UW Honors Graduation Address

by Kaija Reinelt, Honors class of 2014-15

Kaija Reinelt addresses the graduating Honors class of 2014-15. Video credit: Honors Staff.
Kaija Reinelt, '14
Kaija Reinelt, '14
Kaija Reinelt, '14

I am honored to be here today, celebrating our time at the University of Washington, and specifically our time with UW Honors. Today I want to share with you my college story, which is ultimately a story of self-discovery brought about by facing my fear of failure and embracing my journey of mental health.

Entering college, my biggest life question was “Why do people do what they do?” – What determines how people make decisions—What determines the path any given individual will follow? Not only was I fascinated with this question on a societal level, but also on a personal level—Why do I do the things I do? What makes me who I am? The source of this personal question arose from an experience that began when I was 16 years old, a sophomore in high school. At 16, I started taking Lexapro, an SSRI anti-depressant. And while it was a relatively low dose, the fact that I took a pill that the majority of my peers did not take, truly confused me. Through my questioning I was told: “It’s not your fault, your brain has a chemical imbalance,” and at the time, this explanation worked well enough for me that I did not feel a strong need to question it further until college.

The very first class I took at the UW was an Early Fall Start Biology seminar about the neurobiology of addiction. During this class, we had a unit on anti-depressants, and I pretty quickly realized the “chemical imbalance” explanation to my depression was not the whole truth. After taking this class, I decided becoming a Neurobiology major would be the best way for me to continue to explore and understand my brain and human behavior in general.

So during my freshman year, I started taking intro, weed-out science courses, in preparation to apply to the highly competitive Neurobiology program. My involvement in intro science courses was a constant source of stress, a journey that left me feeling inadequate in comparison to my peers all of the time. My entire life revolved around getting into this program. I had tunnel-vision, and by my sophomore year, I was no longer primarily motivated by a desire to better understand my brain. At this point what truly motivated me, was a serious fear of failure.

Anyone who ever asked me what my major was knew that I intended to study neurobiology. In my head, this meant everyone I had ever told, expected this of me. Not getting accepted meant failing to meet these expectations, and failing was not an option. I was the type of person that was defined by my successes. Failing would take that away from me. Failing meant losing my identity.

Fortunately, while this was all unfolding, I was also taking the Honors Biology seminar series, which gave me an opportunity to study biology in a more personally relevant way than I was able to in my intro biology classes. During the fall seminar, our final assignment was to do a research project on ‘anything in the field of biology.’ I chose to research the mechanism of SSRI anti-depressants. The project brought my personal and academic lives together and provided me with a lot of answers. And I actually stopped taking those pills shortly after completing it.

Now I was definitely setting myself up for some pretty intense stress by going off of my SSRIs just two quarters out from applying to the neurobiology program, but looking back, I would not change the decision. Something unexpected happened as a result of going off these pills. The anxiety-related disorder I have had since age 12, Trichotillomania, or hair-pulling disorder, had resurfaced, and was suddenly dramatically worse than it had ever been before. By the end of my sophomore year, due to all the stress, I hit a breaking point—my outlet was pulling out my eyebrows. In the weeks that followed, my disfigured brows were the only thing I saw when I looked in the mirror, and I lived with the untrue assumption that it was the only thing anybody who looked at me saw as well. My Trichotillomania had consumed me. I knew it was time to seek help.

So that summer, halfway through my education, I began seeing a psychologist for both individual and group cognitive behavioral therapy. The experience was so transformative, that I decided to share my story. I created a 10 minute youtube video, and shared it on my personal facebook page and even used it in an Honors class. The response I received from my various audiences was overwhelmingly positive, and I can confidently say creating that video is the most important thing I have ever done. Up until that summer, the battle I fought with my mental health was my biggest secret and source of shame. It was the thing that made me feel isolated, alone, and crazy. It was without question, my biggest vulnerability. But in just a few months, that vulnerability became one of my greatest strengths. What I feared was the part of me that would make people run the other way, became my greatest tool for human connection.

