I’ll never forget the day I walked into my first college lecture. With my light-up Sketchers guiding me through a throng of eager students, I waddled down the steps and took my place in the front row. Carefully opening my Lion King backpack, I removed a fresh sheet of paper and a turquoise blue crayon.
“September 23, 2002,” I wrote in big block letters.
The professor entered the auditorium, and the class quieted down. As she removed her suit jacket and took her place behind the podium, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Bounding up from my seat, I ran toward the professor with open arms and gave her an affectionate embrace around the waist.
“Mommy!” I exclaimed. The entire room burst into a fit of laughter.
Growing up with two UCLA professors as parents, my childhood was filled with moments like these. I did eventually learn to temper an innate desire to display my attachment to my parents in professional settings, but the immersion in academia continued until the day I left for college.
Mom, a professor of psychology, reached tenure during the last trimester of my gestation. I’m fairly certain one of the first phrases I uttered was “grant proposal.” By the time I reached puberty, Mom had put me in more than a dozen research studies, allowed me to sit in on her weekly lab group meetings, sacrificed me as a model subject in a teaching session for IQ testing and had me try almost every UCLA Abnormal Psychology exam her students took since 2000 (all of which I failed). I recall modifying my bedtime routine in the second grade to include a collection of my saliva before brushing my teeth. The next day, Mom would take the sample into the lab to measure my cortisol levels in order to understand how stress-hormone fluctuation related to daily events in a child’s life.
Dad, a professor of finance at the Anderson School of Management, spent many dinner table discussions reviewing stock performance of the day. He fathered two daughters as well as three editions of his corporate strategy textbook. The door to his office displays an original watercolor portrait of a bull surrounded by hearts (painted by yours truly), which is ironically positioned next to a National Bureau of Economic Research plaque.
Mom and Dad lived, ate and breathed academia, and they wanted their children to be as close to their work as possible — literally and figuratively. My sister and I attended daycare, preschool and elementary school at on-campus institutions that provided ample opportunities for schoolchildren to participate in research. Naturally, we became familiar with the realms of data analysis and research inquiry. Not so naturally, we developed an unhealthy amusement from interrupting our parents’ office hours and posing as suspiciously pint-sized college students.
“You know, you should really stop holding my hand in public,” I reluctantly advised Mom one day as we strolled through campus. “People might think you are having an affair with your small female student, and I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.”
Around the dinner table, we practiced and honed the highly regarded skills of articulation, critical thinking and, of course, unbiased inquiry. My sister and I knew the names of every graduate student working with our parents, as well as the names of a select few unfortunate undergraduates. We helped submit grades and proofread research papers. We learned that “letter of recommendation” meant a weekend of little attention from our parents, that “sabbatical” meant too much attention from our parents and that “academic journal” meant a glass of Martinelli’s sparkling apple cider and an extended bed time. We watched our parents pour their hearts and souls into their work and blend their many roles: caretakers, errand runners, schedule coordinators, advisers, speakers, writers and editors. Moreover, we learned that teaching a student isn’t all so different from teaching a child.
Despite all of this, I don’t believe that my parents’ careers necessarily played a major role in influencing who I am today. The spirit of academia is not an entity that can be adopted by attending lectures or participating in studies — rather, it’s a social characteristic that is conveyed through human interaction. If my parents endowed me with a love for research or a critical bent to my thinking process, it is because they as individuals — outside their careers — possess these traits. In other words, people can shape their careers, and people can shape other people, but careers cannot shape people.
That’s not to say I don’t value the success my parents have achieved or fully understand how lucky I am. Their accomplishments and dedication to their respective departments are commendable, but I know it is their work ethic, creativity and intelligence that got them where they are today. Regardless of the path they chose to follow, their virtues would have been the same, and I am sure they would have done something inspiring and original in any employment field.
There is a tremendous amount of pressure to choose the right career, the right internship, the right major — but the truth of the matter is that these decisions have little impact on who we are.
This past summer, I was lucky enough to reconnect with a family friend and recent Nobel laureate, who knew me when I was younger. I spent more than my dignity’s worth trying to impress him with my recent accomplishments in school and extracurricular activities. He recognized none of it. When it was time for him to leave, he did grant me a bite-sized portion of recognition.
“You’ve changed since the last time I saw you,” he admitted.
I expected a laudatory affirmation of my maturity and eloquence, perhaps followed by the promise of a future fellowship position. What I got was a sincere acknowledgment of the only quantifiable measure of my development in the past decade.
“You’ve gotten bigger,” he said.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.