January 14, 2018

Sunday Dialogues: Seeking Validation

Earlier this month, during my solo trip to Boston, I stayed at a hostel and lived with people from all over the world - France, Quebec, Australia, the Netherlands, China, Korea, Argentina, the US, you name it! Solo-traveling, during the bomb cyclone no less, merits a separate conversation of its own, but today's focus stems from a conversation I had with my French roommates. 

These three roommates were exchange students in Canada, and they had noticed the weight that prestige and "names" have when it comes to Canadian and American higher education. This concept of a "brand name school" is uncommon in France, and given our proximity to Harvard and my status at Cornell, they were curious to know why it all matters. What does a brand name entail?

Briefly, I explained the likelihood of increased access to resources/experts, biases in the job market, and the expectation of financial and career success. Notice that I said likelihood. An Ivy League education does not guarantee any of the above, and someone who chooses to go to a state school can most certainly achieve just as much - even more - given their work ethic and determination. So why did I want to go to Cornell so badly that I submitted three applications?

True, my original interest was due to its status as the #1 veterinary school. My continued interest was due to its status as the best undergraduate dietetics program... But I also know that pride was heavily involved. 

Did I want to prove my worth to my high school classmates? Did I want to feel proud of myself for wearing the Cornell brand? Did I want to feel superior, accepted, and admired? 

Yes, yes, and unfortunately, yes.

Attaining this education and pursuing it is a large investment of time and money. You don't need a business degree to understand the concept of return on investment: if you pay a lot, you would hope to get a lot, aka a leg up to achieve career and financial success. Yet what happens when the career you pursue isn't necessarily profitable? (And of course all of the careers that I've ever been interested in are not very lucrative!)

This is a practical consideration for almost anyone who pursues higher education within the US, but I'd like to argue that it's slightly different for individuals with family histories of immigration. This concept of prestige and success wouldn't plague me so much if the financial stipulations of the American dream didn't hit so close to home, weren't within an arm's reach. 

Without getting too deep, the general narrative of socioeconomic mobility via immigration is reflected in my family's history. The homesickness, sweat shops, and minimum wage for years on end are only a few of the sacrifices that my grandparents made. I am privileged enough to have never been near the same struggles. I didn't have control over their past nor the fortunate life I was born into, but I struggle with a burden that I think a lot of children of immigrant parents/grandparents have: the return on their sacrifices (investment) depends on me

Since childhood and still now, I've faced pressures telling me to go to medical or law school. More recently, I've been trying to resist pressures to go into research or get a doctorate because I'm "too good for just an RD license"... aka an RD license "isn't prestigious enough"? In addition to the pressure of immigration is the pressure of expectation. Being a (potential) product of the Ivy League system necessitates financial and career success to honor the brand name, live up to the legacy of alumni, and make those 4 years fruitful. 

Now I'm a people-pleaser. I have to realize that a lot of people simply don't understand the value of an RD; most people have never met with one while they see an MD at least once a year. A lot of the people in my life whom I have to explain this career path to can't comprehend what it entails. Either they don't have the health literacy to understand, or the language barrier is too significant that the right words aren't within my vocabulary. 

It's discouraging to never be enough, to never be pleasing in the eyes of the people closest to you, no matter what you achieve. When I was 16, I met the first person who had ever believed in my dream to become a veterinarian. This was after seven years of people laughing in my face or giving me a disgusted, disappointed look. (The product of these experiences was a relentlessly stubborn nature, one so powerful that I could barely hear God telling me to let go of the dream, too!)

I hope you agree that kids should be emboldened to dream. While it's understandable where the pressures come from, it's disheartening to see relatives tear down confidence when a school is already so demanding, when the world's already so harsh. Today, I continue to bend over backwards trying to explain my education: that it's the same as a pre med's, that RDs have to be incredibly knowledgeable about metabolism, physiology, disease management, the protein needs of burn victims, tube feeding, etc...

It's fruitless and draining to try to explain. To try to find validation in the eyes of those who don't understand. To impress everyone. To seek the approval of everyone. 

