VFAwakening: An Open Love Letter to Training Camp 2016

Anhedonia is the inability to experience pleasure. This disorder can occur in substance abuse addicts during withdrawal. After feeling life in a purely euphoric substance-induced state, nothing in reality can compare or live up to this most pleasurable and heightened experience.

I fear the same will happen to me after Venture for America Training Camp. After 5 weeks of seeing the world through the kaleidoscope of 171 of the most vibrant, passionate, idealistic, intelligent, aware, and accepting people on the planet, it is difficult for me to comprehend how to proceed in a reality that is objectively inferior.

The conversations back on planet real world are not as dazzlingly mind-blowing, the people are not as earth-shatteringly inspiring, and the atrocities of current events and obligations of adulthood cast shadows on the high-minded ideals I was fantasizing about in a hammock 72 hours ago. My inner mental life is deflated after seeing such a beautiful glimpse of what life could be like if stripped of responsibility and spent in the constant company of the most amazing people I’ve ever met.

Acadia, ME with VFA Fellows

Acadia, ME with VFA Fellows

If people were books, the VFA library is the ultimate treasure trove. Gem after gem, each human letting you turn their pages until your mind is opened, your heart hurts from operating at full capacity, and your worldview is gasping as it tries to absorb it all.

I want to soak in their spirit and skills and strength and beauty and complexity and I want to take all of them with me because, selfishly, it’s hard to imagine reverting to stale, stagnant reality. These people—they are awake. And they care. And they are only in their 20s. Having the pleasure and honor of their presence in my story is a gift that I intend to cherish and nurture for the rest of my life. And so I will not cry because it’s over, and instead smile because it happened.

To my fellow fellows and everyone who made Training Camp 2016 possible: I am so glad I met each of you, and I’ll make sure the last 5 weeks doesn’t fade to a distant, hazy dream while I begin the autopilot mission of adulthood. Because you’re all too good for me, I will push myself to be a higher quality human being so that I at least 2% deserve to know you.

I am so lucky to have had this mini sabbatical because these post-grad, pre-life training wheels are invaluable. It was a primer and a necessary pause that most of my peers are not as fortunate enough to experience. Camp was a platform that gave us all a chance to reflect and grow before entering this big, uncertain world. Thanks to the last 5 weeks, I feel armed with the tools, the ideas, and the incredible network needed to live this insane life on purpose. We may be getting tossed into the abyss that is adulthood, but I feel that I have a compass, a map, and a lifeline to phone a friend-- 171 of them to be exact.

In this little Providence vacuum, the stakes were low but the urgency was relentless. The artificial environment enabled us to connect with people at an un-replicable level of intimacy, vulnerability, and depth. 

Fellows at Brown's Vartan Gregorian Quad, photo by Jordan Star

Fellows at Brown's Vartan Gregorian Quad, photo by Jordan Star

In the spirit of making the most of my sadness, after 25 days of programs and 5 weekends of road trips and dance parties and cookouts and laying in the quad, I will define a few distinct takeaways from all of you that I’ll bring with me to real life:

Your everyday habits govern your success and happiness -- take responsibility for that. If you curate your adult lifestyle habits, you will have the unfair advantage of creating the life you want for yourself. Your mental life and growth is ruled by these tiny moment-to-moment choices in which you choose what to think about, what activities you’ll engage in, etc. If you can stay disciplined and committed to developing your side projects and your mental life, you can build an existence you’re proud of. So, make a life goals list, download that Headspace app, read read read, and read (get up early if you have to), listen to a variety of podcasts, write like you’re running out of time, and find the activities that give you energy (whether that’s Krav Maga or baking bread or boxing or poetry).

VFA intern-hosted Open Mic Night, photo by Shea Parikh

VFA intern-hosted Open Mic Night, photo by Shea Parikh

Cultivate your network and don’t let the good people out of your life. If you’re fortunate enough to find fantastic humans in this big, scary world, you better find a way to keep them around. This post is the beginning of my new commitment to gratitude for all the people in my life and my goal of keeping in touch with those I can’t stand to let go. Although all 170 of us will never live in the same place together again, life is bound to be less lonely just knowing that we’re all out there and fighting the good fight.

Training Camp's Top 15 Fellows, photo by Dylan Kim

Training Camp's Top 15 Fellows, photo by Dylan Kim

Time and space for people to truly be themselves is rare; make sure it happens. Our daily credo talks have re-kindled my love of storytelling and re-enforced the idea that you never really know a person. Taking time and giving space for people to let you in and for you to let them in is difficult, but so incredibly worthwhile. Everyone has a struggle, and true empathy can only be formed through sharing and listening. Giving people the floor to unapologetically tell their story is a powerful practice that I hope to instill with everyone I cross paths with.

Pechacucha showcase, photo by Shea Parikh

Pechacucha showcase, photo by Shea Parikh

Being ignorant and passive is a choice. Every macro and micro decision you make is an opportunity to make a net positive or net negative impact. Your ripple effect is controlled by your choice to engage or not engage. Our discussions about gentrification vs. revitalization, systemic oppression, race relations, gender-based discrimination and violence, etc. was a reminder that every moment is a chance for us to buy into damaging systems or be a force for positive change. The proactivity towards education, understanding, and change-making within VFA gave me renewed hope for our world, but also a firm reminder that we collectively shoulder the burden for societal problems no matter how positive our intent may be.

New Orleans 2016 Fellows, photo by John Wetzel

New Orleans 2016 Fellows, photo by John Wetzel

More than anything, I feel limitless despite facing an uncertain future. My fellow fellows have restored my faith in my own generation. I realize I have so much to learn, but I have 170+ new role models and infinite resources to figure it out. Your journey is defined by the people who are by your side and I’m so ecstatic to be doing life with this tribe. VFA 2016ers: As we set out into the world, please know that I forever want to be your cheerleader, your picnic blanket bringer, and your trusted confidante. 

We’ve talked so much about this next chapter, and after all this talk I finally feel ready to take it on with open arms. I’m so excited to get out there, and to build what we want to see in the world. I’m hopeful that each of us is able to create work, a life, and relationships that we are proud of. If there’s anything the VFA community has taught me, it’s that proactivity is the only way to actually get shit done. So enough talking, time to start doing. Cheers to the journey ahead and much love to all of you!

Video montage by Shea Parikh

Video montage by Robin Bonatesta