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Archive for the tag “University of Pittsburgh”

30×30: Lesson 22: Age of the heart

Loire Valley, France, 2014

Château de Chenonceau, France, 2014

A long time ago I vowed never to be someone who would wince when asked how old she was. When I was younger, I often asked people their age out of pure curiosity, and I found it troubling when I hit a nerve. Maybe because I didn’t like to feel guilty for a question that I had so innocently posed. Maybe because I didn’t like seeing people cringe about a detail that didn’t matter to me.

As I’ve grown older, I have lied about my age — once. I was barely 23 and teaching in Talange, France, for students with a range of ages that could have matched mine. On the first day of class, terrified, I told them in English that I was 54, which turned out to be a great lesson about numbers.

But in general, why be ashamed of what you’ve earned?

On some levels, it’s not that simple, but on other levels, it is.


“Quel âge avez-vous?” How old are you?

The question had sprung up as I plunged into an introduction dialogue with my French 2 students at the University of Pittsburgh. Despite my resolutions, I had to will myself not to hesitate.

“J’ai vingt-neuf ans,” I responded: I’m twenty-nine. I smiled, but the dialogue continued in my mind: I’m, like, a decade older than you. Please don’t reject me.

An advanced student named Haby (age 19) burst out laughing. “Ah bon?” she said. “You can’t at all tell.

I grinned nervously and gave her a high-five. “Merci?” I answered.

What it is that makes age a shaming tool in our culture? It’s got to be just more than fine lines and going gray. For the younger generation, is aging a negative process due to the belief that added years force you to no longer be interesting, creative, engaging, and fun? For the aging generation, is age painful when you look in the mirror and think about all the opportunities you have lost? Is my own hopefulness about turning 30 just blind optimism that all I still wish for will be able to happen?

I like to think of age as a muscle. As long as I am still willing to climb trees at sunset by the Susquehanna River when my siblings Andrea and Jordan kidnap me from my apartment in Harrisburg (true story), I will be able to climb trees (until my hips fall off). As long as I am still willing to listen to hear out my students about the joys and concerns that are unique to them, I will still be able to connect to them.

And equally — as long as I am still able to laugh with those both older and younger than me and to find common ground among us; as long as I refuse to take myself too seriously; as long as my life decisions are made sincerely enough that I don’t regret them; as long as I am still willing to take the risks to maybe gain the reward — I think I will be able to remain the best version of myself.

Or at least, I plan to try.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 21: The face behind the apron


Kathy’s Deli, 2008

On-and-off for seven years, I was one of the faces behind the aprons of Kathy’s Deli in Shippensburg. When I first began working at Kathy’s in 2002, I was the quiet one who made your hoagies on a wheat roll with just a tad too little mayonnaise; during college breaks I mixed your cole slaw and sliced your house-roasted turkey and learned to smile a little more. After college, you may have seen me busing tables at any number of local weddings. Perhaps you passed me delivering hot lunches in Carlisle. Morning danishes and coffee in Chambersburg.

Kathy’s Deli framed my life before and after college as well as before and after two trips to France. In doing so, it taught me not only my present-day knife work, the secrets behind efficiently prepping a large meal, and the laughter that can come when working in a kitchen so crowded that you only have a few square inches for your cutting board and cabbage.

For a few summers, I worked almost exclusively with women double my age, who told me that I might as well wear a bikini with confidence while my body still looked okay, offered boy advice while stirring kettles of simmering soup, and remarked on the fact that even in 2005 a strong man is considered confident whereas a strong woman is considered bossy. We nibbled on broken cookies that were unfit to sell, took breaks that were too short in relationship to the length of the days, ran to the grocery store for missing ingredients, organized crates of dairy deliveries, took phone orders, assembled paninis, ran more than stood, finished slicing where someone else had stopped, garnished platters, told stories about our families, went home exhausted, and returned the next day.

I never played organized sports, but Kathy’s Deli was my strongest team.


But beyond the deli, I was just a delivery girl with a slightly-frizzled ponytail who smelt vaguely of cooked ham. The job required that I carry platters of assorted wraps, Kay & Lays Chips, and gallon jugs of raspberry lemonade up flights of stairs into your office, that I silently smooth a plastic tablecloth outside the conference room, that I speak in hushed tones to your lunch coordinator, smile, and hand her the bill, folded in thirds. I didn’t mind this part of the job, but I always wondered if you noticed me — you who were making the more impactful decisions than the amount of mayonnaise in the chicken salad, you whose white sleeves could always stay air conditioned and clean. Did my apron lesson me to you? What about the ache in my arms?

