The Persistent Academic

May 2016

I struggled to engage the mind, as a substantial workload presented itself. Lengthy rubrics and deadlines fueled a forest fire of doubt, and anxiety woke from its restless slumber. The word “can’t” flooded my mind, duplicating itself like countless pages being ejected from a printer… falling onto the expanse of a room void of confidence. I attempted to hush the subconscious mind, which was active in protest. The conscious mind was a fool to believe that its peaceful demonstration could repress such intimidation.

February 2017

I graduated from high school and have successfully completed my first semester of college. I am taking a course similar to the one of which I spoke several months ago. But there is one significant difference between the former and the latter course. I no longer encounter the mental roadblocks that once hindered my academic performance. Anxiety is a feeble enemy, particularly to the persistent academic.

Allow me to digress. I would like to mention that I earned an ‘F’ on my final exam in the class I discussed in May (and yes, I do mean, “earned”). But when I received my report card in the summer, I was not disappointed… because my ‘F’ was more than a letter grade. It was the purest symbol of trying and failing, and trying and failing, and trying again. It was a representation of my long-term fight against anxiety, and the many lessons I learned. I learned that my mental well-being is a greater priority than grades. I learned never to ignore my intuition, even if I can’t muster the words to explain the problem. I would rather receive an unsatisfactory letter grade and have grown intellectually than to earn an ‘A’ but not have achieved personal growth. Quite frankly, the aim of acquiring information is not to achieve an ideal result but to learn from the process.

On another note, it would bother me for others to perceive my academic success as a paved route. I am so thankful to have earned a spot on my school’s Dean’s list. But it is vital to note that high-achieving students often possess effective problem-solving abilities because they have had substantial experience tackling personal and academic challenges.

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The Embodiment of Free Expression

Writer’s Note: This story is one of my most powerful recent works, as it challenges the notion of what it means to be alive, as I strive to become the embodiment of free expression. Thank you so much for reading.- Naima.

    The Embodiment of Free Expression

         “You’re not really living. You’re just surviving,” she says. I notice that my breathing becomes constrained, lungs filling with discomfort. It is a skill to awaken the subconscious mind and enable it to coexist with the conscious mind, as I strive to do during meditation. But to deny my efforts to live fully is nothing short of offensive. I turn red. The mind is a philosopher whose tongue is tied. My words are lodged in my throat, eventually diminishing into the back of mind so that they may arise as an afterthought. I don’t really begin to breathe until she leaves. What can I do to rid myself of frustration? How can I prove that I am truly alive, despite that I am destitute of the roots of a healthy mind? Can I build health and happiness in spite of difficult circumstances? To rise above the weight of these desperate matters? I will use my mind as a resource so that I may learn to live fully, learn what it’s like to truly fill a canvas with freedom.

My car zooms down the length of Richmond Highway as I anticipate my workout. The elliptical awaits my presence, the yoga studio growing impatient for my arrival. And finally, I have reached my solace, my euphoria, my gate to freedom. I increase the resistance of the machine with haste. My mind’s eye observes adrenaline climbing to its peak… slowly. The minutes fly, and eventually, time becomes irrelevant. There is no greater extent to which I can be present. My mind, body, and soul is here… and alive. Techno music strikes the match on adrenaline. I speed up. Euphoria grows closer to its peak, and fatigue cannot hinder my pace. I dismount the elliptical and rush to the yoga studio.

During the gym’s final open hour, I turn down the lights, let lyrics flow into the mind. I focus on breathing. Inhale peace, exhale release. My eyes gently close, as I pedal my feet in downward dog. Listening to the sound of my breath, I notice as peace flows through my temples. Open the body as you stretch into three-legged dog. Inhale peace. Ground your heels on the mat, and tip your hips toward the ceiling. Exhale release. Movement begins to flow, as energy surges through my veins. This mode of self-expression leaves no room for shame… or judgment. I am present and aware of my body. My back arches to make space for oxygen, my body performs countless turns as I lose myself in a whirlwind of pure joy. One Republic’s “Apologize” begins to play. I place my hands in prayer and sit at the center of my mat. The eyes close. Oxygen fills my lungs, and serenity grounds itself in my heart. Tears fill my eyes, nearly tipping over the lower eyelid. “Alhamdulillah.” I whisper.

