As a high school student, I dreamed of escaping my sleepy suburb, graduating college, and living in a different country each year. At age 16, my dreams were directed towards Europe, and my thoughts were filled with learning French in Paris one year, and exploring Greece’s picturesque islands the next.
In my senior year of high school, I set my sights squarely on the London School of Economics, and the school’s year-long study abroad program; three years later, a junior at Northwestern, I got on a flight, two bags packed to maximum capacity, barely able to contain my excitement at a year in London.
That year in Europe turned out to be the best of my life. I fell in love with London’s multiculturalism, exquisite architecture, and my daily bus ride across the sun-dappled Thames. I loved the city’s thriving nightlife, the majestic sights of Parliament and St. Paul’s Cathedral, the free museums, and the kindness of people I met (and of course, their lovely British accents). I spent weekends hopping on cheap flights/buses/trains, staying in hostels, and befriending strangers in Dublin, Edinburgh, Athens, and Amsterdam. Most of all, I discovered my passion for social justice and international development issues. I discussed and debated in government classes, co-founded a student development think-tank and watched the trial of Thomas Lubanga at the ICC. I grew as a person and made incredible friends. I then did it all over again, spending the summer interning in Geneva.
The dreams of a timid, 16-year old bookworm had actually come true, and sooner than I could’ve imagined. But there was one problem: as a high school student, I had forgotten to factor love into the equation.
Today, the wanderlust inside me remains, though I have tried to hush it as I live out the post-grad young-professional’s life in the nation’s capital. I still dream of traveling, working abroad — only now, my sights have shifted to South and Central Asia, where I would like to explore in depth access to justice projects in family, civil and criminal law, and the intersection with women’s rights. I also dream of attending the best law school I get into & the school I love the most — in a city that will offer boundless opportunities for someone passionate about human rights and “holistic advocacy.”
Following my dreams and my heart worked in college. But can it work now that love is in the equation?
My dreams are big, hairy, scary dreams. They are difficult to accomplish. They do not involve things like compromise, and “settling.” But at the same time, there is love. Love has given me a companion, a partner in life and work. Love has given me comfort and assurance, passion and confidence, laughter and tears. It makes me feel comfortable in my own skin — in who I am as a person. It inspires me to do better, achieve more, be a good person. My loved one is there for me to share joys and sorrows. But most simply: love makes me happy.
And yet, as a woman, I remain particularly sensitive to my emergent feminism and my belief in investing in my work and career. According to the incredibly successful Sheryl Sandberg, whom I have quoted before –
…”don’t leave before you leave.” This gets to the heart of why women don’t achieve more, in Sandberg’s diagnosis. Long before women begin to think about having children, before they even have a partner, women begin diminishing their career aspirations in anticipation of the day when they will need a better “work-life balance” (something, Sandberg laments, that is only discussed at women’s conferences). As a result, women stop seeking opportunities and achieve less early in their careers.
As a (budding) feminist, I refuse to “leave” before I have to leave. I have seen so many women completely change their careers, move to different countries, or just get any job to be with their loved one. But my question is: why should women always be the ones to sacrifice their careers, their opportunities to better the world in a tangible way? Correct me if I am wrong — but I do not see the same number of men change their job and move to where their loved ones are. I do not see the same number of men debating whether to pursue family/love or career/success. So, why must I?
I feel the burden not only of making decisions that resonate with my own goals, and my own desires to contribute to social justice — but also the burden of being a woman and so, hopefully someday serving as an example to my daughters and granddaughters. What example do I want to provide them?
The truth is, perhaps there is no easy solution to love and ambition. Being true to myself means admitting that regardless of my choice, I may not be fully happy — whether I pursue the best career/study opportunities, or follow love, I may wonder what lies on the other side. I may be missing love, or missing out on some incredible opportunities. The ideal for most of us women is to have both: be able to be with our significant others, love deeply, have a family, and yet pursue our big, hairy life goals.
But it’s never that easy, is it?
For all you ladies out there: do you feel that both love and career ambitions can be achieved together? If not, what would you choose? And why must we, women, always be making such choices?