult or undesirable things.

My tenacity grew in leaps and bounds on rainy days when (out of necessity) I discovered an ability to rival the Swiss Family Robinson in the construction of far-reaching tarp shelters. I would grit my teeth, the cold air chilling my wet hands, as my numb fingers fumbled with friction knots and tugged on the corners of tarps weighed down by the ever-falling rain. Similarly, practicing my bear-spray-deploying stance and the zig-zagged run that helps prevent death by moose-trampling equipped me with a courage I’d never enjoyed before.

I left Maryland an extremely shy germaphobe who balked at the idea of relieving herself among the trees (or as we jokingly called them, “facili-trees”). Now, with my time in Alaska behind me, I regularly dance before strangers, eat trail mix off of actual dirt trails, and think nothing of a three-night stretch devoid of showers.

For months, I looked forward to my backpacking trip in Alaska with an excitement nearing hysteria, knowing that I was preparing to embark on an adventure that could hardly be anything but life-changing. Even my timidity and fear of pathogens could not mask my intrinsic infatuation with the beauty and tranquility in the natural world. Nevertheless, to say that my three weeks in Alaska exceeded my expectations would hardly do them justice. Even now, as I picture our two- and three-person tents arranged in a circle by a lake, nestled into the side of a hill, or covered in a canopy of dripping, leafy trees, the word “homesick” comes to mind.

A part of me has lived in Alaska as it could never live anywhere else. Perhaps, it was the way in which 4,276 miles separated me from my phone in Maryland, leaving me with no way to retreat from human interactions. Siri could not give me easy, immediate answers to my questions any more than Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music could muffle my comrades’ reminders that it was my turn to treat water for the next day’s hike. With no phone, my much-needed “recharge time” as an introvert was limited to the seconds in which I could breathe in crisp, fresh, invigorating air.

Likewise, my 11:00 P.M. entertainment consisted of witnessing the summer sun dip behind Denali. With far fewer of the distractions that typically assail my mind in every moment, I discovered how to “live life to the fullest”: I engaged with the natural world on my own, relying very little on the crutch of technology or other man-made amenities, finding in myself more competence and courage than I’d ever suspected I had.

What Alaska changed about me most is not the circumference of my biceps; it is the new confidence I’ve conjured in stores where I politely demand the discounts I deserve, the resilience I now employ in disputes with friends, and the fortitude I can now summon in classrooms where I am asked to defend my opinion.

Nature has given me many gifts: mental massages in the midst of metropolitan stress, passports to a realm of blissful contemplation and wonder, and a source of boundless and irrepressible energy. I now add “mental hardiness worth a million Muscle Milk Pro Shakes” to the list.

Marylanders say bullies are beastly, classrooms are cold, and school backpacks are burdensome...please. Not by my standards.

College can be a place where you learn how to test your tenacity
and become empowered—and a
 Collegewise counselor can help you get there!
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