At the beginning of my junior year, a few months after I made this video, I heard back from my neurobiology application. I did not get in. But I also did not lose my identity. Instead I realized that defining myself through my perfectionistic expectations was robbing me from being at peace with the reality of my own life. Failure was actually freedom—an opportunity to re-evaluate and try something else.

In the two and a half years since making this video, I have continued to tell my story in new ways. I do this, because I know this type of sharing has the power to connect people and change lives, and for this reason, I have never regretted sharing so much of myself with the world. However, this does not mean it is easy for me. I feel fear before I share every time. Fear of being judged, fear of being misinterpreted, fear of not being enough—fear of what you will think. Because the truth is, while I don’t care what people think of me like I used to, I do still care. The difference is that this fear doesn’t control my life anymore. I have picked up a mantra that helps me remember how to jump into these fears that I hope might be useful for you. “Everybody’s living their own soap opera,” ..because if I can spend this much time thinking about how other people are thinking of me… then everybody else is probably doing this too! And therefore, they are probably not thinking much about me, or my eyebrows, at all. By viewing my fear from this perspective, I feel freedom to be myself, even if this means looking like a fool in someone else’s eyes.

I credit a lot of people and experiences for the development of this perspective, but what truly made it resonate, is the knowledge I gained through studying biology. Learning of the physiology, genetics, and evolutionary adaptations behind my behaviors allowed me to detach myself from them. This knowledge gave me the ability to recognize that my brain is the way it is for reasons bigger than myself. Somehow knowing that trichotillomania shows up in mice, rats, birds and other animals, provides me with the strength to view it as a fascinating piece of evolutionary history instead of solely seeing it as a daily annoyance. Studying what unites us with all forms of life provided me with a deeper and more compassionate sense of what it means to be human during a time in my life when I was desperate to come up with some answers.

It wasn’t until reflecting on how my education empowered me, that I realized a desire to become a High School Biology teacher. Before I commit to that, however, I want to switch things up for a while first. So instead of going to grad school right away, I will be spending the next year teaching English in Thailand, an adventure into the unknown that I am incredibly excited for. This decision to go to abroad came about through a lot of reflection and a drive to learn and grow via new experiences. It was a decision made from the heart, and I want to thank the Honors Program faculty and staff for creating a curriculum and culture that has truly encouraged me to make big decisions by listening to my own inner voice.

When I was asked to speak at this ceremony, I was proud and excited, yet it wasn’t something I shared with very many people. Over the last month, as I wrote this speech, I noticed something interesting happening in my brain every time this honor had the chance to come up in conversation: I didn’t want to tell people about it, even though deep down, I wanted to share. While a part of me certainly fears failure, I think perhaps another part of me fears success—because I don’t really know what to make of it. I have yet to figure out how to represent my successes without feeling like I’m coming off as elitist and blindly privileged, whether I am interpreted that way or not.

I recently heard a quote by Jen Pastiloff, this awesome lady in the yoga world, that has been floating in my head ever since I began thinking of what to say today. “I will not hide my shit, nor will I hide my magnificence.” I think what Jen is getting at, is that often times your shit, your insecurities are what make you human. And by hiding it, you often sacrifice its ability to connect you with others.

At the beginning of every quarter, I remember having the same conversation with my peers. We took turns asking each other: What classes are you taking this quarter? My answer usually went something like this: Biology 356, Physics 115, and some random VLPA—which was code for “This really awesome Honors class that I am super stoked to be taking.” I avoided talking about Honors, “or my magnificence,” because it always made me feel awkward—like I was humble bragging—and I know I am not the only person who did this. But I think, if we can work to balance out the sharing of our struggles and the sharing of our triumphs, we will have the power to embrace our humanity and live through authenticity.

So as we graduate from this University with Honors, and navigate our next journey, my hope for us all, myself included, is that we continue to learn through experience and reflect on and honor how these experiences may change our path and plans for the future, just as we were encouraged to do here. And if and when we do get lost, remember—don’t hide your shit, don’t hide your magnificence, and everybody’s living their own soap opera. Thank you.

Kaija Reinelt
Bachelor of Science in Biology with Interdisciplinary Honors
Class of 2014-15