Searching for a Spark

Cecilia Pou, Student at University of Southern California pursuing International Relations, United States 

A few weeks after being accepted to the University of Southern California, I sat at my kitchen table scouring a brochure outlining all of the prospective majors — everything ranging from Anthropology to Chemical Engineering. My older sister, peering over my shoulder, pointed out International Relations as a possible major of interest. 

“It combines multiple areas you love: history, public service and global politics. I really think you should choose that one,” she stated with so much confidence that I almost believed her. 

It would be an understatement to say that I was lost. Having attended a very traditional high school, I had little-to-no opportunity to explore academic interests outside of the classic five subjects. As an interdisciplinary student by nature, I felt stifled and often uninspired in my coursework and consequently, unsure of what path to pursue in college. 

My sister’s offhanded suggestion, however, sparked my interest. As the daughter of two immigrants with family scattered across the globe, I was forced to be globally minded from a young age. I unintentionally learned about foreign cultures from being force-fed kimchi at the kitchen table to eavesdropping on my father’s fast-paced conversation in Spanish with his mother. 

This genuine interest in experiencing foreign cultures was deepened by travel. I often found myself leaving my family in the dust, racing far beyond them in museums, at ancient ruins or temples — eager to experience any and all culture I could immerse myself into. Latin America, in particular, piqued my interest, and I found myself infatuated with the region’s deep history, lush topography, and mix of languages. 

Aside from my passion for experiencing foreign cultures, I intended to choose a major that would open the door to a career in social impact, in whatever form that may take. Pursuing a career in social impact was non-negotiable, a dream of mine since I began high school; dedicating my career to the service of others, seemed like an incredibly fulfilling choice — especially in this age of extreme inequality. While it was hard to pinpoint exactly where it came from, I do believe my parents’ evidently meaningful careers working in psychotherapy and medicine strongly guided this impulse from a young age. 

While it was clear I possessed a genuine interest in foreign cultures and had a passion for social impact, it was not immediately obvious how that would translate into any kind of meaningful career. Despite these hesitations, I decided to pursue a major in International Relations. 

I started my degree with little to no idea of what my intentions were in studying this topic. With limited personal insight to guide my course work, I stumbled between classes with topics ranging from national intelligence to global finance. I joined USC’s international relations fraternity with the hopes of gaining some clarity, though largely I found myself even more lost. I was influenced to pursue a career at the State Department, even though it was clearly the wrong fit for me. 

While I did enjoy what I was learning, I struggled pinpointing a career path that would combine my two guiding passions: social impact and an interest in exploring foreign cultures. All of the potential career paths presented to me seemed too bureaucratic and dry. I was as lost as ever. 

I stumbled upon a professional opportunity by chance. While scrolling on LinkedIn on the hunt for a summer job, I was struck by a minimalist, unfamiliar logo. My interest piqued; I clicked on the opportunity. The posting was related to content moderation at a major social media platform. I had never heard of anything like it. Intrigued and perhaps a bit confused, I did some research and submitted an application. 

Fast forward a year later and I have recently accepted a full-time position at that organization. My experience last summer was everything I could have hoped for. Tasked with making content moderation decisions on controversial social media posts, the organization is forced to examine content related to pressing human rights abuses, ethnic conflicts, and social taboos. Consequently, the staff is forced to examine the cultural context, language, history, and social structure of the region in which the post originates. 

One of my primary responsibilities was to help organize and facilitate roundtable discussions with stakeholders across the globe. Most notably, I was involved in the planning of a roundtable discussion with linguists, community leaders, and academics from South Africa, to weigh in on a controversial post utilizing an ethnic slur. 

After the event finally came to fruition, I felt fulfilled, engaged, and proud. Not only did this role teach me about local cultures from first hand accounts, but it also addressed a crucial humanitarian issue: safety and free expression on online platforms. 

Finding a balance between freedom of expression and a safe online environment is one of the most pressing social issues of our generation. From the 2016 US election to the Rohingya Genocide to the Women’s Marches of 2017, we have seen time and time again the immense power social platforms have both to empower and destroy us. How do we preserve its power while limiting its harm? I knew it was a challenge that I wanted to explore further — at least for now. 

Some are guided by a specific issue area that motivates them to work hard and guides them along their university experience. For others like me, we are committed to making a change, but struggle to discover where we fit or what specific cause calls us. Discovering a passion can be a long, arduous, and disheartening process and this side of it is rarely spoken about. 

At times, you just fall into your passion unexpectedly. You randomly stumble upon an inspiring internship, have a thought-provoking conversation with a professor, or read a book that stops you in your tracks. Don’t lose hope. 

I’m not sure what my long-term future holds, but I do know that right now that I am motivated, inspired, and excited to work to make a change. I hope that one day you will find that spark as well. 

This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change. 

Driving Change

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