Everyone is completely set on changing the world. It pushes one to wonder if the planet can accommodate every aspiring doctor, lawyer, or journalist determined to make his or her mark. And the thing is, when one is 18 and still in college, everything seems possible. Passing the Law Aptitude Examinations or graduating magna cum laude is achievable; becoming professionally successful before turning 30 is realistic.
Right now, I can make myself believe that Harvard Law School will welcome me in four years, or that I will be part of a team that will engineer the next big social enterprise, or that my degree will get me offers from big-time respectable firms. These “far-fetched fantasies” apply to the present as well: I can easily get into this organization, win this business competition, ace this final exam. When one is as young as we are, the world is ripe for the taking.
“Idealistic,” I think, is the word used to describe me and every single one of my peers. I’ve been told, more than once, that this is a phase and that it will not last. But frankly, how can anyone blame us, or me, for thinking this way?
Last summer, I lived in Shanghai for six weeks with twentysomethings from Germany, Brazil, India, and Britain to learn about Chinese culture and share information about my own. Prior to that trip, I thought I was doing well in life, so to speak. I was in a good university, I had a feasible contingency plan for my future, and I was in the world’s largest youth-run organization. But after a mere seven days of getting comfortable with my new friends, I felt miniscule, and not just literally.
I listened in awe as they talked about how they were writing their futures—studying in Ivy League schools, winning prestigious scholarships, founding businesses—and if I considered myself a big dreamer pre-Shanghai, I surely didn’t think so afterward. That their way of thinking was on a global scale drove me to rewrite my life plans.
Everywhere I look, there is a call for the youth to do more and be more. I highly doubt that I am the only one who feels pressured by all these expectations, or the only one uncertain on how to respond to it. With all the opportunities being sent our way, the conclusion is that there is absolutely no excuse to not be relevant. The next logical question, however, would be how. Hypothetically, it’s easy. After all, even now I’m surrounded by Palanca winners, internationally awarded filmmakers, and national debate champions. More than once, I’ve felt dwarfed by the raw talent and skill that are present in almost every room I am asked to be in. Even before turning legal, my peers have somehow managed to pioneer Congress simulations, nonprofit organizations, and sustainable social enterprises—and these statistics beg the question of my part in it all. In other words: What have I done?
The answer, unfortunately, is nothing. To this day, I cannot be counted among the prodigies of this country. I am not one of the movers and shakers that are most likely to be our future politicians or entrepreneurs. I am not a congressman’s daughter, or a math genius, or a born artist.
The fact of the matter is that being average gives me the perfect excuse to simply choose to blend into the background, especially in a university where it is near impossible to be extraordinary because everyone already is. I used to think I was smart, or diligent, or charismatic, but in less than a week, all those assumptions were easily disproved.
I came to believe I was destined to stay on the lower rung, and so realizing that I wasn’t unique after all allowed me to be invisible. I resigned myself to doing what was asked of me, and no more, because who would notice that I was underperforming, anyway? I reasoned that we had enough superkids to go by.
That mindset would have lasted until graduation had I not gone to Shanghai. Being exposed to a foreign culture and varied world perspectives forced me to see things differently. I was right on the money from the beginning, after all: It was perfectly fine to be wide-eyed and eager to “change the world.”
I came to understand that just because I wasn’t being commissioned to write for magazines or invited to receive national awards doesn’t mean I am entitled to settle for being so-so, and just because I find chemistry difficult or my GWA isn’t a flat uno doesn’t mean I am wholly incompetent. I came to learn that being relevant can be interpreted in a myriad of ways, and that even being a cog in an already well-oiled machine of life-changers can be more than enough. I came to see that there is as much achievement in helping build a house for a community in Gawad Kalinga as there is in being a board member of a prestigious organization. It is true that the youth have no excuse.
Still, on most days, it is quite easy to be disheartened. Rubbing shoulders with the future of the country can do that to some people. I for one find it difficult to imagine that in a planet of billions, there is space for my tiny self, tinier, even, in the greater scheme of things. My thoughts ran along these lines as I huddled in a sea of thousands in Cuatro Vientos, the airfield that held the youth of the world in August 2011.
To be honest, I was never the overly religious sort, but the beauty of World Youth Day Madrid was its impartiality—ironic, but true. At the time, it wasn’t about millions of Christian teenagers taking every imaginable road to Spain: It was about millions of teenagers coming to Spain, period. There was something electrifying about standing in the middle of a crowd, people pressing on you from all sides, with the cold rain pouring relentlessly, lightning tracing its way across a black sky, and chanting Esta es la juventud del Papa! until your voice grew hoarse. WYD made me see that differences can be set aside, and that faith can bring people together. Seeing parts of the world cramped in the subways and sidewalks of Madrid made me feel tiny and insignificant, yes, but it also made me feel that I was part of something, or that at the very least, I belonged to the “hope” of the future.
Everything may have already been imagined, invented, or innovated, but there is certainly enough space for the youth to take center stage. The “how” may still be unrevealed for now, but “change takes time, and that is what we’re young for” (to quote the tagline of a national youth summit). At the end of the day, it is all about seeing the bigger picture: Instead of thinking I am already 18, I can think that I am only 18. That gives me 12 years to make a difference as part of the youth, before having to take on an entirely new role in changing the world.
For now, I can be excited about learning from exemplary mentors that just so happen to be roughly my age, I can strive to be better at psychological statistics, and I can excel in whichever small role I have in making the planet a better place. For now.
Kara Medina, 18, is a psychology sophomore at the University of the Philippines in Diliman.