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Authentic Eagles: David Chang On Belonging

As Boston College students, it can be tempting to hide our true selves. Embracing our individuality can help us to understand ourselves and experience the world around us as genuinely as possible. Authentic Eagles is a series that gives a voice to the people who have experienced firsthand the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of being one’s authentic self at BC. We hope that readers are inspired to have conversations and reflections of their own, working toward being more authentic individuals.

David Chang, MCAS '16

It was the first grade and the topic of middle names came up in conversation.  In listening to my classmates, I heard them exchange their “normal” names, like Andrew, Evan, and Michael. When everyone turned to me to ask what mine was, I froze—my middle name isn’t “normal.”  It’s different, and difficult to pronounce.  But eventually I told them that it was Keunchul, which is my Korean name.  The other kids laughed and I remember cowering inside my coat.  Instead of laughter, I heard chants saying you don’t belong.  

In high school, I wasn’t anything special, but my older sisters were.  Although I am eight years younger than them, their legacy still remained.  When teachers found out I was Kathy and Jean’s little brother, I was met with expressions of excitement and curiosity, silently asking the question, "what’s this one going to do?"  To what I assume was their disappointment, I was average. I didn’t live up to the pseudo-hype and I kept asking myself why that was. I got so hard on myself that I started to shut people out and emotionally distance myself because I didn’t want to disappoint others. It was a little trick of perspective and it kind of worked, but there was a side effect: I forgot what it felt like to be loved unconditionally.

With my negative experience in high school, I was that hopeful college to would be better and that I would be able to make lasting friendships, but old habits die hard. Going through orientation the summer before freshman year, I thought I made a mistake in choosing Boston College. Everyone seemed perfect, and I simply wasn’t. It felt like confidence wasn’t a problem with my future classmates, but for me, it was the problem. I wanted to cower in my shell like that day in the first grade, but someone didn’t let me.

My orientation leader reached out in small yet profound ways. She made me feel comfortable, and on the night before class registration, I did something that I never had done before: I asked for help. I met with her before the night ended and she helped me come up with a game plan for my first college course schedule. Then, when orientation was over and we all left Robsham, I went up to my OL to thank her. I was expecting to give a high five, fist bump, or something of that nature; but instead, she hugged me. That was something I wasn’t very used to.

Receiving that hug made me feel welcome and want to make BC my home.  I heard that getting involved was the way to make that happen, so I put myself out there and started applying / auditioning for activities like a cappella groups, 4Boston, and the Undergraduate Leadership Association. But I forgot that I could still fail at those things I tried, and I did… a lot. I’m sure if you looked in my e-mail inbox from freshman and sophomore year, you would find about 50 blanket emails starting with “Thank you for your interest.” Running through my head the whole time was: You’re not good enough. They don’t want you. I reverted to my old ways and closed myself off because I was afraid that if someone spent too much time with me, they’d realize why I spent so much time alone. Confidence dwindling, there was still one more thing I wanted to try.

Despite not having any prior running experience, my sophomore year I attempted to run the Boston Marathon.  The first couple of miles were okay, but around mile 10, my legs started to feel heavy and nausea set in. I thought about giving up, but right when I wanted to quit for good at mile 13, I saw a man jump over the barrier towards me in a navy long sleeve polo. It was my dad. With the biggest smile on his face, he hugged me and said he was proud of me. I was in absolute shock. Those were words he didn’t normally say, and if he did, I blocked them out of my memory because I didn’t believe that deserved them. But this time was different. Tears streaming down my face, I forgot about quitting and kept moving.

A few miles later, I climbed Heartbreak Hill to see familiar faces at the stretch of Mile 21 that is Boston College.  The sound of my name being chanted by my peers was deafening: during all this, I thought to myself, so I really do have people who care about me.  Are they my friends?  I think they are. At that moment, BC started to feel like home. People from various social circles came to support me, and it was enough for me to push through the last five miles.  

Once I crossed the finish line, I felt a whole range of emotions. It was relief, it was joy, it was excitement, and I remember looking behind me and immediately breaking down to my knees, sobbing. To help me back on my feet were fellow marathoners, and for those five minutes, it didn’t matter who anyone was: everyone felt like hugging someone, and it was a feeling you didn’t want to let go.

I returned to campus limping with a sense of pride and newfound confidence. I’d done what I thought was impossible and I experienced something more than I could have ever anticipated. After that, I made myself vulnerable once again to failure, but did a little better this time. I had the privilege of being part of the Appalachia Leadership Council, working as a TA for the professor who changed my life, and serving BC as an orientation leader.  And oh yeah—I ended up running two more Boston Marathons.

One might say I found my place at BC, but to be honest, I still ask myself if I belong. When I meet someone or share something new about myself, I experience feelings of anxiety that take me back to the first grade. I don’t want anyone else to feel this way, so I do my best to spread love to those around me. Hugs are as my subtle way of doing just that. I may not leave BC with everything resolved, but I’ll be able to say with confidence that I found a support system made up of mentors and groups that I’ve come to love. Those people are the ones who are always there for me when I need them most—at Heartbreak Hill, both on the Marathon route and in life.

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