peopletalking
Credit: Crystal Sun

This weekend, I had the privilege of going on a leadership retreat focused on Asian Pacific Islander American issues. While I learned more about APIA history and topics, the most important thing I learned — or rather, relearned — was the astounding impact of stories, and how they bring people together.

On the last night of retreat, 16 of us sat around in a small room of bunk beds, huddled in the dark. We shared personal struggles and obstacles we’ve faced in our lives, finding solace while listening to our collective experiences. In the end, I learned more about myself in two days than I had in months. 

College sophomore Michelle Lu, a fellow Asian Pacific American Leadership Initiative participant, recounted her experience. “I felt empowered. This entire retreat revealed a lot about myself that I never knew, because sharing these stories helped me be more in touch with who I am and with other people.” 

At so many moments at Penn, I’ve felt alone — whether I was going through academic struggles or emotional hurdles, my first instinct was to sit in my dorm room and stew. I, along with so many other students on campus, tend to forget that we’re all on this collective campus together, and that we have so many more things in common here than we have apart.

Imagine my relief, then, when I discovered a space where sharing our feelings is the first inclination, and our stories, big or small, were of immense, breathtaking importance. Throughout these one-and-a-half days, I was immersed in people’s words and backgrounds — what Disney movies they liked, personal items they cherished, realizations and formations of their API identity. It brought on a warm feeling inside: a feeling that can only be described as true human connection.

Our institution is hailed as the “social Ivy,” which implies that weekday nights are for the work grind and weekend nights are for going out. In this black-and-white social equilibrium, where are the moments where we sit down and talk for hours with a friend? Engage in friendly conversations with the security guards in the high rises? Strike up a discourse with a stranger in the painfully slow high-rise elevators?

During freshman year, if I stayed in on a Friday night and spent that time alone or even with a few friends, I almost felt guilty — shouldn’t I be out there, making spontaneous memories that you can only get in college? Even in sophomore year, it’s hard to separate what we think should be a fun, meaningful time and what we actually think is fun and meaningful. Realizing that the simple act of telling our stories to each other are some of the most influential experiences in college is a somehow novel concept, but nothing truly new.

The beginning of this semester and this retreat re-solidified my belief that the most important thing that brings us together are our stories and our experiences — when we share them with each other, we hit a deep, underlying current of connection, something we cannot recreate in any other way. The specificity of our own experiences translate into a universality we can all engage in, especially in college, when we’re all lost, roaming, and trying to find ourselves.

In our everyday lives, we underestimate how good it feels to recount our day to a friend, or even call our parents and laugh about something that happened at home. All these social interactions, from a quick anecdote to a long, heavy conversation, are the some of the only moments we feel like we’re not alone in our routines and observations, which can often feel solitary and lonely.

Our stories shape our identities and lives, and the art of storytelling is something we can all engage in, no matter how seemingly small. In the midst of our own problems and concerns, we can forget that even with our stark differences, we are all in the same, rocking boat. 

Penn can be a lonely place. We all know this, deep inside. In these formative years of growth, it often feels like we are trying to fit inside molds we don’t know how to conform to, shape our lives into something that makes sense. Along the way, we need to realize we are truly not alone — and all we need to do is reach out and tell our stories.

JESSICA LI is a College sophomore from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is jesli@sas.upenn.edu.

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