Academic Research / Education

Getting My PhD in Final Fantasy

“At the age of 5, I had a crush on Super Mario…” My personal statement opens with where it all began, playing Mario Bros. New love came in the form of Final Fantasy, and I went through a period in primary school where given the opportunity, I based all creative projects on Final Fantasy 2. This carried into high school, where I’d daydream about making Final Fantasy games on the school bus.

You see, Final Fantasy told stories about people finding their own way, and that anyone can save the world, regardless of the hand they’ve been dealt. So, although I was fascinated by the problem solving and complexity of science and engineering, I was more determined to find a way to tell different kinds of stories through technology. And as video games taught me, if you didn’t see anyone around you doing something that felt important, probably you are supposed to do it. Despite how lonely and nebulous that felt in undergrad, I knew that I’d find “the others” if I kept forward.

Soon after, I found pockets “the others” at universities, mostly, over the the US. Then comes that big decision point in life, where you know that one path will deliver a very different experience from the other, and you’re facing one of the biggest decision you’ve ever had to make– Where do I go from here?.. If only I had the “save” and “load” options in life.

In Santa Cruz was a man who I met at a conference, who’d just created this “game” that seemed a bit too serious to be a “game,” but what did I know back then? That’s an important point to make, actually, that I didn’t know anything, but I thought I knew everything. At least, I wasn’t afraid to try doing things I didn’t know how to do, and this professor, saw that in me and called it, “entrepreneurial.” Later, he’d call it, “infinitely distractible.”

“What did he know?” “He just doesn’t *get* me.” “He’s obstructing my independence and individuality.” I remember meeting after meeting of seeing the confusion on his face as I struggled to make a convincing point. I was determined to be understood. For someone like me, the lifelong struggle was to be fit all the complexity of these thoughts, my “stories,” into something understandable. It’s like that moment in the game where your forced to fight yourself.

See, when I started a PhD, I had no idea what that was. I still don’t know if could explain it to someone, but what I can tell you is that I now know how to say something, and mean it; I know what I know and what I don’t; and that feelings of impossible and hard have lost their bite. Video games taught me that I could do anything, especially when the narrative puts all the odds against me. The PhD’s taught me that there is no shortcut to getting there, and there will always be many brilliant, accomplished people to see things in me, that I’ve yet to realize.

What I mean is that I’d never been challenged so relentless and hard before, both by the expectations of my professors, and the amazing examples set by my peers. As you may have felt before, I thought I was being crushed by these expectations I was unqualified to meet, only to be exposed for the impostor that I was. Then, with everything I had left, I stood my ground, and something remarkable happened: …they didn’t kick me out.

I had to think about this for a minute. They had their chance to get rid of me, but they didn’t. Does this mean that they actually think I can do this? Maybe they weren’t trying to destroy me… Maybe… they LIKE me. Then I started trying to see what it might be that they see in me. What do they think will become of me?… and somewhere, in that process, I stopped making excuses, and instead of thinking about myself all the time, I thought about the things I wanted to accomplish. See, the less time you spend wondering whether you can do something, the more time you have left, after you’ve done it. That’s also the moment where you realize that what you do doesn’t define you, and that you can prove yourself doing ANYTHING, as long as it’s SOMETHING.

What do you get from a PhD? Well, I now have the coolest friends one could imagine: leading experts and innovative creators, from all over the world and walks of life. So, to my colleagues, I’m sorry if in “making sense of myself,” it sometimes wasn’t pretty, but I’m so honored to have been part of this chapter of your, already, world-changing lives.

During my PhD, I got to teach and mentor undergraduate students, learning how to use my own extra years of experience to benefit others. To the undergraduates at UCSC, I am forever inspired by your diligence in pursuing and applying all these technical abilities, hearing about all your hard work and exhaustion in person and reading about it on Facebook.

Most importantly, I was learning and getting feedback from brilliant professionals, pushing the boundaries of technology and science through invention and research. To the administrators (Tracie and Carol), experts, and professors, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly made the investment of your time worthwhile, but because of that chance you took in me, I will always have the interactions with great and accomplished people who believed that I could accomplish great things.

Now, I’ve saved the best for last. From “entrepreneurial” to “infinitely distractible”… and, I believe, “volunteer-aholic” was another trait he identified in me, there are some very lasting impressions that this person left with me. I will end with these 3 takeaways that I will carry for the rest of my life:

(1) He told me to stop hoarding opportunities as if they are scarce, that I need to not have this impoverished mentality, because it’s actually the inverse. This was odd for me to hear, because, up until that point, I’d had to fight so hard to be where I was– but time has shown that he is right.

(2) On the white board, he drew me in the form of a 3-layer cake. He pointed at the bottom layer and said that I was very capable at the implementation level of things; then, he pointed at the top layer and said, I’m excellent at the “big picture” and high level thinking. Finally, he indicated that this “middle” layer, where you tie the top and bottom together, I was woefully lacking. Ever since he drew that image, I’ve been able identify and work towards building the bridge between the two. It’s been one of the most insightful things anyone’s ever seen in me, and I continue to see what he was talking about in all aspects of my life. He was more right than I could’ve imagined at the time.

(3) And on another occasion, actually, more than once, I have this image sketched in my research journal, as I took notes on his commentary of my work. He’d drawn 2 points: A and B. Then he drew the most swirly and round-about path between the two. He told me that I seem to always want to take people on this journey into the wilderness of my experiences and how it relates to EVERYTHING. Then he drew one bold and straight arrow, the shortest distance between A and B, and said, this is what people want– it’s what they need, and it’s the most effective thing for me to practice. And, again, he was right.

Conclusion: I guess you SHOULD always just listen to your adviser.

So, to my adviser, I don’t know why you put up with all those years with me, but you let me be me, by not letting me settle for who I was. As a result, I’ve never felt more myself than I do right now. Thank you.

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