Reflections of a Congolese-American Gal

Hello, friends! I recently traveled to Colorado for a family member’s wedding. There, I was encapsulated by the intrinsic beauty of the Congolese community from all over the country. I couldn’t help feeling both joy from witnessing the Congolese cultural celebrations radiating love as well as sorrow that I was not very accustomed to these traditions. Hearing the melodic Swahili language all around me without fluently knowing what was spoken made me feel a bit out of place despite being surrounded by people who looked like me and shared the same culture. I hesitated on confidently greeting folks with the welcoming phrase, jambo — for once a conversation arose, I would succumb to ending the conversation with my broken Swahili go-to phrase: Ninajua Kiswahili kidogo. Though normally a large gathering of native Swahili-speakers would bring up my childhood insecurities revolving around my ethnic identity, I felt an inner peace knowing that first, my siblings were there to share the same feelings and experiences as me; and second, the energy of the Congolese people around me was supportive, non-judgmental, and lighthearted. I’d have about $100 sitting in my bank if I made a bet to collect $1 for every time I heard someone say, “You don’t speak Swahili?” from my trip. However, I surprisingly did not feel the same embarrassment and remorse that I’ve been acquainted with for a long time. Despite our differences in our native tongue, my Congolese card didn’t seem to be fully revoked and I was able to form many connections with folks who accepted me for me.

Perhaps I can share some context to the above anecdote. Throughout my upbringing, I had a difficult time finding where I fit in the spectrum of my “Congoleseness.” Sure, I am an American kid (as my parents sometimes say) on my birth certificate, but overall, I don’t really think I can classify my home experiences as synonymous to the “American” culture. Believe it or not, the English pronunciation of my name as “Irene” (pronounced EYE-reen) is mainly recognized at school and church. It is rare that my siblings, parents, or close family and friends call me EYE-reen. Fun fact: My given name is truly the French pronunciation, “Irène”, and I go by other variations of this pronunciation in my household (ex. EE-reh-neh or EE-rehn). I mispronounced several English words and didn’t know many social American norms until being immersed in them as I grew older. I felt as if to my American peers, I was never really “American enough”, and to my Congolese peers, I was never really “Congolese enough.” However, as a college student, I was finally surrounded by people who were like me – 1st generation of folks born in America with African immigrant parents who did not necessarily pick up fluency of their parents’ mother tongue but have also been ostracized for being “not American enough.” Sharing the woes and triumphs of our co-existing identities helped me come to terms with the beauty of holding both identities since I technically am both (hence, my Instagram bio includes the tagline “Congolese-American”, if you didn’t notice!). I mostly unlearned that Congoleseness is not merely tied to language. It encompasses a multitude of other aspects that interweave beautifully with each other. My experiences are valid and unique, so I learned that no one could ultimately define who I am but myself.

The trip to Colorado inspired me once again to explore this hole that I have been feeling for so many years from truly fitting into and being accepted by the Congolese community due to my non-fluency of the Swahili and other native languages. I decided several years ago that my Congolese card is irrevocable because I am who I am. However, to enhance my experiences and connections with other Congolese people who feel more comfortable conversing in their native tongue, I will make it a point to get out of my comfort zone, give myself grace for any lingering resentment and embarrassment that previously consumed me, and just go for it! My sisters and I made a pack to self-teach Swahili with the assistance of our parents and explore this journey on our own. It will be one that I believe will help me connect with people in ways that I could not have before. Most importantly, it will help me embrace the intersection of my Congolese and American co-identities. Anyway, kwaheri, marafiki! Tutaonana!

Peace and love,

Irene

Healthcare Equity and OT (P.S. Happy OT Month!)

Hello, friends! Happy OT Month! Did yall know that April is Occupational Therapy Month? Though I am technically not an active student yet nor a practitioner, I still think I can contribute to this space! This month is a month celebrating, honoring, and advocating for occupational therapy (OT) in all aspects. One aspect that I hope to be an advocate for as a soon-to-be student and a future practitioner is diversifying the field of OT to ensure that it is an equitable and inclusive profession and service for all people. Why am I so passionate about healthcare equity? Well, if you haven’t noticed yet, I am a Black woman entering this profession – already placing me among the 5% of us who are OTs. Because I am quite underrepresented myself, I would hope to be passionate about ensuring that people who look like me know more about OT and have the same access to OT services just as other non-underrepresented groups do.

I’ve always found myself in spaces where my Blackness was not represented adequately – in my schools, at my church, and within my healthcare experiences. Believe it or not, I often questioned my passion to pursue an advanced healthcare career. My ethnic identity and socioeconomic status appeared to be incompatible with my career aspirations due to the lack of representation I had been continuously acquainted with. During my volunteering in healthcare settings, I rarely saw healthcare professionals, let alone occupational therapists, that looked like me or came from a similar upbringing as myself. Don’t get me wrong – I learned a great deal of information from the OTs I shadowed during my shadowing days, and they were all very kind and willing to teach. However, there were times in which I found it quite challenging or essentially impossible to talk about how my identities can be an asset to the way that I navigate the profession to best support my future patients. There is just something a bit more special that comes with seeing my identity being represented in spaces important to me.

