In the four years before I stepped foot onto campus, only one word kept me motivated: more. Suspended in the halls of a suburban public high school, my parents repudiated my sexuality, I had few friends whom I let into my life, and I was driven purely by the notion that if I worked hard enough, I would earn the life I fantasized about in films and novels. I wanted to freely love another man without judgment, I wanted friends who I could express my deepest feelings to, I wanted to bask in the glory of my success and renounce those who never recognized my merit.
In many ways, I thought my struggles were incomparable. I thought I deserved more — that somehow I, through adversity, could will my dreams into reality. But in the past four years, what I’ve come to realize is that so much of what life has afforded me has been pure dumb luck; that luck is what led to the gratuitous love of others.
It was luck that brought Miss Arlene into my life. More than a security guard, she was the reason Harrison College House became home. I knew that after a day of class, I would enter the lobby and hear her voice behind an open copy of The Daily Pennsylvanian asking, “Hey Benjamin, how you doing today?” She remembered my birthdays, giving me cash to buy myself a good meal, and handed me snacks whenever she had one for herself. She was the first person to notice my name on the DP masthead, under the title of executive editor, telling everyone in the lobby and any subsequent person who would listen how proud of me she was. After moving out more than a year ago, I haven’t seen her since due to tightened restrictions on the dorms, but I hope she sees these words and knows that she is appreciated; I hope she still continues to sing and dance while on the job, bringing a smile to everyone she meets.
It was luck that allowed me into so many different communities at Penn. Some friends came and went, but none I regret letting into my life. While COVID-19 brought tragedy beyond comprehension, it also brought a unique opportunity to spend time together without outside distractions. The past year has been the most fulfilling I’ve had, and I owe it all to the friends who accepted me into their circle without hesitation. I had little to offer and everything to gain, and I hope I can someday return even a portion of the love given to me.
It was luck that introduced me to the DP and the mentors that believed in me. I will be forever grateful that, in the dull hours we spent holed up in our windowless home, some saw a spark in me. Though I wasn’t a writer nor a particularly good journalist, I aimed higher because I knew I had the faith of those I most respected. To Rebecca, Sarah, and countless others: It is because of your patience, steadfast conviction, and wisdom that inspired me to be better. More than anything, I was lucky to have the 136th Board, a stellar staff who worked under unimaginably strenuous circumstances. I feel honored that you let me be your leader.
It was luck that introduced me to my first love. While it wasn’t perfect, it taught me that I was worthy, and proved I could survive heartbreak.
It was luck that I was born into a family that, despite not understanding my identity at first, came to love me for who I am. My parents, both born in rural China where the concept of homosexuality is unacknowledged and scorned, forced themselves to reconcile their traditional values with a son who openly identified as gay. Though their relationship with my sexuality was difficult at first, they are now the ones donning rainbow flag face masks and defending me to their conservative Christian friends. To be fully accepted by my parents is a reality I didn’t dare dream of four years ago — a reality many never actualize.
If there’s anything the past four years have taught me, it is that I have been at the mercy of luck my entire life. I used to think that I, alone, had the power to steer my life, but without that myopic view, I see more and more how I am a beneficiary of good fortune. But for many, good fortune is inherently fleeting. While so much of our lives are dictated by chance, what we can control is how we treat others. So many times, I didn’t deserve the love that came my way, but through others’ empathy and ability to see the best in me, my life was changed.
BEN ZHAO is a graduating Wharton senior studying finance and marketing from Northbrook, Ill. He served as The Daily Pennsylvanian's executive editor on the 136th Board of Editors and Managers. Previously, he was Design editor and digital director on the 135th Board.
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