Sociology Pre Grad Intern Albert Heo
A Day of Service, a Lifetime of Purpose
Before college I was so sure I would be pursuing a career in medicine. I actively participated in Health Occupations Students of America during high school, volunteered at a nursing home for Alzheimer's patients, and read up on requirements for medical school applications. When I came to the University of Texas at Austin, I proudly joined many of the pre-med biology majors, because choosing biology was an obvious, a default, for applying for medical school, even though I had little interest in the subject. During the second semester of freshmen year in college, however, I took a sociology course titled Contemporary U.S. Social Problems. I found so much passion in the subject itself, and I knew what I wanted to do then. After the semester was over, I eagerly changed my major to a double major of Sociology and Human Biology, a Biology degree option that focuses on human interaction with society. I had just taken off the pre-med label from my official record at the advising office, when Angela Howard Frederick, who was my professor for the sociology course, approached me with an opportunity to participate in the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate Internship Program. She asked me what I planned to do after undergraduate school, and I told her I really had not had any time to think about it, since I had just changed my major. Graduate school was definitely an option I wanted to look into, and I gladly took her offer to be my mentor.
Angela had asked another student, Joanna, to be an intern, and the three of us started the internship together. Although I helped Angela with her research paper on Texas women in politics as well as her future project on immigration in Texas, the biggest impact came from other aspects of the semester-long experience. In the beginning, I was very excited about the research aspect of the internship, and I expected it to take up most of the experience. However, a few days into the semester, the Austin Commission for Women asked Angela if she would like to participate in a statewide conference for young girls and women called the "We Are Girls Conference". She asked us to help her plan and conduct a workshop at the conference, and we gladly accepted. The workshop was titled "Girls Make a Difference", focusing on the word difference to break down stereotypes, teach about anti-bullying, and promote equality. Although I wasn't comfortable with public speaking, I agreed to lead a part of the workshop.
At the workshop, we went around and talked about what makes each of us different. Angela talked about blindness, Joanna talked about being Hispanic, and I talked about being gay. We answered questions and asked for audience participation, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the girls willingly talk about the hardships and bullying they've encountered. In another activity, everyone made a pledge to no longer be a bully, and the girls drew on the three of us with markers as a prize for participation. One of the girls wrote "I love boys!" on my arm, and I knew they had learned to express and embrace differences rather than hide behind insecurities. At the end of the workshop, the girls wrote on their evaluation sheets "Girls Make a Difference (and Albert)", and I was impressed by their sense of inclusion. Seeing the smiles on their faces and hearing them say "That was awesome!" as they were walking out, I knew they had learned something that day. As Angela said, it was surely a day of great service, and to me, it meant a lifetime of purpose.
At the start of the internship, I set out to learn about the specifics of the graduate school experience, but I ended up learning so much more. Writing the dissertation and attending classes are a big part of being a graduate student, but I learned that merely attending graduate school is not the whole experience. Working with Angela helped me understand that applying what I learn in school to the real world is what actually makes a difference. When I interviewed Dr. Penny Green, a senior lecturer in the sociology department of the University of Texas at Austin, I asked her, "What is your passion in sociology?" Her response was, "Opening people's eyes to some of the injustices that exist in American society and getting them to start realizing that they can do things to change, eliminate, or mitigate these problems." Because of the nature of the field of sociology itself, I realized that "opening people's eyes" would be possible only if I go outside the ivory tower of academia, where I would merely be writing papers for other sociologists to read. When I asked Angela what she thought about waiting a few years before going to graduate school, she encouraged me to do so, saying that, as she got older, she wanted to settle down rather than explore the world. Not that graduate school education is insignificant, but I now see it as a less urgent course of action. Experiencing new environments and actually interacting with the people I talk about in classrooms and read about in textbooks would later enrich my graduate school experience, and I see no reason to rush anything and become constrained by a certain pathway right now.
I am glad, in the words of Dr. Green, that I "kind of got seduced along the way" by the field of sociology, because there's a bigger world out there, a bigger societal force against which people struggle in everyday life. In the remaining years of undergraduate school, I plan to figure out what I want to do before pursuing a graduate program. Some of the things I have in mind are to study gender inequality and class stratification, and I will look for opportunities with organizations like the U.N. and the Peace Corps to work in the developing world. There are a lot of options and uncertainty in life, but I know one thing now: a day of service gave me a lifetime of purpose, and it will drive my passion whatever I end up doing.