I've been a lover of words for as long as I can remember. A sequence of shapes scribbled together or a collection of consecutive sounds can communication practically any thought or emotion that humans are capable of thinking or feeling. Words can form relationships, share knowledge, change minds, start wars, bring peace, create understanding... Words can do so much.
Nowadays, words are my friends. I can write them and I can speak them and I feel confident in doing so. But that hasn't always been the case. For a long time, the written word was my safe haven, but the spoken word was quite utterly terrifying.
As a young child, I was determined to learn how to read. After much frustration and a lot of practice, it clicked, and I consumed book after book, story after story. This love of reading quickly lead to an interest in writing, now evidenced by pages and pages of stories that I wrote throughout elementary and middle school.
My fictional stories rarely involved much fantasy or action – characters were far more interesting to me. What are they thinking, what are they feeling, what relationships do they have? I loved to create a character in my mind and theorize how they would express themselves to others. Looking back now, perhaps this was because I often struggled to express myself.
Growing up, I was incredibly shy. I could be vocal around my friends, but speaking in front of a group or greeting a stranger was far beyond my comfort zone. When I moved to a new town in 5th grade, I realized that pushing outside of this comfort zone was the only way for me to make friends and be successful.
I started small – asking the girl next to me to borrow a pencil, and later, volunteering to be a student council representative for our 5th grade classroom. By middle school, I could give oral presentations without my voice shaking (of course, my legs still shook and my stomach still flipped). In high school, I continued to intentionally force myself outside of my comfort zone. It was terrifying, and I often felt helpless.
Writing, however, came easily to me. The words flowed freely from my mind as I visualized the pieces of the puzzle that was the story in my head, stitching together to each idea until my thoughts were a tangible construction of paper and ink in front of me.
In high school, I was able to truly advance in my writing skills, with the help of a very influential teacher. Mr. Indrieka, my sophomore year English teacher, was the first teacher to not give me an A on a paper. While his critique that “this is good, but you can do better” made me furious at the time, his refusal to reward me with the grade I desired until I truly pushed myself beyond what was easy for me advanced my writing skills to the next level and allowed me to appreciate the process of constructing a well-thought-out paper.
However, being a part of my high school newspaper staff was my first realization that words can impact social change. As I wrote about our administration’s failure to properly enforce the zero-tolerance policy for alcohol use among high school athletes and the importance of the separation of church and state in public schools, I felt empowered by what words could do, and I felt the need to speak out about topics that were important to me.
I had so much to say, but my fear of being the spotlight prevented me from speaking up. Writing was the best and most comfortable way for me to express my thoughts, but I knew that could only get me so far if I wasn’t willing to be vocal. So, I ran for and was elected to be an officer for our National Honor Society, which meant I had to give a speech in front of the 100+ inductees and their families the following year.
With each nervous step outside of my comfort zone, I became more confident. My senior year, I was selected to be a director of a large leadership retreat. It ended up being the most meaningful experience of my high school career – and something I could never have imagined myself being brave enough to tackle just a few years prior.
My first semester of college, I was enrolled in Oral Communication – and I was dreading it. Despite my personal progress, giving speeches still made me incredibly nervous. However, I picked a topic that I was truly interested in, sex education, and I gave the speeches. I was slightly surprised when I was chosen to participate in the university's undergraduate speech contest, and even more surprised when I was selected as one of the top 7 finalists.
As I stood on the stage in front of the judges, I took a deep breath. I was anxious, but I was also excited. In the moments in which I was able to block out my nerves, I was thrilled to be sharing the research that I had done, on something I found to be important, with an audience. Perhaps even more so, I was proud. While this was an academic accomplishment, it was an even bigger personal accomplishment. I’d come a long way.
Of course, I didn’t become a master public speaker. I still have nerves when it comes to speaking in front of groups. However, with practice and purpose, I can now subside those nerves and speak in a calm and confident manner. I have taken on leadership positions with confidence, and I have learned and grown as a person because of my willingness to develop my communication skills, even when it’s scary.
Learning to communicate effectively and confidently, both orally and through writing, has been the most influential experience of my life. It has allowed me to develop stronger relationships with others, capably stand up for what I believe in, find understanding with those different from me, take advantage of opportunities that propel me forward, listen to criticism to correct mistakes that I make, and discover the passion that I have for communication and all that it brings this world.
The opportunity to share my ideas, both written and verbally, has been the biggest enabler to maturing, growing and grasping a better understanding of who I am.
Writing allows me to understand my own mind. By simply sitting down in front of my laptop and opening a blank word document, I have come to better understand my own views on politics, love, sexual harassment, mental health, gender identity, patriotism, hatred, sexual orientation, protests, class oppression, disappointment, and so much else.
Speaking allows me to share my mind with others, and hear theirs in return, learning and growing with each conversation.
So, I write this to anyone who is struggling with the fear of sharing their words or the confusion of not knowing who they are. Write it down or talk it out. You have to take the first step outside of your comfort zone. It's scary, but it's worth it. In my experience, outside of your comfort zone is where you find yourself.