During my study abroad experience in Ghana, I quickly recognized the importance of advocating for this profession – particularly in places that do not traditionally have access to available OT services in the community. The organization that I interned for (an organization for people with various disabilities) did not have any occupational therapy, let alone other rehabilitative therapy services present. I witnessed how so many of the organization’s residents could have benefitted from OT, ultimately promoting greater independence and improved quality of life for them. Interning and reflecting on my experience at this organization enabled me to critically analyze the power of stigma, misinformation, and lack of resources as barriers that prohibit many underserved communities such as in Ghana and my respective communities from receiving the transformative power of occupational therapy. That is why I believe that promoting the profession through an inclusive, multi-perspective framework is so important to ensure that folks like my companions in Ghana, my home community, and many others can also receive OT to better experience a life of independence and fulfillment.

Again, I know I am not a practitioner or even a student yet, but I am comforted to know that there are already organizations out there that also encapsulate the vision and goals that I hope to contribute to the field of occupational therapy. For instance, an organization that I discovered later last year called the Coalition of Occupational Therapy Advocates for Diversity (COTAD) has been such an instrumental resource that has educated me on pertinent issues around healthcare inequities, systemic racism, and occupational injustice apparent in our field. Being a COTAD mentee myself has reaffirmed the intersectional beauty of holding my underrepresented identities within the field of occupational therapy. I hope that with a coalition of OT students, practitioners, and other folks involved, we can revolutionize the healthcare field in ways that will better promote the profession inclusively and equitably.

Peace and love,

Irene

Goodbye, Student Loans (for now)!

Hello, friends! Do you know what has been on my mind a lot lately? Money has! In particular, the words debt and student loans have been buzzing around in my head for the longest time because I am currently applying for graduate school scholarships — financing a graduate education can be a stressful thing! The reality of student loans is not new for me. Like most college students have experienced, the cost of attending a four-year university today is astronomical and often requires the infamous student loans to pay our way through college. Fun fact: the average student loan debt as of 2020 was a whopping $37,500 according to Investopedia. And this is just talking about a bachelor’s degree. Now, I personally am blessed enough to say that I did not accumulate that much debt throughout my few years in college. However, thinking about all the things that I can do with $37,500 only for it to be used toward student loan repayment is tragic.

At the beginning of 2020, I wanted to build a much better personal relationship with money. I am not saying that I was a frivolous spender in the past, but I knew that I could do better with my money. As I grow older, I realize how important my relationship with money is and how tied it is to physical, mental, emotional, and other dimensions of wellness. Now, I admit that having a healthy relationship with money is HARD, particularly when you don’t have it in abundance (such as myself as a recent-ish college grad with an unsteady income flow). The hard reality is that unfortunately, money does make the world go round — just take a look around you! However, I wanted to finally prove to myself that I could attain some kind of financial goal of saving an X amount of money or paying off in full a significant bill in my life. Thus, in 2020, I established the most notable financial goal I have ever set for myself: pay off my student loans before I begin grad school. So, did I do it?

YES, I DID!!!

In December 2020, I officially became debt-free, whoohoo! To see the email titled “Payment Fulfillment” from my loan provider was one of the most beautiful emails I had ever received.

All in all, my total student loan debt remaining in 2020 was exactly $4333 and I accomplished my 2020 financial goal of paying it off fully within 11 months. To be specific, I started to aggressively pay off my debt at the beginning of February 2020, and as an early Christmas gift to myself, I finished paying it off toward the end of December 2020. So, I actually achieved my goal MUCH earlier than what I initially set it out to be (paying off my debt right before grad school began). Now, to many, $4.3k is really not a lot of money at all. In fact, I am thrilled that my college debt did not match the U.S. average student loan debt I previously mentioned. However, an accomplishment is an accomplishment, and given my personal and financial circumstances in 2020 (times were rough, lol), I found that it was harder to effectively budget enough money to continuously pay off my loans. Thus, to be able to say that I now do not owe $4.3k to a loan company is an achievement that I will bask in for some time.

In a nutshell, my ability to successfully become debt-free had to begin with my mindset and how I view my relationship with money. I found that listening to podcasts about financial literacy and financial independence as well as hearing others’ debt-free testimonies tremendously set the stage to make my written financial goal a reality. One podcast that continuously inspired and motivated me throughout my journey was the Clever Girl Finance (I highly, HIGHLY recommend).

After rebuilding a healthier, positive outlook on my money, the following is what helped me pay off my debt within a year:

  1. Increasing my work hours
  2. Using my other talents to generate additional income — aka “side hustling”
  3. Giving/tithing
  4. Stashing away money in my piggy bank

Before I elaborate specifically on these key actions that helped me along the way, I took advantage of the freeze on student loan repayments due to the COVID-19 pandemic! I do understand that most people have been hit financially due to the pandemic, including myself. I do want to validate that for many, making payments during the freeze was not a feasible option. Because I was not being charged interest on my federal loans, I took advantage of my forbearance status and continued making those payments. Therefore, I was really able to see my principal balance decrease significantly throughout 2020. Seeing this amount dwindling was the reinforcement that I needed to continue paying it off aggressively.

