It's hard to imagine an existence where the one object, aim, or intention we hold nearest and dearest suddenly becomes sand in our slippery palms. One moment we're nobly struggling to give life to our ambition, and the next, that ambition becomes an impossible relic of "good tries" past. Such blanket consolations like "Nice try," "Good game," or "It was worth a shot" only work in sports or adolescent courtships. When it comes to losing the long-sought prize around which we center our life, we'll need a lot more than a hardy slap on the back.
But what led to such a rousing upset in the first place? Well, when you choose to predicate your life's worth on one (not-so) imminent accomplishment, it's reasonable to expect a bit of a backslide when that plan falters. The savior is not a diminution of high expectations, as that would only lead to a road of insufficient or absent meaning in individuals so naturally aspiring. Rather, the savior is coupling high expectations with a grounded sense of reality, keeping your feet on the ground even when your mind flirts with the clouds.
This whole conversation begins about a year ago, at the time I was accepted into the Legal Studies Program at Northwestern and first began pondering my obligatory thesis for the major. Perhaps I was on a legal high, so to speak, having been admitted to the Legal Studies major and to the pre-law fraternity, Phi Alpha Delta, right after an incredibly inspiring and rewarding winter quarter with two amazing legal studies adjunct professors. Maybe I thought acceptance to the program necessitated an eventual thesis of distinction, even though this special honor implies not all in the program will receive it. More likely, I was simply holding myself to the same lofty standards I always do.
One of the aforementioned professors above taught a class called "Human Rights and U.S. Refugee Law," a crash course in asylum law and adjudication, at the end of which I felt not only more confident in briefing asylum cases, but in synthesizing cogent arguments and presenting them publicly in a mock trial setting. Needless to say, this course drove me to take on a very ambitious thesis topic, comparing asylum procedures and outcomes for women in the U.S. and Canada (see The Pilot Post for my original mention of this thesis). What I did give myself credit for was my forward-looking attitude and desire to exert influence on the transnational realm of asylum law. What I didn't give myself credit for was my perseverance in doing so while signs gradually pointed to increased criticism of my project.
Certainly, a smaller-scale analysis may have accrued better grades and recognition, but was that really the primary goal? Did I not want to enlighten peers and legal scholars alike to the fairness and efficiency of both asylum systems in the hope of revealing an international model for gender asylum? Was this grand goal meant for a more extensive law review article post-graduation? Probably, but that doesn't mean initiating this work and mindset was not the most consequently gratifying thing to do.
My constructed world fell to pieces when I finally realized it would not be possible to receive honors for my thesis and therefore for the major. The broadness of my topic, the limited time frame, the huge student-to-advisor ratio, and other classroom political factors which cannot be controlled ultimately precluded such a result. Because an honors thesis was by far the brightest dot on my radar--indeed, sometimes the only dot on my radar--I was devastated when my eventual grade seemed not to reflect all the work and thought I put into my end product.
Now, I'm not saying I necessarily deserved honors, as nascent experience on how to write a thesis has taught me that I didn't go about it entirely the right way or delimit my time accordingly. Nonetheless, there is something to say for the heart and purpose I brought into my work. Of course, your work is nil if left unrecorded, but I did justify my thesis choice with all the language and background I could muster in a reduced time frame, thereby completing my practical duties. What often goes unnoticed and/or unmentioned in seemingly cookie-cutter academic papers is the author's personal reason for enacting the research and her genuine goal for herself and for her successors. Literature reviews, data, and well versed conclusions proving your novelty and significance in your field are fine and dandy, but where is the evidence that you intend to use this research to aid the world order, rather than simply to write an award-winning paper?
Some may contest that I would not hold these same ardent beliefs if my thesis had been distinguished. But I respond that it's quite possible that the scope and content of my project had no way of being eventually recognized, even in its blueprint stages. The seeming shift toward pure scholarly precision and away from legal discourse for lawyers' and humanity's sake is a distressing but perhaps irreconcilable side effect of academia. Maybe my qualms are unwarranted given the task at hand, but I just hope that I can demonstrate my overarching morals and effect cross-cutting change as a lawyer, if not as a legal scholar.
Friends may flock to whatever you say, but what about those whose languages stray? How will you show them a fine will is a way?
Act and proceed where your words may betray,
Dress: Paperdolls Boutique (St. Louis). Scarf: J. Crew (old). Necklace: J. Crew (old). Flower Crown: Self-made via Whole Foods Florist.
All photos by Sean Su.