Gratitude floods my heart and spills over the expanse of the yoga studio. Pure joy sits in my throat, waiting for the tears to spill over the edge. Can I whisper the word “alive”? Better yet, can I bottle this feeling and hand it to those who told me I was merely surviving? Can I paint the town in the word “living”… in the word “present”? Place my name right beside them. I am alive. I am present. I am awake. The conscious and subconscious mind have found unity in this very moment, and I have only the shadows as my witnesses… the very reflections in the mirrors. I don’t need to repeat “alive” until I become that which I strive for. We are what we repeatedly do, and I—I have chosen health and exercise as an eternal realm of freedom. Free expression will imprint itself in my very being until I have become the embodiment thereof.

Tell me that I am merely existing. Tell me that I am merely surviving. But it is in the wake of these euphoric peaks, in the exhilaration that forces tears of joy to spill over the eyelids, that I become alive. Alive, and awake, and present. Here. Present.

I prepare to leave the gym, slowly putting my shoes on. Attention is diverted, as I cannot help but to replay the beautiful dances that I performed. The mind’s eye watches my graceful body, my arched back, my pointed toes… as I made space for freedom. Still, I crave to relive these moments that occurred in the very recent past. But without a doubt, I will recreate them. Undeniably, I will become them.

Ever-burning Fire

The roots of an active lifestyle often begin in childhood. When I was 11-years-old, my sister encouraged me to take part in physical activity by getting me a gym membership. Mental and physical health disorders are no rarity in either my family or the country. Over several years of cardio obsessions, love-hate relationships with the sport of running, and tumbling in my pastime, I decided to try something new. Outdoor track season had ended, and that meant I was off the sidewalks of Alexandria and dragging myself to the gym. I needed a break from cardio; even thinking about running was exhausting. So, why didn’t I stop going to the gym altogether? Sounds like a pretty simple escape, huh? Working out was a bonding activity between me and my sister, and saying, “no,” to exercise was the equivalent of giving up on holding our bond together. Even thinking about making such a choice was dangerous territory.

So I put my love-hate relationship for cardio behind me and tried a Body Flow class, which was a 1-hour workout that combines tai chi, yoga, and pilates. My instructor was a tall, energetic woman in her 50s named Wanda. I didn’t know what to expect from the class, but I liked the idea of not knowing. I needed a break from the predictability of interval training. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” began to play, as Wanda guided us through various postures, from downward-facing dog and forward fold, to mountain pose and upward-facing dog. I’m going to be real with you. I thought all of these movements were just plain weird. I couldn’t help but be aware that my butt was in the air while I was in downward dog. Well, everyone was doing it, so there was no point in wondering if other people were staring (but who cares, right?). During the last five minutes of class, Wanda guided us through meditation. At the time, I had neither meditated nor thought about completely emptying my mind. My thoughts were always loud. I was always thinking, and if I were doing anything besides that, I was overthinking… reanalyzing, reflecting, replaying… you get the point. I rested on my back in corpse pose, my thoughts gradually becoming quiet. Wanda had turned off the lights. I felt safe and comfortable to be honest with my mind’s activity. Thoughts of attachment to people who served little purpose in my life kept coming to mind. My thoughts shifted from calm to critical… but I eventually found a balance. I let myself accept the state of my well-being… accept my body… accept my circumstances… accept who I was. But above all, I was free from judgement and criticism. It was okay not to be okay. I focused on breathing. My lungs expanded and contracted, my thoughts swimming in a sea of peaceful darkness. Tears began to spill from the edges of my eyes. I was saddened by the thoughts that occasionally interrupted my peace, yet empowered by self-acceptance. I was a step closer to personal freedom. Wanda eventually invited us to sit up. We took our final in-breath of the class, and Wanda said, “Namaste.”