  1. Increasing my work hours: Time is money, right? After receiving more free time in my schedule since I was no longer working on OT prerequisites, I was able to commit more time to see more clients more days out of the week for my job. As a result, I did start to see my paycheck increase since I no longer worked 6 hours a week, lol! Though it was nice to have time to myself, I knew that it could better be spent making an impact in my clients’ lives while also getting paid for it.
  2. “Side hustling”: People tend to say things such as “I should get paid for this” regarding altruistic services that go unnoticed after a while. I have definitely had those moments throughout my life (altruistic or not), whether it was trying to get an allowance for doing house chores (I never got an allowance, by the way) or constantly helping a struggling classmate with their math homework. For me, I thought deeply about some of the hobbies and talents that I like to do such as photography and making hair products, and then start to add monetary value to them! In 2020, I got to do several photoshoots that earned me extra income per month. Not only was I able to grow in my photography skills, but I was able to witness how my talents can help me financially (Shameless plug: I totally still consider myself an amateur photographer but you can check out my website here to see what I was up to!). Additionally, I began to sell homemade Ayurvedic whipped shea butter that I have been using for my hair and skin (another shameless plug: If you are interested in purchasing my shea butter, visit me here to connect!). Over time, these sales were also able to help me pay more than my usual minimum monthly payment for my loan. Therefore, capitalizing on my talents truly did earn me some additional cash that I was able to directly put into decreasing my loan balance.
  3. Tithing/Giving: Honestly, tithing initially was quite difficult for me because all I could think about was the lack of money and the daunting thousands of dollars that I had pending. However, I reminded myself that the money that I received was not my money, but God’s money given to me to utilize. I do believe that by giving and tithing, I was, in turn, blessed financially as well. I can honestly say that there were many times throughout my financial journey that I felt the money in my bank account was in abundance (for my standards) even after paying off all of my major bills. I very much believe that if I tithe and give in any capacity, whether it is financially, personally, etc. I receive what I put out. I’m telling you, God always provides!
  4. Stashing away money in my piggy bank: Back in 2017, I bought a $3 piggy bank (it was a steal for Target) and decided to start a yearly savings plan after being inspired by my mom’s impressive results from saving throughout the year. I worked my little part-time job on campus and really thought that I was the bank with my weekly bougie brunch dates. Thus, I decided to reallocate some of my brunch ‘budget’ to my piggy bank. I followed a 52-week money-saving challenge where I essentially put away X amount of money that corresponds to the week of the year it is. For instance, if it is week 33 of the year, I would be required to add $33 into my piggy bank. Since then, I can say that except for 2019 (times were also rough for me), I saved over $1,000 each year! Weeks 1-10 were very good to me, whereas weeks 40-52 were quite challenging — especially given the fact that October, November, and December are always my high spending months. However, saving over $1,000 in a year with consistency and discipline did pay off tremendously as a nice bonus in the end. Without having to tap into my paycheck, I utilized a small portion of this money to make one final FAT loan payment.
    • Quick tip for the 52-week money challenge: Try reversing the saving plan so that you begin putting $52 into your piggy bank instead of $1! That way, the money required to complete your money challenge won’t be as difficult to set aside, especially during the peak spending holiday months.

Overall, these are intentional actions that I took to free myself of my college student loans! I know that I will be facing future debt for the cost of graduate school and other life milestones because, in this society, debt is mostly inevitable. But, I now know that I am capable of eradicating my student loans after being consistent, intentional, and optimistic throughout my debt-free journey in 2020. For those who are currently grieving about student loans, I hope that my reflection gives you some inspiration in tackling your debt-free journey! It is difficult and it requires a lot of mindset shifting, and everyone’s financial situation is completely different. However, I refuse to believe that we are destined to die with our debt because that just can’t be it! I would suggest finding your why in why you want to pay off your debt before proceeding on this journey. Is it for financial independence? Early retirement? Less stress? As you go through your debt-free journey, remembering your why will be essential when times are really hard. I would love to see how my mindset changes regarding my student loan repayment journey when I finish grad school, haha!

You got this, and let’s all strive to become debt-free because we deserve financial freedom!

Peace and love,

Irene

From Pre-OT Student to Admitted OT Student – The Process Uncovered!

Hello, friends! Today I am feeling so many emotions regarding my journey to becoming an OT. My program recently sent me an email including our orientation day and the first day of the fall semester, and it just got REAL. Like wow, I am really doing this?? I know that the process can be overwhelming and difficult, so I would like to share with you my personal journey with the tangible steps I personally took to get into my top OT schools.

Before I proceed, I just want to caution you that this is MY personal narrative of what worked best for ME. Thus, I cannot guarantee that you will be offered an acceptance if you do every single thing that I did. However, I am here as a resource and as a guide to share what could work. Every situation is different and everyone’s journey is so unique, so I want to validate and uplift that throughout your OT pursuit!

SO! You may be a recent college grad, a current undergrad, or even a high schooler and exploring all career options for yourself. It doesn’t matter where you are in your educational journey, this post can still be applicable for you!!

You’ve dipped your toes in the requirements necessary to get into OT school and now you may be feeling overwhelmed and thinking to yourself, I have ALL of these requirements that I have to do in order to get into OT school and I dont know where to start. Trust me, I was in the same boat as you were not too long ago. I get it – the struggle is reaaalll. BUT lemme tell you, as long as you put your mind to it and remember your Why OT? you will persevere and make it through!