As my life moved away from Shippensburg, I also left the deli. But I still sense Kathy’s in the way I thank the workmen in the Cathedral of Learning, the way I talk to the guy who empties the trash on the 13th floor, and the way I greet Liz who makes my tea at Hillman Library almost daily. Everybody matters.

This is a perspective that I cannot dare to lose.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 18: Winter tea and the worth of water

January 2012

January 2012

Adapted from “Counting Down,” a post from January 3, 2013.

On January 21, 2012, my roommate Dan left for Philadelphia on the snow-covered turnpike and never returned home. He was in the hospital in a coma when I interviewed for entry at the University of Pittsburgh, and he died two days before I got the email stating that I was recommended for acceptance. I do not remember the winter of 2012 very well except for the time when I finally stopped thinking about Dan every hour of every day, by the time I had cleaned out his toothbrush and shaving cream from the bathroom, that I was living a whole month behind the rest of the world, writing the wrong date on my classroom whiteboard and missing deadlines for the Patriot-News with clockwork regularity.

Behind him, Dan left some weights for lifting, some glassware, and a massive, tightly-sealed Tupperware of Tetley’s tea that I still drink almost daily in Pittsburgh. But he also left behind two lessons, the first from when he lived among us, and the second from when he did not.

When living, Dan showed me — among other things — how to open yourself up to people, to draw in those around you, to create community, to cultivate love.

But when Dan died, he made me think through life in a completely different way, causing me to question if I had fully appreciated this bright-eyed roommate while I had had the chance. Had I truly listened to him when he needed to speak? I had shared the crisper drawers in the refrigerator, but to what extent had I done so with my time? Had I ever thanked him for loving my cat and paying his rent? In other words, had I really known the worth of him? His life? Human life?

I struggle with being grateful for what exists in the moment. I find it really difficult to see the process over the destination. To be grateful for the ability to learn instead of focusing on the agony of being in school. To say “thank you” for the life that allows me to live in two cities simultaneously instead of complaining about the exhaustion of shuttling between them both.

But what changes when I can understand what I’ve already received? Can I say “thank you” daily for my own life, every time I steep Dan’s tea?

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

30×30: Lesson 2: Strategies for teaching

As an elementary school student, I was a control mechanism, a pawn.

It didn’t take teachers long to realize that I was both too passive to misbehave and too polite to mention my boredom, so when students were placed in pairs, I was always set within elbow length of That Kid: the runny-nosed girl with no friends, the too-tough-for-fifth-grade bully, the under-understood student who smelled enough like body odor to send the majority of my peers away gagging. I, who didn’t have the type of vocabulary to express that kind of stuff, was to make the students understand her math homework.

“I kind of like it,” I confessed to my mom. “I figured out what she thought was confusing and then we cleared it up.”

I had been complaining about not being allowed to sit with Jolene Hockenberry so we could chat about the Baby Sitters’ Club books, but my mom’s eyes brightened over my after-school snack of toast with butter and cinnamon.

“That’s all that teaching is,” she said — a teacher herself. “You go from the known to the unknown.”

Years later, long after I had disregarded education as a career possibility only to unearth it again, I would sit in university-level teaching courses to hear terms like scaffolding — the process of breaking down information for students into chunks that build on one another — and be lectured on the importance of knowing your audience. And I’d call my mom after class to thank her — not just for teaching but also for modeling how drastically simple it can be to educate others: you know, you speak, and you listen.

Find an introduction on this series here.  Dig into other life lessons here.

Brighting a dark image: All about… Iran {a cultural project}

“All about…” is a series of culturally-driven posts by guest writers who have lived, worked, or studied in a culture different than that of central Pennsylvania. These essays are not comprehensive cultural guides; rather, their purpose is to expose misunderstandings, clarify stereotypes, and highlight the similarities between familiar and unfamiliar cultures.

This week’s post is written by Ida C., a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh. She was born in Tehran, Iran, and grew up in Huntington Beach, California. Her dreams include opening her own language school, marrying George Clooney, and working for Rick Steves.


Iran is one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. I went to a lecture recently, and an Iranian author put it perfectly (I paraphrase): “Americans know two Irans: the Persian Empire or nuclear Iran and nothing in between.” But there is so much more to know! As an Iranian American, I feel that I am constantly defending my birth nation. While I can get defensive, who wouldn’t after seeing and hearing negative images and opinions about your country on a daily basis?

1. Iran is not an Arab nation, and we do not speak Arabic. Iran is surrounded partially by Arab nations and has friendly relations with Arab nations, but Iranians are not Arabs. Like Spain, Iran was conquered at one point by Arabs, meaning that many aspects of its culture reflect Arabian culture. For example, Farsi (or Persian) has Arabic vocabulary and uses Arabic script, but it is an Indo-European language very similar to Urdu.