I exhaled. Yoga was transformative. I was powerful not because I was one of the youngest people in the class or because I had the flexibility of a dancer. I was powerful because I knew how to gain control over my mind. I could practice controlling my thoughts, which were ultimately the root of my dying motivation for cardio training. I ran for every cross-country and outdoor track season until the end of my high school career, and my subconscious mind began to actively search for activities that made me feel just as full as I had felt in my first Body Flow class. I craved euphoria. I craved the adrenaline rush of crossing the finish line. And I eventually found another high… one that taught me how to keep the door to free expression wide open and even break the walls down if I needed to. Contemporary dance enabled me to unite my mind, body, and spirit, as I learned what it meant to truly live in the present moment. I began to perceive self-expression as more than just a 1-hour class at the gym on a Sunday morning. Self-expression was a limitless world in which I could move, speak, and dance in any way that brought freedom and dignity to my being. I lit a fire on all of my passions, from cross-country and track, to yoga, dance, and even weight-lifting. The fire still burns, and eventually, I will pass the torch, as I will begin a 200-hour yoga teacher training in February. I hope to inspire my students to become walking examples of creative expression, to make healthy choices that enable them to live more fully. Regardless of the decisions that we make for ourselves, we all truly want to live more fully. The greatest difference is, is our perceptions of what it means to live in such a way. It’s vital that our passions enable us to unite the mind and spirit.

To my generous and caring sister, Areeba, who helped me build the heat that would fuel my fire, I am thankful beyond what words could ever express. At night, I stand in front of the mirror and observe my figure. My long arms, my soft skin, my gorgeous pixie cut… I whisper positive affirmations, let them ground themselves in my mind, for mental health is equally important as physical health. These positive affirmations, this healthy body, are the product of those who supported me for years. To Coach Geraty, my former cross-country coach, whose cheers I can still hear in my mind to this day. To Coach Viviani, my former track coach, whose unwavering support led me to believing in myself more firmly. To Ms. Jessica Scharl, my former English teacher, who guided me in maintaining healthy relationships and often provided academic advice.  To Mr. Nelson, my former Creative Writing teacher, who encouraged me to start a blog where I have experimented with diverse genres of writing. To Wanda, who inspired me to become a yoga instructor. And to so many more. I am overwhelmed with gratitude. My success and well-being is due in part to each and every one of you.

My ever-burning lantern will remain lit. I will find myself on the sidewalks of Northern Virginian cities, running road races with hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I will dance on the floors of my yoga studio, let lyrics climb up every one of my ribs as exhilaration crawls through my lungs. I will continue to share my stories through this wonderful blog where creativity knows no bounds. But above all, I will walk through the doors of free expression and pour gasoline over creativity. Watch it kindle in times of darkness, let it shine in times of ease.

 

 

Freedom Living

Lying on the ground, I acknowledge the rough carpet touching the small of my back. Blood pumps through my temples, my arms, my neck, as I rest calmly. I close my eyes, placing my left hand over my stomach, the other over my heart. Visualizing the dance that invited this restfulness, I relive the burst of creativity that I experienced as I improvised dances to countless songs. My mind’s eye watches as my body stretches into a standing split before gently collapsing into corpse pose.

As I was dancing, I occasionally closed my eyes. I couldn’t see my body but I could feel… feel energy rush into my lungs, fueling a fire in my veins. The music notes have become a part of me, they live through my very being so that they, too, may be present in this moment. I arch my back to open my lungs, briefly resting both hands behind my head. Oxygen is a luxury, neither scare nor too abundant. My heartrate quickens as the dance intensifies. Standing split. Bridge. Warrior two stance. Corpse pose. Stretch every muscle in the body, feel the limbs take up more space. I open my eyes. It appears that the ceiling is growing further and further away from me. Creativity has no bounds, space is limitless, and I— I have found my outlet for free expression.