This is what my journey looked like throughout the years in a nutshell:

  1. 2015: It was my senior year of high school and I decided that I wanted to explore OT as a career after ditching the pediatrician dream. I applied to colleges as a psychology major because it seemed to complement OT very well. I later changed my major to Human Development because it encompassed a more holistic view of people that intrigued me and seemed more applicable to OT in my eyes.
  2. 2016: I had a freak-out moment and decided for a few months that I actually did not want to pursue OT and instead wanted to merely become a psychologist or a teacher (a large part of it was influenced by hearing daunting stories about anatomy and physiology). However, my major advisor helped me reason through my anxieties about pursuing this career.
  3. 2017: I began to seek internships and volunteer opportunities related to OT. I became acquainted with a pediatric outpatient OT clinic but was unable to volunteer there due to lack of transportation. I later was accepted to another competitive internship where I finally was able to rotate through different departments that housed OTs.
  4. 2018: I wasn’t getting the observation hours I felt that I needed to be competitive for OT school, so I took a break from actively seeking OT observation hours by focusing on graduating college and preparing to study abroad. I also attempted to do OT-based research in Ghana (where I studied abroad); however, access to OTs were non-existent at my placement and, thus, I was unable to observe OT in another country.
  5. 2019: I came back to the States and began my pre-OT grind. I completed my remaining prerequisites such as Anatomy, Physiology, and Abnormal Psychology. I also sought out additional volunteer opportunities and began to build bonds with the OTs that I shadowed.
  6. 2020: I now felt ready to apply to OT programs after countless hours completed, prerequisites finished, and some money (emphasis on the some) saved up. I continued to do research and began reaching out to schools before applications opened (for me, they opened around mid-July) to ensure that I was on the right track with my OT school preparation. Fast forward to the end of the year – I got accepted to all the schools I applied for!
  7. 2021: I am now transitioning to matriculating to the OT school of my choice by finding housing, working on scholarships, and orienting my mind on personal and professional development.  

So, if you do the math, becoming an OT has been a part of my vision for at least six years. I didn’t even realize that I was subconsciously in the process for so long!  

I also wanted to highlight the different moving parts of assembling your OT application (note: all of these requirements greatly vary upon program, so always do your research beforehand!). This is a general outline of what I had to complete in order to submit a competitive application down below:

  • OT Prerequisites
    • Though you can apply to OT school being any major, you do have to take a multitude of prerequisite courses that assesses your preparedness for the rigor of the academic curriculum. This can include many different courses, but generally, you will have your anatomy, physiology, statistics, psychology, human development, and biology classes. My school of choice also required a sociology course, medical terminology, and an English course. I saw that some schools even require physics or an art course, so it all depends on what the school is looking for!
  • OT Observation Hours
    • Most schools require a minimum number of observation hours when applying for their schools. They seriously range from no hours at all to upwards of 80-100 minimum hours of shadowing or observing. If the school says that they do not require observation hours, I still say go for it because if anything, it will help you solidify whether or not this career is for you. When completing my observation hours, I kept a running log of the days, times, the OTs I shadowed, and a summary of what I observed that day. This later helped me accurately record my hours on my application. Moreover, the summaries of my observation days tremendously helped me develop ideas for my personal statement.
  • Letters of Recommendation
    • Make sure to have a list of recommenders who you know you well and can attribute to the versed, positive qualities that you want highlighted in your LOR. Shy away from choosing a professor that you had very limited interactions with or an OT who you did not really work with because those recommendations will likely not truly highlight your work ethic, personality, etc. in the way that is reflective of you. I personally handpicked professors, work supervisors, and OTs I personally connected with to write my recommendations. Also, ensure that you ask weeks, if not months, in advance for a recommendation to allow your recommenders ample time to write a glowing recommendation. It looks professional on your end that you’ve thought about this process and will ensure that your recommenders are not stress-writing your recommendations.
  • Resume
    • Some schools will ask you to attach a resume or a CV to your application, so you should be ready to have a polished and current document to submit with your application. If it is not asked of you, you can always use them as a guide to fill out the extracurriculars/volunteer section of your application.
  • Personal Statement
    • Honestly, my advice to you is to try to at least plan an outline or jot down ideas months in advance to get into the mode of writing your statement. I struggled with this part of the application because I initially was not being my authentic self and was composing what I thought the OT admissions committee would like to see. However, I scrapped my initial draft and then began to finally write my story. At the end of it all, I produced a much more compelling personal statement. It is okay to take a break from writing! I did not perfect my personal statement until about a month/month and a half or so.
    • A word of advice: Have people that you trust read your personal statement. It is your narrative that allows you to shine among many applicants, so if you can choose folks around you that can give you constructive feedback, that would be ideal! I personally had about five folks read my personal statement constructively. This may have been too many, but it all depends on what you feel that you need for your writing process. Have friends, OTs, professors, family members, and/or acquaintances/near-strangers read your personal statement for varying perspectives. They can offer lots of insight on grammar, content, voice, and even affirmations on your writing skills (which I totally needed). And most importantly, at the end of the day, you can choose to accept or reject any of the suggestions that you receive because it is your narrative.
  • The GRE
    • To be honest, I really don’t have anything to say about the GRE because I avoided the GRE like the plague. Thankfully, all the schools I was interested in initially did not require it! You can email me to hear my personal thoughts about why I did not take the GRE, lol!
  • Supplemental Apps
    • Some schools will require that after your first general application you submit a secondary or supplemental application. Some schools are generous in the fact that you just have to answer a few more short answer/essay questions in addition to your personal statement, but other schools require an entirely different application (which you usually have to submit an extra payment for as well). Be ready to elaborate on your personal statement or highlight other parts of your life not yet shown on those applications.
  • The Interview Process
    • Once your initial application has been moved onto the next stage of the admissions process, most schools will invite you to interview with them. Due to the pandemic, all of my interviews were via Zoom. However, this did not necessarily make the situation less stressful, for I really had to ensure that my personality shined through via a computer screen. For me, the interview process actually went a lot more smoothly than I anticipated! My interviews ended up being an intellectual conversation regarding my thoughts about OT and how my upbringing has shaped me to become the person who I aspire to be.
    • Here are a few quick tips on conquering the interview:
      • Prepare! I don’t know about you, but actually giving a strong and meaningful answer for “how do you define OT?” was a lot more difficult than I expected. To prepare, I Googled ‘common OT school interview questions’ and got a plethora of questions to practice answering. I also Youtubed OT interview questions and saw how different people answered different possible questions. What really helped me was to write out my answers on notecards and use them as a guide (note how I did not say ‘memorize notecards’) to jog my memory of important aspects I wanted to discuss in an interview. Lastly, I practiced my interviews in front of the mirror and with a friend via Zoom to stimulate how my actual interview day would go. Preparation for interviews also means DO YOUR RESEARCH on the program that you are interviewing for! This includes the school’s mission statement, faculty, or any other interesting facts that initially drew you to the school. Interweaving these details into your answers will further reassure the interviewers that you’ve done your research and that you are serious about your potential commitment to the school.
      • Speak with confidence and power! In the interview, the interviewers are genuinely not trying to trick you. They want to get to know the real you. Thus, it is important to be confident in yourself. You have already done the hard work of putting together a competitive application, so now this is your chance for your personality to shine through! Confidence goes a long way, so be your authentic self and that will help you stand apart among hundreds of other applicants.
      • Write thank-you notes! Once you have completed your interview, if you have access to your interviewer’s email, write a thank-you note to them! They are helpful because they first will allow the interviewer to remember who you are. But most importantly, it shows that you valued the time spent conversing with them. Again, I had Googled example thank-you notes and tailored them to make them more personal and salient.

