Grace Chung is a first year Master’s in Public Administration Student at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a 2010 graduate of Seton Hall University with a degree in Diplomacy and International Relations, and is the former editor-in-chief of the Whitehead Envoy. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.</em
In the summer of 2009, my junior year at Seton Hall University, I worked as a foreign affairs journalist in DC. During that time, I interviewed many interesting people from activists and journalists to politicians and diplomats, but the person who stands out the most in my memory is a woman with white hair and blue eyes named Alexandra Seton.
After a long and fascinating career, Alexandra (who goes by Alex) was retired in the Virginia suburbs. Our paths never would’ve crossed, except that I moved into her neighbor’s home that summer to be close to my internship. After work, it became a tradition to join Alex, outside in her beautiful garden for wine and conversation which usually continued long after the sun had gone down.
We shared stories, but mostly I listened, while she enchanted me with memories from seven decades of her life. At age 18, when her parents didn’t let her go to Harvard, she packed her bags and flew to Mexico where she lived with the remnants of the Mayan civilization. She then moved to Europe, biked with Olympians through Italy, found love in India, and learned cooking with princesses in Thailand. She not only traveled, but did amazing work—protesting with the feminist group NOW, becoming one of the first women to work for the World Bank, racing horses in Ecuador, and working as a professional gardener.
One night, as we were talking, Alex recalled, how many people have told her that they wished they could do half the things she did in her life. In my head, I silently agreed. Then she explained something that I have kept with me ever since. “Most people want to pursue meaningful a career, travel and do something that no one has ever done before, but they always assume that it will happen later in life, after they have done what they’re supposed to do—make enough money, marry, have kids. But that’s not how it works. Life is short, and so if you want to live a meaningful life, you can’t wait to start. You just have to do it.”
I was 19 then and by that point, I had heard my fair share of inspirational axioms: “live life to the fullest,” “follow your heart” and whatnot. That is essentially what she was saying, but to hear it from someone who had actually done it left an indelible impression on me which inspired me to make some of the best decisions in my life.
At the time, I had been studying for my LSATs with the plan to go to law school and maybe pursue public interest law. But inspired by Alex, I moved to rural Indonesia instead on a Fulbright Fellowship to teach English to 300 rambunctious high school kids at an Islamic high school. While reflecting on my skills and interests in Indonesia, I realized that I was still committed to public service, but that law school maybe wasn’t the best fit for me. So after Indonesia, I volunteered with a startup nonprofit in Haiti and then became an AmeriCorps VISTA with Rising Tide Capital, a Jersey City-based nonprofit which helps entrepreneurs in low-income communities start and grow their businesses.
Through these experiences, I have learned again and again, that it is good to plan, but it is even better to try the things which don’t necessarily fit into a straight-forward career path. You just never know where it will take you.