2. Iran women have a lot of freedom. As Iran is under Islamic rule, there are many restrictions on what women can do and wear, but not to the extreme that most people believe. Women can work, study, drive, go out alone in public, and hold government positions.

3. Iran is a modern nation. We have cars; we don’t ride camels. We have an expansive highway, metro and bus system. We have modern homes with modern furniture. We have Nike, Puma, Apple and Samsung stores. But sadly, our technology has limits. ETA of magic carpets is…well…never.

4. “Iranians do not like Americans.” I can’t even begin to explain how wrong this statement is. What Americans see about Iran in the media does not even represent 1% of what the country and its people are about. In reality, over 1 million Iranians live, work, and study in the U.S.

5. “Persians” and “Iranians” are the same. When describing Iran’s inhabitants, some people say Persian, some say Iranian, and some say both. For many Americans, the word “Persian” conjures up images of cats or rugs, but for those who call themselves Persians, it’s a way of separating themselves from Iran’s negative image in U.S. media.

I do not pretend to be an expert on Iran or its people. This is just my opinion. However, what bothers me is people making judgements about a country that they know nothing about. Iran has a beautiful history and culture ready to be discovered with eager Iranians who are willing to guide interested discoverers on their journey.

Iran women



The wisdom of the bathroom stall

American women are infamous for using public restrooms in pairs, talking to one another while in adjacent stalls, and continuing the conversation while washing their hands and heading right back out to the public sphere. However, nothing surprised me more than these written words found in a bathroom stall in the woman’s room on the second floor of Pittsburgh‘s iconic Cathedral of Learning, where bomb threats had marred the bathroom walls less than a year ago.

Bathroom graffiti isn’t unusual, and the comments in this stall aren’t all pristine, but the tone of many of these words uplifts, rethinks, and inspires. Comments and artwork are added daily, and I visit this stall as much as possible. Seriously. Why shouldn’t a public restroom be a place of reflection and dialogue? A new perspective is sometimes most effective when it’s unexpected.

October 2012

October 2012

October 2012

The Pittsburgh Letters: A Montesquieu-styled social commentary

In the 1700s, the writer Montesquieu wrote an epistolary novel entitled “The Persian Letters,” in which two fictional characters travel from Persia to France and write letters home that display their observations. Their “innocent” perspective is a thinly-veiled social and political criticism of French society and the absolutist monarchy under Louis XIV. Through the eyes of a “foreigner,” our own practices — what we take for granted — can be rethought.


Sylvia to Norma R., Newburg, Pennsylvania

An early Sunday morning in Pittsburgh is the quietest of all mornings, but it’s the morning where everyone seems to be in the biggest hurry. No one walks on the sidewalk, like they do during the week; they run. Parallel with the avenues, in straight lines down the sidewalks to turn abruptly at street corners, up stairs and back down them, everyone’s in a rush, it seems, to get somewhere. The first time I saw the city so agitated I tried to stop a man and ask him if the city was in danger, but he did not hear me because his ears held tiny plugs connected by a thin wires in a way that made him oblivious to my presence beside him.

After four weeks living in Pittsburgh, I began to notice that this occurrence was somewhat regular and dependent on sunshine, but I still struggled to find the cause of this haste. Nothing is more important to an American than getting to work on time, but on Sundays, when it is said most do not work, what urgent matter do these individuals tend to? Back at home, we would wake up on Sunday mornings to milk the cows and go to church, but even then we would do so walking.

Even more troubling is the fact that the dress of the hurried is not at all the same as that worn daily. One tells me that everyone woman in Pittsburgh must have a little black dress or brown boots for these are the most expensive, but we used to wear these colors on the farm because they colors were least likely to show dirt. But in Pittsburgh, when hurried on Sunday morning, a man’s whole attire changes.  There is no collared shirt, no muted colors, no grey — suddenly he wears enough neon yellow and orange to rival a construction worker. But since he does not carry any tools except a narrow white rectangle of plastic on his arm, which, as far as I can see, has not purpose whatsoever, I doubt sincerely he is hurried for payment.

One Sunday, there was one individual who seemed more in a hurry than all the others. He was carrying some books and was wearing a backpack, which increased his strain. He cut diagonally across Schenley Plaza instead of going around it, like the others, and I was sure the others would be impressed by his ingenuity. However, the other runners seemed particularly baffled by this man and continued running, not even stopping to help collect the papers which fluttered behind him.

August 2012

August 2012

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