Overall, I have bombarded you with a LOT of information. To conclude, here are some takeaways that I learned throughout my application process worth mentioning:

  1. Network, network, and NETWORK!!! I mean get on social media and follow OT-related folks, don’t hesitate to post a question or ask for help in that Facebook group, and build connections with the OTs, your professors, etc. who can guide you in your pursuit to becoming an OT. I met SO many people who have been beyond helpful through networking these past few years!
  2. Save money because those applications can get SO expensive, especially if you are submitting secondary applications as well! Also, if you qualify, some schools can give you a fee waiver – so take advantage of that by planning ahead!
  3. Your personal statement is what it is YOU. Make sure that it truly shows the raw, authentic, and genuine you because at the end of the day, that is what the admissions committee wants to learn and discover – YOU! Even after all of the revisions and peer-editing, you get the final say on your personal statement.
  4. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF! I cannot emphasize this enough. When I had let go of this unnecessary fear and doubt that I tried to plague my mind with, I finally let my confidence shine through in every aspect of my application and interview process. Remember, you have been working at this for a long time and it is now manifesting right in front of you. Claim your acceptance into your top school. It is hard for others to believe in you if you don’t believe in yourself.

I hope that this information was useful, reader! Remember, you are amazing for even making it this far in pursuing your OT journey. Wherever you are in your journey, always affirm yourself throughout the process. Becoming an OT is no easy feat – I have only made it to the ‘getting accepted into OT school’ part of the journey and still have a long road ahead of me. If you ever have any questions or clarifications, I would love to further discuss my points with you! OT needs YOU, so you will conquer!

Peace and love,

Irene

I Love Being Black!

Hello, Black friends! I love being Black! I said I LOOVVEEE being Black! I love the texture of my hair, the skin that I’m in! What an anthem ALWAYS (I switched up the lyrics a bit, but you get the point)! I first heard this chant when I was in college. Being surrounded by the beautiful gathering of Black college students expressing their Blackness in a multitude of shades, hairstyles, clothing, and many other expressions has always been some of my favorite memories of a cohesive celebration of pure Black joy.

I can rave on and on about why I love being Black. Yes, being Black has its struggles. Let me emphasize – being Black in America IS a continuous struggle. I always have to think twice about my appearance, the words that come out of my mouth, and the way I move in my environment. However, it is also with these struggles that I have learned that my Blackness is glorious and pretty dang powerful.

To me, being Black is a gift. It is an honor that I hold dear to my heart and that I wear with pride consistently. Being Black has allowed me to see the multifaceted injustices in my community and what my role is as a Black woman to change them. My Blackness is also so diverse. I am a Congolese-American, so I get to intertwine these two identities and witness them co-exist with each other simultaneously. Being Black, I have learned that there is no one true way to BE Black. I can define my Blackness to mean anything that I want it to mean! I am not going to lie; when I was younger, I lacked a lot of representation of Black folks in my life and, thus, had a very warped perception of how Blackness manifests. Because I didn’t watch the movie Friday, didn’t eat soul food (actually didn’t even know what soul food was until my late teens), or failed miserably at the game Black Card Revoked, I didn’t think that I was “Black enough” to fit in with the Black communities around me. I struggled to wholeheartedly love my Blackness for many more reasons besides the seemingly trivial ones listed above. BUT I learned a GREAT LESSON later on in my personal development as I began to unlearn my preconceived notions about Blackness. Being Black is not a monolith, so don’t ever let anyone convince you that it is! That is a dangerous way to think that completely invalidates the diverse experiences of Black people (example – myself!). Remember, you CAN fail miserably at Black Card Revoked and still be Black! I speak for myself though, lol!

