My Dear Fellow GraSPPers,
Only a year ago, I was sharing classrooms with many of you, doing group projects in discussion rooms, exchanging greetings on the 4th floor lounge, and making close friendships. At that point, I already knew that I would spend my second year at Columbia University SIPA, thousands of miles away from Tokyo, counting on social media and long-distance calls to stay in touch. Never have I imagined that it would become an everyday routine a year later, where we must rely on online communicating and social distancing to keep up with the lives of our loved ones. Like yours, my life has completely turned around during the most intense and impactful months in recent global history where the continued impact of the coronavirus and the deepening economic recession is yet to be estimated. While this might have been the most uncertain period in our lives, I have witnessed the power of solidarity, unity, and hope that brought out the best in humanity and inspired many others to empower their communities.
As I look back at my double degree years, I realize that the challenges I faced have shaped me to become a stronger person, as well as inspired me to change. Coming to Columbia with a 3-year-old child was one of the challenges – with no subsidized childcare from the university, I had to make last minute decisions whether to keep my child with me while bearing significant costs, or to let him grow apart in Kyrgyzstan. I chose the first option and it propelled me on a journey to become an advocate for many student parents like myself and to start a SIPA Students and Families Alliance. It gradually ignited the formation of the Columbia-wide Childcare Affordability Initiative that demands affordable childcare options for all students regardless of their affiliation. This experience showed me that I was not alone in my hardships and by sharing it with others, I found allies and advocates who wanted to support me in this journey.
SIPA was more than a platform to raise my voice; it helped me strengthen my academic, leadership, and networking skills I gained from GraSPP. Comprehending 500 pages of weekly readings, presiding over student organizations, attending networking events, and bonding with professors was a few things I got to do at SIPA. Unintendedly, I decided to take everything from my learning experiences, and deal with the challenges as they come by. Those were the toughest two years combined, but I survived. My motto now, unarguably, is “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”. The best part though was meeting incredibly smart, talented, and inspiring peers, who, I am confident, will go on to make the world a better place and I’m deeply grateful to GraSPP for allowing me to enjoy it twice as much.
The last few months of my academic venture in New York City were filled with uncertainty, constant pivoting, and a whole lot of distant calls. We changed three apartments in two months, once living near the hospital with coronavirus patients and morgue trucks parked next to it. At a new place, we watched the elevation of racism, discrimination, inequality, and police brutality in the public consciousness and the unraveling of the #BlackLivesMatter movement and it is a living history lesson that I got to be part of. Had I not been selected for double degree, I would miss this opportunity, and not be a part of the small acts of solidarity like clapping the frontline workers at 7PM or singing along with New Yorkers every Thursday. New York has taught me to welcome differences, and to stand together in the face of adversity.
A year ago, we were making plans to walk on the stage and celebrate our achievements. The pandemic changed it all, and it might have taken away our ceremony, but it will not deprive of our memories and friendships, nor erase all the hard work we put into these two years. We are all in this together and I would like to urge you all to embrace the new unknowns, the challenges they bring, but most importantly, to look forward to opportunities they might turn into. The world is continuing to suffer from multiple disasters and is in dire need of our talent, intelligence, and leadership. So, let us use this global pandemic as an opportunity to ignite conversations, to extend a helping hand to those in need, and to spark changes.