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Sindhuri Nandhakumar
Questions for Answers

Credit: Sindhuri Nandhakumar

This past June, I met a six-year-old girl with big, serious-looking eyes who walked up to me and said, with a grave expression on her face, “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me.”

I had no memory of ever sharing a secret with this young girl, who I’ll call Alice. But I also didn’t want to disappoint her, so I smiled at her gratefully and said, “Thank you.”

Alice walked closer me and said, “You know, my wings hurt sometimes. And I can’t talk to many people about it because they’re not fairies. But I know I can talk to you about it because you’re also a fairy.”

When I realized that this was the secret that Alice had promised to safeguard, I was thrilled. With that quick exchange of words, Alice had rekindled my imagination — an imagination that I felt like I had lost over the past four years.

  • * *

Nine months ago, I wrote a column for The Daily Pennsylvanian explaining my decision to take a leave of absence. I was beginning to feel depressed, which to me was a tough reality to accept because I loved Penn. But I definitely knew that I didn’t want to look back on my senior year as one of the most depressing times of my life. So I decided to leave Penn, gather my thoughts and come back in a year.<

Many people, most of them strangers, wrote to me after my column was published, and said, “Me too,” or mentioned how brave I was for taking a year off. The latter struck me as strange — I had never considered what I was doing “brave,” but necessary. I didn’t know what other options I had.

And while I felt reassured by knowing that I wasn’t the only one, I felt a sense of sadness not only in that so many of us were going through university life feeling this sense of depression, but that so many felt scared to step out of the Penn bubble and alter their four-year plans. I wondered, rather fatalistically, if life was supposed to be so rigid and sad.

Originally, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted from my time off, but now I realize that what I wanted was a renewed sense of hope and imagination. And I’m happy to say that I found that.

While I did have many doubts at the beginning about my decision to leave, it soon became obvious to me that this was one of the best decisions I had ever made. My year away from Penn was an adventure. I had the unique opportunity to take the time and space to figure out what it was about Penn that was working for me, and what wasn’t. As a typical student, I had barely taken a moment for myself, working all summer to embellish my resume.

I realized that what wasn’t working for me about Penn was that I let myself forget how to have a good imagination. Throughout my first three years at Penn, I was so consumed by being a student and by being surrounded by students, that I couldn’t imagine a life beyond classes, work and socializing. I failed, in essence, to break down the barriers so many Penn students feel confined by.

Now, I can imagine a future where I don’t have to have a job offer before I graduate; a future where I can create my own field of study; a future where I don’t feel ashamed of having quirky and different ideas; and a world where I am able to interact freely with people of all ages. In short, I feel comfortable not conforming to what I had considered basic “Penn expectations.”

None of that would have been possible without my year off and without meeting people like Alice. Alice reminded me how to be a kid: push the boundaries — or simply have none — to come up with solutions many adults would never find on their own.

It’s still the beginning, and my confidence and imagination will definitely be tested in the future, but I hadn’t been able to think like Alice before, and somehow I feel like everything will be okay if I just give myself the permission to imagine.

Sindhuri Nandhakumar is a College senior from Kandy, Sri Lanka. Her email address is Follow her @sindhurin. “Questions for Answers” appears every other Thursday.

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