Wednesday, August 15, 2012

All Good Things Come to an End

I have never been so thoroughly exhausted – both physically and mentally – before the last two weeks.

The Yale Ivy Scholars Program was an academic experience like no other. I had the incredible opportunity of studying at one of the world’s greatest learning institutions and thriving alongside some of the world’s brightest youth.

We were thrust into the rigor of the program our first night in, and it only intensified as the days passed.

Our first lecture was delivered by Victor Cha, Director of Asian Affairs in the White House’s NSC. He opened with his typical daily schedule, which was compounded with strict deadlines and events corner after corner. In retrospect, almost every individual we had the honor of hearing from lived by such a schedule. Perhaps this sense of responsibility and commitment is what the program intended to force upon us with our own packed schedule – lectures commenced in the morning, followed by seminars, more lectures, movie and discussions, workshops, and so on, finally concluding some time in the late evening.

Consequently, sleep was not to be had. At times, rest was so cherished that meals were skipped to allocate time to reenergize. We were worked hard and expected to perform at a top level constantly.

The lectures we attended were unlike any that I have ever experienced before, taught by some of the greatest minds in the country. I learned about such a broad range of topics that all seemed to tie back to one another at the top, from the European debt crisis, to identity politics, and so on. Even more intriguing were the question & answer sessions that followed each time – my peers engaged the entire room with their insightful questions that at times even caught our teacher off guard. I may have learned just as much from my wonderful counterparts.

Seminars were scattered throughout the week – these were essentially more engaging lectures that consisted of smaller groups of ten to twenty students. The instructors were incredibly accomplished individuals and were very keen on covering a substantial amount of material in roughly an hour and a half. The seminars were very discussion-based, which provided a learning environment that I was not acquainted with before. Instead of simply taking notes and listening to what lessons were being taught, students were called upon to offer their viewpoints, and, thus, vibrant discussion ensued. I enjoyed this setting, and I realized that this was the type of environment that I wanted to be learning in during my college years. Smaller class sizes do in fact impact the quality of education, and I was able to learn this first-hand.

When Marshall Briefs rolled around, efforts were poured into developing the best policy towards our respective topics. My group’s topic was the Future of Foreign Policy Regarding Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. The members in my group helped each other through the project, and worked incessantly. We met for every meal of the day, and whatever free time we had for leisure was spent working on the Brief.

The entire YISP experience can hardly be summed up in one blog post, nor can it be perfectly translated into words. If I had to condense it into a single word – which I have had to do when sharing my thoughts on the program and not wanting to spend hours after hours describing its wonder -, it would simply be “amazing.”

The Want to Learn

Two weeks. Seventy students. And an endless thirst for knowledge.

That is how I'd like to sum up the Grand Strategy program. Two weeks of hard work, insanity, a cappella, friction, philosophy, diplomacy, policy making, debating, writing, judicial decisions, good friends, great memories, and so, so much more. But I can't really write about this as one huge blurb -- so I will try to break it up as best as I can.

First Week

There was no reprieve, no real icebreaker period, no quarter for relaxation at the beginning of the program. With my cohort, I was thrust immediately into Clausewitz's fog of war. Well, to be more precise, Robert McNamara's Fog of War, a documentary discussing the decisions former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara made during his tenure. Afterwards, Nick led a discussion about the morality of dropping the atom bomb, the ambiguity of morality, and the shapelessness of the greater good. Now, keep in mind, this was the very first day, the day I arrived, met people, and unpacked. And this was just the tip of the iceberg.

The rest of the first week went by incredibly slow. Lecture after lecture, seminar after seminar, I noted how much more sluggish time seemed to pass by in New Haven. But I didn't mind, not one bit. This kind of work, this flavor of discussion, was exactly my forte. Granted, for a good portion of lectures and seminar, I was not as well-versed in the background material like some of my counterparts (for example, one of my suitemates and several other students were already familiar with Western philosophy -- Kant, Nietszche, Hume, Bentham, and so on), but I was happy enough to learn. There was so much to learn from everyone, so much to obtain, and the wonderful part about it was that everyone there worked to be there -- because they wanted to learn and push themselves intellectually. That amazed me.

As the week passed, I also met my Marshall Brief group and familiarized myself with my group members. We spent hours on end researching our topic and refining our initial policies. I have to admit, I have never once considered looking at US relations with regional alliances before, but nevertheless, it was just another topic my group and I would have to brush up on. And while there were some snags along the way, we worked out a strong policy -- certainly innovative in terms of the economic portion (thanks to one of our brilliant group members). Maybe it wasn't the best in the end, but I was proud of it when we sent in our report.

To keep this all in perspective, this was all just within the first week. Normally, I would think that being so loaded with information and work would have caused myself or anyone to go mad. But everyone coped and worked hard. Sure, there wasn't much sleep in between the dorm room laughs and the first lecture in the morning by an ambassador or vaunted law professor, but as much as that bothered me at the time, it honestly did not feel like a hindrance. It was just another one of those things each of us had to pay in exchange for education and intellectual stimulation.

