Lessons Learned: How to say ‘yes’ when you want to say ‘no’

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anissa and grace
Grace Meadows (first year) and Anissa Basnayake (first year) edit photos and illustrations in the news room at Occidental College in Los Angeles, CA. April 11, 2022. Divya Prakash/The Occidental

My eye color and eye for photography are not the only things my father passed down to me. He also instilled in my growing mind that saying “yes” is the most beneficial thing I can do for myself in situations where I face doubt, uncertainty and a lack of self confidence. These two abilities — photography and courage — were what led me to The Occidental newspaper.

Unlike how I started high school, I came to college timid and unsure of myself. Apparently, a pandemic has a strange effect on your social strength. I didn’t exactly set the best reputation for myself with the newspaper either. Running into Choi Auditorium two hours late to new staff training because I mixed up the times and seeing hundreds of new half-faces sent an electric current through my body that challenged the courage I thought I had.

The fear and frustration didn’t stop there. Over the first two weeks of working on the paper, I got in trouble for everything I could have possibly fathomed at the time. Reflecting on this from the position I hold now, I was doing just fine as a new staff member. But at the time I was starting to doubt my abilities and commitment to something that I never seemed to get right. There were so many rules for being a photojournalist that I found difficult to learn on top of the rules of being a social college student.

Not only was I struggling to understand my place on the paper, but also, my role in the new college community was also becoming murkier by the day.

In the middle of the first semester, I had the worst breakup of my life — with my best friend. My heart grieved as I realized I no longer had the support of the most trustworthy person in my life. The tumultuous journey that this friend pulled me along made it increasingly difficult to prioritize things like the paper, which I eventually even tried to quit.

If it weren’t for my allies on The Occidental’s editorial and senior teams, I wouldn’t have lasted another week. I aired my grievances and was encouraged to try again with the understanding that things would improve with time. After much motivation, I decided to give it another chance. I figured if things were to stay the same, at least now the team knew where I stood and I would have an easy out. My life took another turn, though, when Barbara Thomas, the paper’s staff advisor and biggest supporter, reached out to me and encouraged me to apply for the role of Photo Editor. Apparently, my love for connecting with people was clear in my photography, and that was just the quality the editorial team was looking for in a new editor. Even though I was hesitant to commit myself to another semester in a precarious work environment, my inclination to give everything a shot seemed to peek through again.

osac protest
A photo from the Oxy Sexual Assault Coalition’s (OSAC) protest against sexual assault on campus, which won Best News Photograph from the California College Media Association (CCMA) in the category for schools with enrollments under 15,000. Nov. 12, 2021. Grace Meadows/The Occidental

Unexpectedly, I got the job. Even more surprisingly, I accepted. I remember having conversation after conversation with my dad to make me feel less queasy about taking on something huge in a place I was still so unsure about. Of course, as my photographic inspiration his position and positivity were biased, but it was helpful nonetheless.

When the spring semester started, I knew soon it was going to be okay. Even through the rockiness of being unfamiliar with and alone in this role, I had faith in myself. As a first year, not only was I afraid of being surrounded by experienced upperclassmen and writers, but I also had to find a way to manage people my own age, and even some who were older. This was my most difficult roadblock to get over and still is every now and then.

Once Anissa Basnayake, my co-editor, came along, it felt like no obstacles were too big for us to handle. We took on the media team like it was our baby, and read each other’s minds as if we hadn’t just met each other. I wouldn’t have wanted to edit hundreds of photos every Monday night, when the editorial board finalizes stories, without her at the computer right across from me. Anissa reminds me every day with her collaborative and outgoing nature that doing hard tasks doesn’t have to be a solitary stoic act — it can be a joint effort. And it’s way more fun that way.

What I expected to be a laborious attempt at wrangling media staff on Slack every day turned out to be just that, but what surprised me most was how much fun I had. When I was working last summer, fresh out of high school and pandemic isolation, I thought I would never be able to recover from the deterioration of my social battery. It was worrisome considering I was supposed to move to a new state soon to start college, a beacon for social, academic and emotional labor. However, the newspaper restored my energy. Being surrounded by people who are interested in a common goal, and interested in me, made me feel more at home than I have since I moved almost 3,000 miles from my own.

I feel so lucky to have found people who teach me so much not just about how to function in college, but also how to work in a professional community. I feel so grateful that I said yes to something that scared me.

Being the type of person who is willing to try everything, I have faced a lot of failure. I have faced lots of rejections and people who aren’t willing to say yes back to me. And even though it is still terrifying to think that I have three more years in college after this brutal introductory one, it is comforting to think about my journey in the newspaper as an inspiration for how I want to live my life from now on. It is certainly not an easy job, but it has taught me so much and I have laughed more than I ever thought I would. Ultimately, I think the frustrating and painful parts of my membership here are what allowed me to see the beauty in my responsibilities now. If it weren’t for the aches and bruises I received when I began, I would not be able to endure as much as I now know I can.