Shazie Senen: A Twenty-Something Journey

Coming to America at 10 years old with little knowledge of what life would be like outside Singapore, I blindly but confidently followed my mother and sister on this journey. While our moving experience was not to flee the country but rather to start afresh seeking new opportunities, I was reluctant to make the move. I did not want to leave behind a life so endearing to me. When my mother first remarried, I then envisioned a picture perfect future. I was excited ready to live my life pictured on all of my then-favorite Disney Channel shows, such as walking down hallways filled with picturesque lockers or going to school dances — all of which were not popular in Singapore.

It was all glitter and gold until our transition unexpectedly became a paradox to our original aspirations. One day after school, I was greeted by my mother and a stranger. They rushed me off school grounds as though to avoid being seen, and I was confused. I remember this day vividly because it was the day I learned what it meant to be a victim of domestic violence. It was the day everything fell apart and came together at the same time ironically. That stranger turned out to be a social worker referred by the hospital when my mother had gone for her concussion caused by my then-stepdad. Turns out, all those sounds and screams I would hear at night were more than a nightmare, and those 911 calls placed by my neighbors in the middle of the night unveiled what was a well-kept secret. My mother had done a good job of hiding her bruises and wounds, sealing them with fabricated stories to protect her daughters. While I was too young to grasp the full context, I knew our current situation was not what we had hoped for when we moved to America.

We were placed in a shelter cities away for victims of domestic violence where I met other mothers and children. We also began waiting in line at the local food banks to receive free food. We did not imagine a life like this having to struggle and fight for survival in a country so new to us. I remember using a payphone to inform my family back home our current situation, but in Singapore, divorce was considered taboo. It did not matter whether the situation was toxic, so our family stayed away. We had no one else literally but each other. It was a confusing phase at the time, but I was unsure of its root. Was it from moving countries so abruptly having to leave behind all my friends and family? Or was it the difficulty of transitioning to fifth grade here where everybody knew each other and I was just some Asian girl with an accent? I was nervous, timid, and invisible to not only the public eye but to myself. I did not know who I was, but I was determined to finding that out.

After years of transitioning and rebuilding, I am now a few months shy of graduating with my Master’s degree in Public Health. Who would have thought I was the same girl who was once shy to vocalize anything, the same girl bullied by my peers because I was foreign, the same girl who used to live in a shelter, or the same girl who waited in line early in the mornings just to be able to feed herself? Now, the journey after the shelter was not all smooth sailing either. Like many, my early twenties were stressful. I was working at least twenty hours per week as a full-time student on my way to pharmacy school. I left retail for a pharmacy job in hopes amplifying my pharmacy school applications. On top of that, I began dating and felt heartbreak left and right. I was juggling way too many hats and was confused over my identity. I let others define it for me. I would’ve thought that by now, I would be a successful pharmacist, married on my way to having my first child until I realized that these expectations were not realistic. And I am okay where I am.

I realized that while my life had not turned out the way I planned, it was through that one specific aching experience where I learned the true meaning of character and resilience. At a young age, I have had to move countries, acclimate to a new culture, and accelerate my personal growth beyond my time in order to be the strong person my mother wanted me to be. While we’ve had our share of encumbrances, I somehow always managed to do well in school and in retrospect, I believe school was the only thing I enjoyed because learning was something I could control. I also learned that no matter where you plan on going, detours are bound to happen. They are meant to not only give you backbone, but they are also meant to take you where you are meant to be.

While I am now a different person than I was more than a decade ago, I will have always this specific experience I can look back on and reflect to be the catalyst for my personal and professional growth. I may not be an aspiring pharmacist, but I am happily on my way to pursuing public health opportunities. And I cannot wait for the day I get to walk across that stage graduating with my Master’s to know that this was all worth it and to reassure my mother and sister that after everything we had to go through, they still raised me to be the best person I can be.