Survival

Writer’s Note: I wrote this creative short-story as an outlet for a powerful statement regarding safety. Although there are myriad safety threats worldwide (i.e. terrorist attacks, driving under the influence, genetically-inherited health issues, etc.), safety is very much a right– not a privilege. Despite that safety should be guaranteed to all, regardless of (social, economic, cultural, or other) background, sometimes we must fight for our right to be safe. I hope you enjoy reading this story, as it is not only one of my most extensive recent works, but it also conveys a powerful theme. – Naima

Survival

Birds tweet along to the gentle patter of rain against the wooden dock, as I lay on my back, mesmerized by the sound of rain. Tropical birds travel from tree-to-tree in this beautiful forest. I observe wildlife through the length of tall, healthy trees that surround me. Blood gently pulses against my temples as I breathe deeply, resting all muscles. The warm rain lands on my skin like gentle kisses from Mother Nature. I blink several times to clear my vision. Raindrops linger in my eyelashes, on my skin, and in my hair. Not a thought of responsibility or worry traverses these woods. There is only space for calm in a quiet, controlled mind.

My heart is full. I occasionally think about all the things for which I am thankful. I am thankful to this forest for providing sustenance for me to survive in the outdoors. I am thankful for my health; I am agile and quick enough to hunt. Breathing deeply, I naturally stop thinking about time. I can stay in this forest for eternity and be safe, calm, and present.

Suddenly, thunder roars, causing flocks of birds to relocate. Lighting strikes a tree, and the skinny trunk burns to ashes. I remember my mother’s advice before I had left home several years ago. Always be aware of your surroundings. Fear trickles down my spine; I only have two choices: fight or flight. Well, Mother Nature wins this battle. I begin to run in search of a safer location. Instinct is critical to survival. My frock becomes tattered as I leap over countless twigs. Chasing safety, my heart grows tired with every passing minute. I have no choice but to consider time now.

After almost an hour of running, I reach a clearing. The rainstorm ended. I find a rock to sit on and relax. Just as my muscles release their tension, I hear heavy footsteps. Opening my knapsack, I pull out my bow-and-arrow. Poised, I observe the distant woods, listening intently to the rustle of leaves. “Hello?” A man’s voice. Where is that voice coming from? I continue to hold my bow-and-arrow. “Anybody there?” I turn around and see a tall, muscled man appear from the woods. He looks at me from head-to-toe and gradually raises his arms. “Hi, I’m Jethro. I’m not going to hurt you, so you can put your weapon down, hun.” I lower my bow-and-arrow and push my hair away from my face. He slowly approaches me.

“Magnolia. Nice to meet you.” I extend my hand. He shakes my hand firmly. “So, what business do you have here in the clearing?”

“I water the plants here daily. I’m growing crops for the spring harvest. You?”

“I—wow. I was just looking for a safe place to stay. With the rainstorm, the other night, I was just trying to avoid getting struck by lightning.” I begin to collect wood to start a fire.

He laughs heartily.

“You’ve gotta build a shelter for yourself. I built mine out of wood and rock, but it’s located about a mile from here.”

I watch bright orange, red, and blue colors dance around in the fire, thankful to finally have a source of warmth.

Jethro stands up and begins to water the plants from a red canteen that reads ‘CAUTION.’

“Magnolia, do you believe in survival of the fittest,” Jethro asks.

“Not really. As long as you have the right mind and resources, you ‘oughta be fine.”

I observe Jethro’s features: piercing black eyes, rugged hair, and a beige cotton shirt that is frayed at the edges. He turns around to finish watering the plants, walking around the clearing in a perfect circle.

“The right mind and resources, you say?”

“That’s why I’ve got—.” My eyes dart around the ground for my knapsack.

“Magnolia, you sure as hell got the right resources, but you might want to polish your mind.” Jethro wears my knapsack on his back and stands poised with my bow-and-arrow. I duck behind a rock.

The arrow is ablaze.

Jethro launches the weapon into the ring that he poured over the plants, and suddenly, I am surrounded by a ring of fire that gradually intensifies.

“Maybe you can use your pretty little mind to collect more resources,” he says, running away with the red canteen that reads ‘lighter fuel.’

