The talker who almost cried

In January I almost lost it in front of a room full of sophomores.

Christine Koh '95

I spoke at Wheaton’s Sophomore Symposium, and it was a rather amazing day in several respects—from the thoughtful programming aimed at inspiring sophomores to avoid the traditional slump and explore life options; to the fact that some 100 or so sophomores opted in to this weekend programming; to the honor of being invited to tell the story of my linear then divergent paths; to the pleasure of interacting with a remarkably thoughtful, smart and mature group of students.

To take a few steps back: Wheaton was where my passion for studying music and psychology bloomed. And as I later progressed through my M.A., Ph.D., and postdoctoral fellowship, the notion that I had evolved into something of an academic poster child for the college was not lost on me. Let’s be frank: I photograph and speak well, was pursuing an interesting interdisciplinary research trajectory, and was an active alum. The stars were aligned.

So when I left academia in 2006, I felt like a black sheep for jumping ship. Part of me fretted that my professors were disappointed in me, and part of me was disappointed in myself for not achieving my dream of teaching at Wheaton alongside my mentors. However, while guilt used to be an effective catalyst to propel me into action, more pressing was the fact that I needed to exit my postdoc immediately. I was drowning creatively, emotionally and nearly physically.

My talk at Wheaton signaled the first time I have been asked back to the college to speak through the lens of my second, nonacademic career. And I soon realized two things. First, my father was clearly on my mind—I referenced his desire for me to be a lawyer then politician then talk-show host (because I’m a talker), as well as his lack of support when I opted against the Ivy League for my Ph.D. (as in, when I told him, he hung up the phone on me and didn’t speak to me for a long time). Second, at Wheaton a remarkably thoughtful and generous collection of mentors were instrumental in helping me rule out various careers (said lawyer and politician) and carve out my path as a music and brain scientist, and many of them were in the room, spending their hard-earned Saturday guiding students forward in their journeys.

So why did I nearly lose it in front of a group of kids some 15 or so years my junior? I was at the point in my story where I was talking about Ph.D. acceptances. This phase of my life was very loaded: I was devastated when I didn’t get accepted to Ph.D. programs immediately after undergrad, and I was burnt out after my M.A.; I actually was very close to leaving the field. However, as soon as the acceptances started rolling in I forgot all of the reasons I was planning on leaving academia because someone wanted me. I narrowed my decision to two schools: an Ivy League with a lunatic advisor (I was advised against working with her by graduate students and faculty alike) and a not-as-well-known (at the time to me) Canadian university with a well-respected advisor. My father and my M.A. advisor were concerned only with pedigree; they told me to head to the Ivy League and power through it. And they made it very clear that I would be disappointing them (and the lab, the family, the world, etc.) if I made a different choice. But something felt wrong, so I called one of my key mentors in psychology from Wheaton, Derek Price. And it was this moment—during which I recalled Derek and my conversation, and the rationalizations my father and M.A. advisor made about going to the Ivy League, and Derek’s urging that I would be crazy to march into certain death; that an advisor dictates your quality of life and the clear choice was the Canadian university— that I felt the tears well in my eyes, my throat tighten, and my voice start wobbling. I couldn’t even make a joke about being farklempt I was so farklempt.

That phone call not only saved me from several guaranteed years of hell, but it made clear that to Derek, I was a person, not a commodity. And as I told my story to those sophomores—on the campus where I forged all of the skills that allowed me to leave a decade-long career and start a new one successfully—it dawned on me that I wasn’t being “welcomed back” per se, because my family at Wheaton never hung up the phone on me in the first place. Q