I will forever be unapologetically Black as I navigate the world around me. All of my identities come with “Black” attached to them first, for I could never see the world without this melanin covering my body. To all my Black folks out there – Happy Black History Month! We are BOMB! We are light, joy, and excellence. Remember, the celebration of Blackness is not just limited to the month of February. Let’s continue to radiate our Blackness in honoring and celebrating our ancestors, our history, our accomplishments, and our triumphs yet to come.  

Peace and love,

Irene 

How Did Occupational Therapy Find Me?

Hello, friends! As you may already know, I am currently a pre-OT student who will FINALLY begin pursuing my journey of obtaining my doctorate in Occupational Therapy later this year! (Well, I don’t know if I am still technically “pre-OT” because I’ve already been accepted to and committed to a program, but you get the point)

SO. How did I stumble upon this career?

As a young child, I always envisioned that being a pediatrician was the path for me because:

1) my Congolese immigrant parents highly hinted at the fact that some of the most desirable jobs to have included becoming a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer (it is where the money is at after all, right? Anyone else can relate to this narrative?)

2) I killed it in school, thriving in all subjects including the sciences

3) I looked forward to going to my doctor’s appointments

4) Children were super cute to me, fun to play with, and always keep things interesting

5) Untold Stories of the E.R. and related shows on TLC were always strangely addicting to watch. I truly felt that if I could handle watching these shows, I would be an INVINCIBLE doctor!

However, I had NO idea what the path of going to medical school ACTUALLY consisted of. In high school, it seemed like I was already ‘late’ to start my path of getting into medical school. Compared to the aspiring high school pre-med students at my school, I was not actively seeking hospital internships, connecting and networking with local doctors, or taking a surplus of community college courses to make myself stand out for college admissions. Additionally, I personally did not see myself being content with trading in many years of higher education to pursue a career that I slowly realized I was not actually passionate about, especially considering that I really needed to be ready to invest my time and money.

Now now, no shade to current medical doctors or anyone who is on the pre-med track because all power and respect to them (after all, technically I am gonna be a doctor too, but I digress). However, what I DID know was that that I thoroughly enjoyed learning about all-things human development, education, and psychology. My parents both gravitated toward the social sciences for their college degrees, so I figured that I was bound to become a teacher or a counselor. Yet, these professions also did not seem to quite fit what truly aligned with my passions and my vision for healthcare.

As I meticulously picked out my college major (fun fact: I was a psychology major for the first two weeks of college because the thought of becoming a psychologist crossed my mind for a short period of time), I simultaneously frantically researched other health-related careers on the wonderful world of Google. There, I stumbled across a career that I had never heard of before – occupational therapy! I clicked on American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA)’s website for the definition of occupational therapy, and the first thing that stood out to me was: Occupational therapy practitioners ask, “What matters to you?” not, “What’s the matter with you?” What the heck did that mean?? I was intrigued, so I began to do my research.

Fast-forwarding to my college years, I finally got my first opportunity to shadow an occupational therapist at a healthcare-related internship. At the first clinic I shadowed, my shadow OTs discussed extensively with me and their patients diagnoses and anatomical terms I had no knowledge of such as carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoarthritis, palmaris longus, and flexor carpi radialis. I was astounded by the wealth of knowledge that these OTs harbored and how confidently they did their job. I thought to myself, “How would I even BEGIN to commit all of this knowledge to memory?” Anatomy sounded like a whole other language to me. Though the explanations of the patients’ diagnoses were quite difficult to follow (at the time I did not take anatomy and physiology, so I was really lost), patients continued to rave about the tremendous impact that occupational therapy had made on their lives. The answer to the question What matters to you? now became much more transparent in how I viewed occupational therapy.

Occupations and activities that mattered to the patients I observed included writing, playing the guitar, holding a microphone to sing, and dressing. To me, these activities appeared to be seemingly simple to accomplish. Yet, I learned that being unable to do these ‘simple tasks’ can truly affect a person’s overall wellbeing and quality of life, especially if these activities influence their identities and their esteem. I initially did not understand why one patient I encountered continued to express such gratitude toward what appeared to be an OT merely helping him ‘stretch his hand muscles.’ However, him being able to use his hands to hold a guitar properly meant that he could resume his occupation as a guitar player and compose music, a passion that brought him personal life fulfillment.

So, why OT? Occupational therapy is an incomparable field that empowers people to be renewed physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually by always centering the question What matters to you? in patient care. Occupational therapy interlocks a multitude of disciplines that all excite me – biology, psychology, and sociology, to name a few. Occupational therapy truly gives people hope, purpose, fulfillment, faith, and productivity. With that being said, I personally have a lot of plans within the field of occupational therapy that I anticipate exploring, just you wait!

Peace and love,

Irene

My Mid-20s ALREADY?