The short-lived, gentle rain was an illusion of true safety. But perhaps we must create a safe environment within our minds and bodies before we begin to search for it within the natural world. Countless illusions present themselves in these woods. Danger camouflages itself as a safe environment, waiting to catch its next prey. I will fight to get out of this ring of fire, but more important, I won’t just survive. I will live. I will thrive.

Adrenaline Rush

Writer’s Note:  Neurological rewards, such as the adrenaline rush, keep me coming back to the gym for more. This piece is meant to capture that powerful sensation. I love reflecting on my deep enjoyment of physical activity. Hopefully, this piece will motivate you to exercise. Enjoy!- Naima

Adrenaline Rush

Mount the elliptical and don’t hesitate to begin. Hit ‘play’ on Halsey’s “Colors.” The body hits ‘play’ on adrenaline.  Head up, chest out, knees up. Sweat soaks my Under Armour shirt. Pick your knees up faster. The body craves an endorphin rush. The beat quickens. Heartbeat, light, and sound coalesce into a celebration of life. A fire kindles in my quadriceps and intensifies. Faster. The fire ignites an incomparable high. Open your lungs and take it all in. This movement is a dance in disguise. Halsey sings, “You’re dripping like a saturated sunrise.” My vision becomes blurry from sweat dripping into my eyes. Heart beat knocks against the walls of my lungs. Harder. I can feel my pulse in my bicep. Every inch of me has come alive. The mind is stimulated. The body refuses to quit. I increase the incline of the machine, increase the resistance. It’s not enough to spark a stronger high. Speed up. Use your arms! The song reaches its chorus. Techno music flows in, sweat flows out. Energy can be limitless. Energy must be limitless. I continue to celebrate my health, my youth, my happiness. The fire continues to burn through my legs, building heat. Nothing can blow out the flame. I have become the flame. Every muscle in the body is working toward the peak of this adrenaline rush. Light an entire forest on fire until there’s nothing left but hot wax. Sweat continues to soak every inch of my bright red shirt. Sit deeper into your quads and build toward your maximum speed. I can’t see my legs moving, but the fire still kindles. I eventually slow down and dismount the machine. The flame still fuels my pulse, as blood flows to my temples. Happiness floods my veins and is delivered to the heart. Let the fire burn.

“Dance is a way to tell a story through movement.”

Writer’s Note: This piece is a creative short-story that captures the effect of dance on all aspects of my personal growth and success, from academics to career-related work. I emphasize the importance of free expression on mental and physical well-being. I hope to convey my appreciation of creative expression, as it is one of the many doors to self-discovery and growth. Hope you enjoy!- Naima

“Dance is a Way to Tell a Story through Movement”

         Light reflects from the golden-brown wood floor of the yoga studio, as my iPhone plays “Apologize” by One Republic. Yoga poses and dance combine to awaken creativity. “Take another chance, take it far, take a shot through,” the musician sings. My toes and ankles contract to suspend my body into a starfish position in the air, as my arms and legs are shoulder-width apart. I land into a kneeling position and drive my fist into the wood floor. As my body becomes in-tune with the meaning of the song, I remember my dance instructor. “Dance is a way to tell a story through movement,” he said. I give myself the chance to adopt a new persona each time the song changes. My body turns in 360-degree circles as my arms alternate between first and second position. Movement begins to unravel like the chapter of a must-read. Leap. Land quickly on two feet and transition into seated postures. Perform a full-turn and stand up. Single-arm cartwheel. Plie. And another leap to bring truth to power. “I’m holding on your rope, got me ten feet off the ground,” the singer concludes.

My iPhone plays Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful,” singing, “She just wants to be beautiful. She goes unnoticed. She knows no limits. She craves attention.” I begin with my arms in eagle pose, crouched on the wood floor, slowly transforming into a tall standing position. “All that beauty goes deeper than the surface,” Alessia continues to sing. My body opens like a flower, as I strike a standing split. Patiently waiting for the chorus, I hold these straight lines of energy and beautifully pointed-toes. “There’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark. You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are.” Pick up the pace. Quickly alternate between first and second position as you perform countless turns. Lyrics and dizziness coalesce, and I’ve lost the beat in a whirlwind of creativity. Pick it back up again. Strike a single-arm handstand. Slide into a left-leg split. Stand up, and stretch your legs as far in front of you as possible. Take up as much space as you can. Run, and dance, and tumble, until you’ve had enough.

