What feels like a very long time ago, I had to start writing my Common App essay for college. Back when I did start brainstorming what to write about, I turned immediately to my blog; it’s been amazing to have a an entire collection of reflections from some of the most memorable things that have happened over the years. It only seemed right that now, now that I’m finally decided on a college and graduated high school, that I should officially post my Common App essay:
Common App Prompt 3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
I am a designer. Anyone can be a designer. You don’t need a fancy degree or a Mona Lisa to prove it. You just have to be confident enough to say it, “I am a designer.” This was the message I delivered to inspire creative confidence to a “young” audience of design thinkers. Let me set the stage.
The summer after sophomore year, I earned the opportunity to be one of four guest speakers at an annual summer conference called Fuse, facilitated by the Mount Vernon Institute For Innovation. This event gathers 110 educators, business leaders, social innovators, change agents and dreamers from around the world to make an impact while learning more deeply as design thinkers. A slide deck appears on stage and the attendees saw the peculiar twitter handle @Pinyabananas, then a single spot light illuminated me- a 16 year old girl with her hair in a scrunchie. As a speaker, I delivered a 10 minute presentation similar to a TEDTalk where I shared about “Thinking Like a Designer.” My role: to get the room full of educators excited and confident in their abilities to spend three days problem solving for four different non-profit organizations. As the only speaker under the age of 30, the one with the least formal schooling and lacking the series of credentials and accomplishments of the other speakers, I was nervous.
Being an actress, I’ve been up on stage dozens of times in front of audiences larger than 110 people. I’m comfortable with public speaking, but this experience was different. This time I was the only student; specifically chosen because the organization believes that I have a story and ideas that educators should hear. Typically, it’s assumed that anyone still in secondary schooling has much to learn and not much to teach. When asked to speak, I was tasked with representing not only myself, but all students– to prove that we can have insightful thoughts worth sharing in serious conversations about the future.
I got up on stage vulnerable yet confident, and shared what I believe to be a recipe for success: to have community involvement, work with a purpose, a mentor to guide you, a mindshift to turn problems into opportunities, and a bias towards action. I challenged the entire audience to say the opening lines of this essay with me: “I am a designer.” To my surprise, when I repeated this statement, a chorus joined me; 110 educators accepted the challenge proposed by a 16 year-old girl to think like designers.
Age doesn’t have to be a limiter in life. If I am willing to take action for a cause that I care deeply about, then anything is possible. After my talk I had a number of educators come up to me and say, “You are inspiring!,” “I can’t believe you’re only 16,” “Thank you for giving me the confidence to do this.” Later that night my phone was blowing up with the number of twitter notifications I was getting from people commenting, liking, and retweeting things about my talk; our head of school even said, “Sounds like the takeaway of the night was from @Pinyabananas ‘I am a designer.’” It was a crazy night for me; it’s hard to believe it really happened.
This talk has since been used at a number of other workshops, some of which I probably don’t even know about. I remember researching myself online one day and found a link to a presentation by a professor in England who used the video of my talk! I am still astonished to think that my work had such an impact, and have continued to use my digital presence through daily blogging and tweeting as a mouthpiece for students around the country who remain silent school consumers. Anyone can be a designer. You just have to be confident enough to say it, “I am a designer.”