Hello, friends! Sooooo earlier this week was my birthday! A family friend’s child came over to our house last week and asked me the popular question: “How old are you?” When I told her that I was 23 years old, she literally did a double-take and cried, “I thought you were 18 max!” As I laughed (to be completely transparent, her astonishment hit me a bit), a few things ran through my mind. 1: My elder years are going to bless me really well, and 2: I really do navigate the world thinking I look grown when folks think otherwise. I thought it was rather comedic that she thought I was so young. But hey, being a tiny person like myself with such a youthful face, I can’t even blame her for assuming I was a high schooler.

After doing my research (a quick Google search), the general consensus agrees that age 24 is considered ‘mid-20s’. It is rather hard to believe that I am here, now officially embarking on my mid-20s. I don’t usually feel ‘the change’ in age immediately when my birthday rolls around. However, I did stumble across this article pointing out some realities that occur when a person processes the concept of ‘being 24.’ Of course, everyone goes through their own journey and experiences at every stage of life. However, some points I found rather relatable and amusing about my new big age were the following:

  1. Wondering how your parents had you around your current age and you thinking that could NEVER be you at this moment.
    • YES, YES, AND YES to this point! My mom LOVES to say, “When I was your age I was married, had two children, and was running this house.” Yes Mother, I totally understand this and all power to you, truly. HOWEVER, times are completely different now and shoot, I still feel like a kid myself! Therefore, this could NEVER be me at this age.
  2. Beginning phrases with ‘I’m too old to…’.
    • I have found that I’ve been saying and definitely feeling this phrase more frequently, particularly with the kids that I work with. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve realized how high-energy kids just are. It has become even more apparent that I am struggling to match their energy when I am trying to catch up with them by jumping on a trampoline for ONE WHOLE HOUR or playing an endless game of Tag. To think that I now have kiddos asking me, “What is an iPod?” just further illustrates that times have truly changed.
  3. Beginning to truly realize the values of your skills.
    • This point has become more salient in my daily life in the last year. It is now during this time that I can admittedly acknowledge that I really do have multiple skills worthy of being utilized! Pinpointing these God-given skills of mine has helped shape the mindset that I plan to embody in its entirety for 2021 (check out my previous post here for more insight).
  4. Growing into your love and connection to music – so much that a childhood classic could have you in tears.
    • Don’t get me started on my CHILDHOOD CLASSIC – the entirety of The Cheetah Girls 1 – 3 soundtrack! It has my whole heart! The appreciation runs way too deep. As I get older, the messages they convey are completely applicable to my interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Side note: When I tell you that I am a Cheetah Girls fan, again, it is not a joke. Check out my tribute to them here.
  5. Noticing changes in your body and realizing that nutrition, exercise, and skincare are actually much more vital than we initially thought.
    • Retweet to the fact that nutrition, exercise, and skincare are more vital to my overall wellness than I previously gave credit for. For instance, I used to eat an entire mug-full of cookies and cream ice cream (I kid you not) EVERY SINGLE DAY when I ran track and field during high school. The wildest part? My body was chilling the whole time! Now, catch me even attempting to eat a bag of Takis an hour before bedtime – it is over. The bag of Takis always wins, and my body and my skin attack me for disrespecting it.
  6. Becoming completely cognizant that you can’t change people so you realize that it is better to direct this energy on investing in yourself instead.
    • The older I get, the more obvious I see this point reign true. Though I can wish, hope, and even attempt to change someone for what I see would benefit them (and I can tell you countless times that I am guilty of this), I’ve come to realize that I greatly need to protect my energy. To give and give to people who merely drain my energy and do not reciprocate is never a productive use of my time. Unfortunately, more often than not, I end up getting burned out or feel that I’ve been taken advantage of. Life is too precious to not invest in myself wholeheartedly. Surrounding myself with people who do not uplift me, challenge me, or contribute to my growth gradually becomes a thing of my past as I grow older and learn the importance of centering myself.

Though I may not necessarily exhibit some of the very ‘traditional milestones’ of 24 normalized in society, the beginning of this new era in my 20s include some major life markers coming up for me:

  1. Moving to a different state.
  2. Beginning graduate school.
  3. Figuring out how to become financially self-reliant.
  4. Transitioning to achieving my actual career aspirations.

Overall, I am blessed to have made it to another year! I am almost a quarter of a century old, ah! Am I ready for these major life events to occur? Time will tell. However, I do look forward to exploring what the rest of my mid-20s has in store for me.

Peace and love,

Irene

2020 Reflections and 2021 Projections

Happy New Year, friends! We are in the second year of the new decade! I’d love to share with you my year-in-review of 2020, as well as how I am feeling about this new year.

I know that 2020, like for most folks, was a difficult year in so many ways. I want to express gratitude for being alive and healthy because many folks cannot attest to the same state of being. My physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being vividly shifted each month. In a nutshell, my 2020 panned out to manifest in the following:

January, 2020: I was sitting on the sand at one of the beaches in Cabo, Mexico completely relaxed and in great serenity. I claimed this year to be ‘my year’ – a year of self-love, self-care, and self-awareness. I felt inspired, confident, and ready to take on this year that I manifested to be my glow-up year. Making my thoughts, feelings, and actions were going to always be my priority.