The song changes. I settle into a yoga pose, knees bent, shoulders facing the mirror, arms relaxed. Tove Lo’s “Stay High” remix begins to play, as I take the opportunity to slow down. Breathe. Let blood flow through the temples. Soften the eye gaze. Stretch your arms above your head one at a time. The music continues to flow into my mind, but the dizziness has faded.

Today, I danced on every inch of this wood floor, took up as much space as possible, felt the liberation of pointing my toes just a little further. I observed my reflection in the mirror as I adopted various personas and told stories through movement. The door to free expression remains wide open. But maybe there’s more than just a door. There are the classrooms where I become the group leader. There are workplaces where I am on a constant journey of self-improvement. There are restaurant outings where I discuss the past week’s accomplishments with friends and family.

I open each chapter of my story through dance and am extending the manuscript. My movements and gestures are edited to satisfaction. With each page, I awaken my creative drive, tell my stories in a world of free expression.

Creative Thinking in the Classroom

Writer’s Note: This short-story is an account of my dance class with Professor Dan Joyce at George Mason University. My goal in writing this piece was to point out the lack of creative thought within the traditional classroom. With this short-story, I leave you with one question: if you were finally given the opportunity to use your imagination in a classroom, how would you express your creativity?

Creative Thinking in the Classroom

“Dance is a way to tell a story through movement,” my dance instructor, Dan, told my class today. Will, the drummer boy, sat behind his drumset with neat red hair and a stern expression. Dancers stood in lines behind their classmates, waiting to demonstrate the skills our instructor taught us. Students begin walking forward for four beats and strike a pose of their choice, as Dan instructed. “I want you to use your imagination,” Dan says, as I notice the passion in his voice. I continue to count on beats of eight until it’s my turn to dance. Poised, I walk forward for four counts. Strike any pose and let the imagination thrive. Standing split. Walk forward for four more counts. Kick into a carefree front-walkover. I reach the other side of the room and get back in line behind a dancer. Exhilaration crawls into my veins and laughter is drowned out by the drumbeat. I observe students dance as I wait for my next turn. Their eyes dart in a million directions. Watching themselves in the mirror and watching others watching them. In this room, fear of embarrassment hides behind a creative imagination. But I can’t help but wonder, if all dancers stretched the boundaries of their discomfort and unleashed their creativity, what would happen? Would we find ourselves telling stories through movement? Expressing ourselves without shame or hesitation?

So to the other dancers, I ask, what is the worst that can happen if you just express yourself? If you’re broken and tired, wear your emotions on your sleeve. 1…2… 3… 4. Strike any pose you want. Wrap your arms around your body, open your lungs, and look up toward the sky. A proud warrior. If you crave to tap at the edges of your boundaries, turn your body in a 360-degree circle and open your arms. Celebrate your presence…here. Stay present. The room, this space, this is all yours. No restrictions, no boundaries, no regulations.

In a traditional classroom, we are so used to being told how to behave, how to think, and how to express ourselves. But strict conformity has no place in a mind that thrives with creativity. As you are given the chance to be and do anything you want, will you take that opportunity? Will you stretch your arms, open your lungs, and move without hesitation? In this studio, free expression thrives… so that we may thrive.

Can Sports Help Students do well in School?

Running cross-country in high school yielded greater benefits than improving my mental and physical well-being. Balancing time for the sport with academics helped me build a determined mindset. As I am a college student now, I am confident that I will be able to manage fatigue, long days, and piles of work. I’ve had enough experience with pushing past internal conflict to achieve academic success. This skill can only be learned through experience. Anyone can say that they can stay up late to get work done. But when you’ve already put in eight hours of work at school, three hours at cross-country practice, and every bit of energy during interval workouts, you’ll build a greater level of strength. Your mind might be half-asleep at the end of the day, but you better believe that your history assignment will be turned in the next morning. And that you sure as anything will be waking up at 6:30a.m. just to do it all over again.

