Thursday, 9 January 2014

Why Exchange? Why Penn?

Here is the exchange essay I wrote for my initial Melbourne Global Mobility application back in May 2013 (not the Penn application - that involved three essays). It still reflects my motives for exchange fairly accurately, so I thought I'd share it, warts and all!

Growth from a Blank Slate 

I seek to promote human flourishing and to empower others to experience the best quality of life possible, through psychological research and clinical practice. However, to make the best contribution possible, I must first be well-equipped with the personal strengths of resilience, self-efficacy, open-mindedness, and a passion for academia. For these reasons, I value personal growth. This growth would be strongly supported by a semester at the University of Pennsylvania, through the dual challenges of a “blank slate” opportunity and a rigorous academic experience.

Life is currently predictable, comfortable, structured and familiar. Since moving from Auckland, New Zealand at the beginning of 2012, I have established a familiarity with the University of Melbourne, the city, work, College and friends. Yet, I know I learn far more when I am actually uncomfortable. Whether it be confusion over a philosophy essay, the last few reps of a strength exercise, or struggling to sit perfectly still, attentive and equanimous for my 100th hour (literally) of meditation in 10 days, I have found that applying grit to get through trying experiences has brought some of my greatest gains in understanding and personal growth. Thus, although it would be easier to remain where I am now, being growth-oriented, I am not satisfied with staying in a comfortable rut.

Exchange, on the other hand, is one of the rare blank slate opportunities we have in life. It is an opportunity to rip out all roots, connections and stagnancies, and to start afresh with new and exhilarating possibilities for exploration and growth, since throwing oneself into a completely unfamiliar environment would surely be one of the strongest catalysts for these processes. I would push myself completely out of my comfort zone, out of the metaphorical nest, and in doing so, would force myself to learn how to fly - quickly. The new blank slate environment that exchange provides would enlighten me as to what I am truly capable of, and is an opportunity I want to embrace.

The resulting cultural shift would also expand my worldview, challenging my underlying and covert assumptions. Having travelled in China and Europe, I have found it fascinating to encounter fundamentally different ways of seeing the world in different cultures. It has left me humbled as to just how much I don’t know, and has inspired me to address this ignorance. Living for an extended period in another country would be particularly eye-opening and mind-opening, providing an opportunity for full immersion in a different culture, where I would learn to see the world through a different lens.

I see the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) as the most academically suitable destination to realise this blank slate opportunity. First, as the top-ranked university out of all of the available US exchange partners, it would provide an exceptionally stimulating academic experience. I expect that I would be challenged by the rigour of the courses, and would be inspired by brilliant and motivated fellow students and leading academics. I would also thrive in the small seminar format of most upperclass courses, which provides an ideal setting that encourages and emphasises continual active participation and rigorous discussion.

Second, UPenn has research strengths in positive psychology, an area that I see myself contributing to in the future. Dr Martin Seligman, one of the fathers of the emerging field of Positive Psychology, heads the Positive Psychology Center at UPenn. Although I do not plan to study psychology on exchange, I see myself engaging in their world-renowned department by attending colloquiums, being involved in student societies, and hopefully volunteering as a research assistant. Given the fit between its research strengths and my research interests, I am intrigued by the possibility of undertaking a PhD or a Post-Doctorate at UPenn. Exchange would  therefore provide an opportunity to familiarise myself with the University and with the culture, to help guide such decisions.

Finally, I believe that exchange would give me an opportunity to contribute both to UPenn and to the University of Melbourne. As a New Zealander who sings opera, blogs, meditates, philosophises, offers free hugs for all, and cares about people and living life with intention, I hope that I would have an interesting perspective to contribute at UPenn. In turn, I would undoubtedly gain new perspectives from exchange to bring back to the classroom at the University of Melbourne. 

For the above reasons, I would value the opportunity to engage in an exchange at the University of Pennsylvania. Such a transformative and academically rigorous experience would promote growth in personal strengths, as well as a broader worldview and increased academic capabilities. By developing these qualities, exchange would prepare me to be a future leader in my field, where I hope to contribute to research that can enhance human wellbeing, the goal that inspires me to this day.

The "blank slate" metaphor was inspired by this post by Scott H Young, a blogger I follow and greatly respect.

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