Time and time again, I have to remind myself that Christ's validation is enough. In fact, it's more than enough. God chose us, undeserving sinners, to receive the gift of grace brought forth by Jesus' sacrifice. When I was in middle school, the following clip about a father and his young son made God and Jesus' sacrifice even more tangible and personal:
(And if you have time to watch the full clip, which I highly encourage you to do:)

How could a father have made this decision? Just thinking about this clip brings me to tears. And to think, that's only a human idea of how great the sacrifice was. 

It shouldn't matter what the world thinks. Jesus required his disciples to leave everything, their families included, to follow him. In Luke 14:26, He even says to a crowd, "If you come to me but will not leave your family, you cannot be my follower. You must love me more than your father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters—even more than your own life!" Though it may look different from believer to believer, the life of a Christ follower is full of sacrifices and challenges. 

I for one need to give up the self-imposed "need" to please the people who have specific, worldly expectations for my future. I can never please everyone - getting into Cornell wasn't even enough. More importantly, I need to be confident in using the opportunities gifted to me not merely for self-promotion, but for the empowerment of the marginalized, the sick, the needy. 

Of course I had to work hard for my education, but the truth is, a lot of people who deserve a spot at Cornell don't get it. My education is a gift and privilege, not a right I'm entitled to. What I should do with this gift is share it, not hoard it to myself. Coming to terms with my undeserved nature has made all the difference in wanting to live obediently and humbly for God.

I can still honor my grandparents/parents by not only respecting them and being conscious of the sacrifices I reap benefits from, but also by honoring God first. This is a cyclical system: honor God by honoring your parents, honor your parents by honoring God. 

Another important response to grace is a desire to multiply God's blessings. I need to live to increase His return on investment by sharing the gifts and privileges afforded to me. I also need to show patience and love to those who don't understand. 

At church, we've been talking about inter-generational ministry (building up the next generation in discipleship). Encouragement is a huge part of building up the younger generation, but I think it should extend to both peers and those older than you, as well. 

During this trip, I was encouraged by my French roommates who nodded appreciatively, saying that there's a dire need for dietitians in the US. This might not seem significant given the US health and obesity crises that the world is so aware of, but I don't open my eyes enough. Being currently stuck in academia, I most often see the application of dietetics in an area that is already very saturated and serves a very privileged demographic. Their reassurance was a reminder from God to open my eyes and remember why I believe that becoming an RD is how I can best honor God through my career! 

Over dinner, I was encouraged by an older massage therapist who engaged me in a conversation about the food industry and agriculture after discovering our shared interest in Michael Pollan. I was also encouraged by the director of a Boston post-grad program (this trip was clearly very beneficial for me). She recognized the setback in a career path that demands significant investment in education with little financial return, but asked, "if we did this for the money, why would we do it?" It's a commitment to quality patient care, a dedication to health promotion, a desire to promote the Earth's well-being.

Richard Stearns, to Harvard University students, on God's calling vs. career.

I'm going to leave you with one request: encourage one another in their pursuit of a more Christ-like and Christ-honoring life. There's a lot of noise out there, even well-intended noise, that can deter someone from being confident in walking with God. The human instinct for acceptance and validation can make it hard to be enthusiastic about humble, quiet obedience to God. It's hard to not seek approval from the world. 

Be a cheerleader. Tell someone you believe in them. Remind them of what they've done. Inspire them by sharing how God's worked through you. Pray that they stand firm, unwavering with Christ, against the noise. This is a race in which we must fixate our eyes solely on Him, but it's not a race that we run alone! 


  1. This is so, so powerful Hannah. I'm always so inspired and encouraged by your deeply reflective blogposts.
    Being in Copenhagen has definitely been challenging, and being in a spiritually dry society where, like you say, there's a lot of "noise," has made me confused...but as I'm taking more time to understand our broken society, I'm holding more to God...The videos were so powerful in that they showed me the LOVE of a PERSONAL God.

    I only pray that we both continue to grow more and more! I still can't grasp it and can hardly believe Jesus died for ME. Such love...may I come to truly understand and spread this love.

    1. Michelle, I'm so happy to hear that God was able to speak to you through this blogpost, reminding you to hold onto Him :'-) The movie, "The Shack", does a great job at depicting our God as our Father, not some scary deity with the power to smite us, haha! Praying for you as you continue your CPH adventures - I miss you so much! xo, Han