On the first day of IT 104, my professor informed the class that a 1500-word, APA style research paper is due in four weeks. Sounds pretty daunting, ay? Let’s talk about writing a quality, 1500-word essay at 3a.m. not because you’re fighting for your grades but because you’re fighting for your beliefs. Let’s talk waking up early because I’ve gotten up at 5:40a.m. on race day mornings when the crisp fall breeze tempts the eyes to close. Put naps aside until after you’ve beat your greatest competition (yourself) on that dewy cross-country course.

My sister informed me that college will be “hard.” So I meet all challenges with the persistence of a distance runner, the thoughtfulness of a writer, and the mind of a student who is determined to thrive as a George Mason Patriot.

Overwhelming Gratitude

Exhausted from my early Communications class, I recline on my bed. I roll onto my stomach, enjoying the feeling of clean sheets against my skin. Two hours slowly pass, and I open my eyes at 6:00p.m. My mind craves stimulation. I pull on my athletic tights and Under Armour shirt and drive to the gym. As I poise myself on the elliptical, I encourage a peaceful self-awareness. Chin up, chest open, arms swinging back and forth. I breathe deeply, guiding my mind toward positive thinking. I walk my thoughts into the golden gate of past and present occurrences. Cross-country races. I can hear the voice of a female spectator cheering, “Come on, Hayfield!” Thoughts of being content at George Mason University. The encouragement of fellow Patriots echoes in my mind, as they told me, “You’re doing great for your first week!” And of course, those little moments when tears of joy collected along my eyelid. Every time I try to explain why I am so overjoyed to be at Mason, I struggle to find words. But I can summarize it into the following quote: “Verily, after every hardship, there is ease.” (Qur’an 94:5).

Every students’ high school career has its fair share of highs and lows, but I underwent some particularly difficult circumstances that sometimes hindered my ability to learn. I am thankful to have developed problem-solving skills and to apply critical thinking to everyday conflicts. Being at Mason is the sunshine that breaks through gray skies after the storm is over. The storm is over. And I knew it was when I found I could finally feel comfortable in a classroom again and to express myself freely. The storm is over. And I knew it was as I noted that I am encouraged and supported by the Patriot community. So I wake up early on Monday mornings and go on runs around campus. I let oxygen fill my lungs as I stride up and down the beautiful hills of Fairfax city. This run, this honest self-expression is not only a celebration of my time at Mason. It is a celebration of life, a statement of gratitude for becoming stronger despite adversity. Today, I hold my head higher than before, as I observe the gradual changes in heartrate as I work out. The repetitive motion of swinging my arms back and forth calms me, and I increase the resistance of the machine. I let lyrics flow into my mind, filling my head with positive thoughts. The musician sings, “You can still be what you want to. You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” The sun illuminated the healthy green trees, as I sat at a table in front of the Johnson Center yesterday. Poised and confident, I observed passersby who rushed to their destinations. A woman walked past me, briefly making eye contact and sharing a warm smile. After she faded into the distance, my eyes welled up with tears of joy because once again, I was reminded that I am part of a healthy community. I am free. Free to express myself, seek support if needed, and to become successful without any destructive obstacles in the way.

Increasing the incline of the elliptical, I continue to listen to my body. The voice of a soulful singer flows into my mind. “You’ve got a warm heart. You’ve got a beautiful brain.” At the end of my day, I share this blogpost and wipe away tears of joy as I write. I am so thankful to be a Patriot, for my ability to thrive on the beautiful campus, for the chance to become the best version of myself. The tears fall unapologetically. The music still echoes in my head. And the visualization of sunlight breaking through trees in front of the Johnson Center comes to mind once more. I can sit on a bench outside the Performing Arts Building, or in a lecture room in Innovation Hall, or in a classroom in East Building. No matter where I am, I am overwhelmed with gratitude. Dismounting the elliptical, my beating heart eventually fades to a resting calm.