The art of reinventing yourself

An ode to plan B


Courtesy of Bhavya Pant

By Bhavya Pant, Op/Ed Editor

I was a choir kid in high school. One of those insufferable kinds too, who would break into song in the hallways, unprovoked. But before your resurfacing Glee trauma prompts you to write me off, I have a story to tell.

It was the beginning of my senior year in high school. “This is going to be my year,” I thought, shuffling down the familiar steps to the music room. The senior choir traditionally got the first pick of events which meant that the best performance opportunities awaited me. Our music teacher had called a meeting first thing in the morning. “This is where we get to pick,” I thought excitedly as I entered the crowded room.

But a palpable heaviness hung in the air, as if everyone were collectively holding their breath. This is where I found out that our teacher was in fact quitting. And just like that, choir was done for.

The next few months were a blur. While the school struggled to find a replacement, I longingly walked past the locked room where I had once spent most of my lunch breaks and free periods.

As dramatic as it now sounds, I was facing an identity crisis. What was my senior year going to look like without choir?

As winter break rolled around, I still struggled to find my place. This is when my English teacher recommended that I join the newspaper. English had always been my favorite class, and I looked up to this teacher so much, I would frankly have followed her anywhere. So, there I was over winter break, learning to write and edit. The choir never did get back on its feet, but I was sure grateful for this plan B. I spent the rest of the school year reporting and laying out pages, and finally graduated as assistant editor.

Come fall, I left my city, family and lifelong friends 11,000 kilometers behind to arrive at the University of Massachusetts. Clearly, I had not had a clean break from choir, for like a toxic ex, I ran right back to it my freshman year of college. Homesickness and a general lack of direction had me craving familiarity. So, at my first student activities expo, I picked up flyers for every single a capella group on campus. I was all set to reawaken the choir kid in me. This was going to be my redemption tour. On my way out of the expo, I came across a booth that was handing out copies of a newspaper. “The Massachusetts Daily Collegian,” it read. “A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890.” Something about being part of a 125-year-old college newspaper gave me chills, of the good kind. A perfect plan B, I thought, as I signed up for their mailing list.

A capella auditions came around and despite my best efforts, I failed to secure even a single spot. And once again, I was faced with an identity crisis. Serves me right for misplacing my sense of self in a single hobby. Who was I without my music? Outside of academics, what was my purpose on this campus?

In the meantime, I found my way to the arts and living section of the Collegian. My first assignment was to cover a book signing at the Fine Arts Center. I got to interview the author, took some photos and spent all weekend putting the story together.

My brother once told me that there was nothing quite like the satisfaction of putting something together from scratch. I don’t think I quite understood what he meant until I grabbed a copy of the Collegian that following Monday and saw my name on the byline. Moments like those, of pure serotonin, come few and far in between.

I truly fell in love with writing that semester. There is an inexplicable high in storytelling; in successfully translating your thoughts and ideas to words. And I was hooked.

Don’t get me wrong, there were moments where I doubted if I truly belonged at this paper. This is when support from editors and senior staff members kept me going. “You have a serious talent,” wrote back arts editor Gina Lopez in an email response to one of my articles. In hindsight, she was probably just being nice to a new writer, but back then, I took it as a sign that I should stick around.

So, I burned the metaphorical choir kid at the pyre and set out to reinvent myself. I was going to fully embrace plan B.

As time went on, I really found my footing in the arts section, but was looking for something more. One Wednesday evening, as I was leaving the office after the weekly arts meeting, I saw a group of students huddled on the couch, engaged deep in discussion. “What section is that?” I asked around and was introduced to Op/Ed.

In my very first Op/Ed meeting, I sat on the couch and watched in awe as columnists went around pitching ideas. Every so often, someone would jump in with a suggestion or a counterpoint. And although I was too afraid to speak up that first meeting, I felt invigorated by the discourse. I knew then that this was the missing piece.

I signed up to be an Op/Ed columnist that very same day and gathered the courage to tell the world what I really thought about something. The next year and a half were more practice in the same. Every Saturday morning, when the campus was recuperating from events of the night before, I spent hours in the library, researching and writing my columns. There was no grade hanging in the balance, and I was certainly not being paid. But that writer’s high had got me hooked. I showed up week after week, pitched my ideas, listened to fellow writers do the same and watched the internet tear into us all. Turns out the side-effects of being an Op/Ed columnist include rapidly developing a thick skin. Please consult with your physician before signing up.

I will be first to admit that I made plenty of mistakes throughout my tenure as columnist. There were times when I was too afraid to take a stand, other times when I tried to stir controversy for its own sake. But through it all, I’m grateful to editors like Tess Halpern and James Mazarakis for letting me make those mistakes and grow from them, instead of holding them against me.

When I was hired as assistant editor and subsequently head editor of the section, I kept these lessons in mind. I tried to be open-minded when listening to pitches and encouraged my writers to make mistakes. When someone sent in a good piece of writing, I made sure to tell them. For all I knew, it could be their sign to stay.

I could talk in length about how the Collegian helped me become a better writer and editor. But those accomplishments dwarf in comparison to what this organization did for me as a human being. It taught me not to fear judgment and helped me reinvent myself. It pushed to be more open-minded and surrounded me with some of the most selflessly motivated individuals I have come across on this campus.

So, here’s to plan B.

Bhavya Pant can be reached at [email protected].