When my work stopped being work

The beginning of a new school year is a hopeful and ceremonious time for me. I think about my goals, I daydream about the future. I buy either the 24- or 50-pack of Crayola colored pencils even though I still have a half-used box in a drawer. It’s a fresh start, with all the hope and all the fear of failure that implies. But this year, instead of just giddily planning for the future, I have found myself really thinking about what I’m trying to do inside the classroom — and away from it.

I came to the University full of ambition and yet needled by skepticism. I didn’t know exactly how I wanted to proceed; I didn’t know if my school held the opportunities for the kind of success that I wanted. I wanted to do something great. Or rather, I wanted to do something with all of myself. When I was young, going to catechism class, stories of martyrs impressed themselves on me; and older, those words of Thoreau reverberated through all concepts I had of what I wanted my life to be: “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life…”

I started college questioning where to go, what to do, wanting to push against the world, to propel myself and feel it in all my muscles. I launched into two research projects, staying up late reading through papers I didn’t yet quite understand. Startlingly, I began to comprehend the languages of cell-cycle control and behavioral psychology in ADHD. Then I began wrestling with ideas, pushing concepts like clay and challenging them. I think that’s when my work stopped being work and started to take over my life. Rather, I began to see how my work here could provide me with what I wanted in my life, how it could, indeed, become inseparable from my life.

I found lessons many places. Teaching knitting and working as a tutor at the Lund Center for Pregnant and Parenting Young Women, I learned about relationships, hope, and strength. I learned how to listen better, talk less. I learned determination from these girls and their struggle through the dramas of heartbreak and high school gossip, this marvel of motherhood and the fears that come with it. I learned to be grateful.

Working in the lab and on my study of sleep and ADHD and children, I’ve learned to be thorough, to be inquisitive, to be comfortable navigating a daily blur of doubt and confusion. I’ve learned that the work that I do in the lab truly can have an impact, truly can contribute. I’ve learned how to let excitement about ideas pick me up and blow me in some new direction, and yet how to maintain the discipline to always refer to logic, to build on the work of others, to question, to question, to question.

Going to China for public-health research this summer further deepened my conviction. I learned to speak a new language first, to reinvent myself in words that previously sounded like comic grunts. I learned to dream in Mandarin, although those dreams often featured dancing flashcards of vocabulary words. Then, suddenly, I was there, standing in the Beijing airport, fending off cab drivers as they pulled at my arms.

In China, I lived by myself for the most part, stationed at a hospital or clinic for a few weeks at a time, interviewing AIDS patients, listening to the stories they told with a shame that often prevented them from looking into my eyes. I countered my own loneliness by spending as much time as I could trying to understand the loneliness of these patients, their isolation. I saw how poverty and inequality pushed minority women into prostitution, peasants into addiction, patients to suicide. And yet I saw how family, marriage, and love, could somehow ease even the most merciless death, the greatest loss and fear.

There was one moment at the end of the trip that continues to haunt me. In a remote region of Hubei province, I saw a newborn child, one of a pair of twin brothers. One baby was upstairs with his mother. The brother I met was in dire condition in intensive care with his intestines protruding from his lower abdomen. I had never seen a newborn this young. The baby could have been helped, possibly saved, but the few hundred dollars that would have taken were beyond the means of the parents. The child was swaddled, lying on a bed, waiting to be taken home to the countryside, where he would die within a few days. He kept looking up towards me, towards the sounds above him, crying with this small mew-like noise, yawning and stretching his body, pushing back the blankets so a nurse would have to wrap him again.

That room is my real classroom. College has given me amazing opportunities to do work that breaks my heart, that exudes hope, that consumes me. I wish that I could credit my school for all of this, but really, the opportunities and encouragement I found here have let a wider world be my professor. So this fall, while buying books and tacking photographs to my bulletin board, I feel especially grateful to be a student, especially grateful for all my teachers, as young or as far away as they might be.

Claire Ankuda is a UVM junior from Springfield, Vermont. Studying an individually designed major in public health, she is also an academic mentor for the University’s Honors College. This essay is adapted from remarks Ankuda delivered at the convocation ceremony opening the 2005-2006 academic year.

Originally published in the Winter 2006 issue.


Claire Ankuda '07