Second Week

The second week started off with a bang -- Marshall Brief edits. Looking at the flood of blue marks on the policy brief discouraged me initially, but it also encouraged my group and myself to work even harder to refine the piece. When the due date came, we were minutes away from the submission deadline and still looking at the policy brief -- the culmination of three days of nonstop refinement. We worked out many of the kinks in our policy and while not managing to fix every little error, the brief still came out just fine.

But the Marshall Brief was not the only assignment. In the first week it dominated, but as the second week came along, we had much more work on the side. Writing assignments (as I had managed to get in the writing seminar series), written court decisions, and speech-giving accentuated the experience. Granted, two of those three things were optional, but why waste the opportunity to become better at writing or at speech-giving? And despite missing Dr. Strangelove, I can't say I regretted any of it. On a side, I even got called on to defend my court decision, which made me very happy.

The second week culminated in the Marshall Brief presentation. Each group would have to present their topic to the Murder Board, made up of staff members playing various government figures who were ready to chew out students. I am very glad to say that while we were chewed out, the carnage was not bad at all. We answered most, if not all of the questions with strong responses and we all knew our material well. I felt that it really showed how our teamwork improved over the week.

Conclusion

With the Marshall Brief behind us, my friends and I went out for frozen yogurt and celebrated through the night. Finally, all that hard work was finished. And we did quite well too. I can't say I'd ever been both more relieved and more saddened. Relieved by the conclusion of the paramount challenge of the program, and saddened by the fact that it meant that everything was over, or close to it.

When I was saying my goodbyes through that whole thing, I had gone over in my head how much I wish I learned some of the things the students here already knew -- classical philosophy, foreign relations, political science -- everything that seemed to beckon to me that I only ever got tastes of from school. Maybe if I had known these things, I could have done better, but at the end of the day, I was glad. Glad that I got to learn a lot more than I ever thought even existed about these topics. Glad that I met amazingly talented people, people who were brilliant in every way imaginable. And glad that I made some amazing memories the whole way through.

When I first learned about the ILC, I never thought that this kid from West Contra Costa would get to argue morality and justice with some of the great minds and future leaders of the world. Having gone through that now, I see glimpses of where we can all be, of the brilliance that lies out there in the big bad world.

Now, I want to seek it out and learn from it. Just like I did here.

Two Amazing Weeks

It's unbelievable to even think that my time at Yale has ended.

Although the Grand Strategy course is only two weeks long, it definitely feels like much longer. These couple of weeks have given me a kind of perspective that I could not get anywhere else. I experienced college life - my time in Yale was filled with rigorous work, lectures, assignments, sleepless nights, meeting amazing and extremely well accomplished people, and making some unforgettable memories.

The Beginning
The first week was hectic, to say the least. I began my day at 9:30 AM with lectures from well-renowned professors or lecturers; these lectures usually ranged anywhere from Machiavelli to current affairs in Asia and the Middle East. After a lunch break, we returned to more lectures or seminars, which were usually filled with a fraction of the students. These seminars were usually on a topic that I indicated that I was interested in, which made them all the more better. I also liked how personalized these seminars were; I felt like I absorbed a lot more material when I was in a seminar.

The Marshall Brief
On the second day, we were introduced to the Marshall Brief. At first, I was extremely intimidated by the MB because of how intensely it was presented to us. We were separated into groups based on topics (mine was Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East). We were given about two days to have our policies intact and we were expected to begin working on the paper immediately. Although it took my group mates and me a while to figure out our approach, we eventually got it and worked on addressing the problem. I found that because all of my group mates worked together, the MB was not as bad as I thought. That said, we had a lot of late night coffee runs and stressful days; regardless, because we could rely on each other, the whole process went smoothly. I can now confidently say that the Marshall Brief was one of the best parts of this program. Not only was I able to broaden my knowledge on my topic, I also made amazing friends. All of my group mates and I became extremely close, which made the Marshall Brief so enjoyable.

Presenting the Marshall Brief
After completing the policy paper, the main task was to present the paper in front of a panel (which dubs itself the "Murder Board"). This part was by far the most nerve-wrecking part of the program because "Murder Board" is not a misnomer - all of the panelists made it a point to test our abilities to react to such harsh criticism.

I was especially nervous because I did not have prior public speaking experience. My school does not offer a Speech and Debate team and I am not part of the Mock Trial club. However, regardless, I managed to present our policy and articulate my points well. I felt like being able to talk to an intimidating panel was my biggest achievement as part of the Yale Ivy Scholars because public speaking used to be one of my biggest fears previously. That I was able to conquer that fear and pull through during my presentation makes me like I definitely took back something from this program.

Approaching the End
Words cannot describe how much I enjoyed my time in Yale this summer. I have never experienced such a rigorous workload and demand, but it was definitely worth it. I feel like this program was set at the perfect time - I am now equipped for senior year and college after that. The Yale Ivy Scholars Program served as a sort of platform for college, as it gave me insight into so many different aspects of college life.

I would again like to reiterate my utmost gratitude to Ivy League Connection for giving me this lifetime experience. I hope I can continue my endeavors as an ambassador to WCCUSD and ILC.