February, 2020: I underwent a great deal of lingering, unresolved hurt that forced me to make a difficult decision in order to healthily put myself first. Though removing toxicity in my life was difficult, it was very necessary for my own mental and emotional well-being. I learned how to establish boundaries for myself that helped me shed the ‘people-pleaser’ demeanor that I’ve traditionally presented in my social circles. Saying ‘no’ became an empowering word that I could now vocalize confidently.

March, 2020: The beginning of the month was a period of rebuilding myself emotionally and mentally. However, I was put into a sudden unrecognizable state of fear and uncertainty when life became everything other than ‘normal’ with the reality and frightening impacts of COVID-19 to my surrounding community and to the overall American population. The week before everything shut down, I was in Napa, California, uttering the at-the-time common belief that I was ‘invincible to the virus’ and that it was just like the flu (which a lot of people don’t realize can be deadly as well). Ooo, was I ignorant!

April, 2020: This continued fear, uncertainty, and paranoia plagued my mind, my social circles, and my overall community. However, I began to find some comfort in knowing that I was not isolated in my fears and sadness regarding the pandemic.

May, 2020: I slowly adapted to redefining ‘normalcy’ in my life given the circumstances that the pandemic allowed me to. I also began to see people on my social media expose themselves left and right in regards to if they truly thought that All Black Lives truly do matter. I saw a LOT of performative allyship, which felt like a mockery of my Blackness.

June, 2020: I felt more immense hurt, anger, brokenness, hopelessness, and a lack of safety and security as a Black person in this country. I also learned the vitality of conserving and protecting my energy during this month.

July, 2020: I had a deep talk with God and looked within myself to realign my priorities and redefine my goals and ambitions. Eliminating distractions was necessary, especially since I was shifting into a new chapter of my life that would require focus, dedication, and faith to succeed. I worked on becoming remotivated to rechannel my January state of mind.

August, 2020: Nervousness and self-doubt crept in as pivotal life realizations became more apparent each day.

September, 2020: I rebuked the spirit of self-doubt and exchanged it with increased self-confidence and optimism.

October, 2020: A disciplined mindset shift for myself resulted in finally seeing some personal accomplishments come into fruition.

November, 2020: Feelings of burnout and stagnancy began to manifest. I began yearning for the next big move in my life.

December, 2020: Though still dealing with some burnout, I became reinspired, reawakened, and most importantly grateful that I made it to the end of the year.

Overall, I have grown and developed in so many ways that I did not anticipate in 2020. I feel that I have redefined purpose and have tapped into other callings shown to me. At the beginning of the year, I scribed in my passion planner some of my most important personal goals that I had for my immediate future. I didn’t know at the time whether or not I would achieve them in 6 months, 1 year, or 3 years (as it is laid out in the planner). However, I want to highlight a few of the most important goals that I’m happy I was able to achieve:

  1. Traveling abroad again 
  2. Getting into occupational therapy school 
  3. Paying off the entirety of my college student loans 
  4. Exploring photography more 
  5. Connecting with folks and building relationships beyond my spheres of influence 

Now, for the year 2021, I don’t necessarily feel as if I have any concrete “New Year’s Resolutions.” Sure, I aim to survive and hopefully thrive in OT school, continue to save money, and exercise more. However, I am actually focused on claiming words and attitudes that I hope to embody and exemplify in all that I do. I project that for 2021, my words will be the following: intentionality, purpose, and self-elevation.

I aim to be intentional in my relationships and my actions, purposeful in the way that I use my energy and how I navigate my surrounding community, and elevate myself by continuing to discover and utilize my multiple passions, talents, and gifts.

I anticipate 2021 being a year of change specifically for me, for I will be going through a LOT of new life changes. However, I believe that being intentional, purposeful, and elevating myself consistently will keep me grounded during these changes.

With all being said, I hope that y’all claim, manifest, and speak into existence blessings for your new year as well. ✨ 

Peace and love,

Irene

HELLO – New Blogger Alert!

Hello, everyone! I am SO excited to finally be achieving one of my many goals for 2021 – starting a blog! I have been feeling in my spirit that I need to start documenting and reflecting on my life through some sort of media, yet I was trying to figure out what would be the best way to do so. I thought about a vlog (which I am still not opposed to starting up but I would need to become an expert at video editing software), and I thought about a podcast since apparently I like to talk a lot! I even took to Twitter a few months ago and created a poll to help me decide what I should use to reach folks. I THINK that podcasting might have won, so I will surely be revisiting this soon. However, I always had a passion for writing. I always wrote too dang much in school and in my free time, whether that was creating fictional stories as a kid or going pages past the page limit in my school essays. I actually attempted a blog once when I was in high school, but I believe that I quickly quit my blog because I felt as if I was too busy to continue it (to think that I didn’t have time to write in high school, what a time). But I am BACK on this platform – grown and more interesting than before (at least I’d like to think I am).

I want to preface my first post with the goal of my blog. I am merely a Black gal out here wanting to share with you all my life adventures, reflections, thoughts, and vibes. My original plan was to begin this blog right at the beginning of my journey as an occupational therapy student, which I will be embarking on in mid-2021. However, 2021 will be my continual journey of self-elevation, so I figured, why not start now?

I hope that by reading my words, y’all are able to connect with me in different facets of your life, laugh with me (or at me, lol!), and reflect with me. I don’t necessarily have a particular topic as of right now that I will continuously be writing about, but who knows what I will decide to hone in on in the mere future.

Thank you for taking the time to read my words!

Peace and love,

Irene