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Growing Pains: Looking backward for a path forward

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

--Robert Frost

As many of my peers can attest, we find ourselves at both an exciting and somewhat nervous time in our lives. After a year or two's break from the dreaded inquiries about where we want to go to college, we now face a much more thrilling, pivotal and, sometimes, scary crossroads: picking a major, finding internships, acquiring jobs and, ultimately, beginning to forge a path into what will become our future in the big, bad, real world.

When trying to figure out a direction for my future, I find it helpful to take a few minutes to look back at how I got here in the first place.

The Spark-notes version of my life at the moment would read as follows: studying engineering, writing for NolaVie, getting involved in the entrepreneur community in Charlottesville, running on the Club Cross Country team, and working at a running store.

The only part of this list that was present 15 months ago was running on a team.

So, how did I get here?

The short answer is people. People come, people go, but most everyone you meet will have some effect on you -- be it a grin that cheers you up, or a smile that causes you to end up an engineering major.

I have been fortunate to have some amazing people who have led me to my current place -- largely teachers.

I am an engineer because I had great math and science teachers: Mr. Shaw, who fostered in me a love of physics; Mrs. Tilling, who somehow managed to make AP Calculus fun; the list goes on.

I write for NolaVie because I had fabulous english teachers: Mr. Waddington, who is the reason I actually pay attention and dissect political speeches, also why I still enjoy reading and reciting poetry; Mrs. Westfall, whose persistence and attention to detail is the only reason I have any competency for using commas (although I make no claims at mastery).

I am drawn to entrepreneurship because the community is filled with amazing, driven, innovative, sharp individuals. And because of my mom, who is a teacher of life. If I can manage to be half the entrepreneur she is, I’ll be satisfied.

I run because, today, I can’t imagine life, or who I would be, without it.

Then there is that one standout thing that really sets us down a path of self-creation. For many it is a specific person, event, or experience. For me, that person is my first cross country coach and first serious math teacher, Mark Cortez.

He was one of those mentors who was enthusiastic and encouraging. There were times, when I first started running, I am positive he believed in me more than I believed in myself. He had a very distinctive clap, and you heard it driving you home at the end of a race, long before you ever rounded a turn to actually see him.

He was the first teacher I had who made me excited to go to math class. Here I now sit as an engineer in training.

If I hadn’t have walked into his pre-algebra class in the 7th grade and been told to come hear about the cross country team at lunch, who knows where I would be; who knows who I would be.

Today, I see him in about 15-minute increments every couple of years. And I spend the first five of those 15 sobbing with joy (tears of joy actually do happen, which was a surprise to many of my high school classmates, especially me crying, for anything).

If I can do for a young runner even half of what Mr. Cortez did for me, my self-esteem, and my perseverance, I will consider myself accomplished. This is the reason I am exploring the possibility of being an assistant cross country coach, here, in Charlottesville.

If I can create something as an engineer and entrepreneur that helps make the world a better place, it both honors the people who impassioned me and pays it forward to someone else. This is why I am getting involved in new and exciting entrepreneurial groups.

By looking backward, I have found my way forward.

So, to anyone out there daunted by all the options that lie before you, stop for a moment and look back at how you got to this place. It will ground you. It will help you remember your passions, help you rediscover what makes you tick.

Looking backward will help you see forward.

 

2007 Cross Country State Runners-Up (Cortez on far left)

2007 Cross Country State Runners-Up
(Cortez on far left)

Native New Orleanian Elizabeth Kukla is a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She writes about being a NOLA girl from afar in “Growing Pains,” a weekly column at NolaVie.