Higher Ed + Life: A Combustion Formula (for Personal Development)

“Gymnasium, University of Virginia, VA,” Boston Public Library (Flickr, CC)

It is way too early for this. 

And by “this,” I mean “Girl on Fire” blasting through conference speakers as multiple women flitter around scooping shiny confetti from little baskets and sprinkling them onto white tablecloths. 

While my daily coffee intake to prevent caffeine headaches does nothing to actually stimulate my brain, “this” certainly woke me up. 


It is the first day of classes, and the professor asks each person to write on a sticky note what has been on their mind lately. Most of the responses circle around the fragility of our time: anxiety about climate change, rising global fascism, and an ongoing pandemic.  

The professor goes by TJ, otherwise known as Thomas Jefferson. Even at a new school, it seems I can’t escape him—Mr. Declaration of Independence. 


The theme of this all-female higher education conference is “Level Up.” 

Instead of going on vacation and playing mini-games with four of my closest friends like in Red Velvet’s reality series, Level Up, I am getting “professional development.” 

The first session I go to after the opening remarks, “Become the Architect of your Career,” is about identifying your strengths and weaknesses so that you can “maximize your potential.” 

Potential implies the possibility of kinetic energy.

The presenters worked in corporate America after higher ed. 

I feel like I have no energy left.


How many times can you burn out before you disintegrate into ashes? 

Assume the body is made up of different elements and compounds at different times. The UVA student burns navy and orange like selenium and calcium carbonate. The Hollins student burns green and gold like boron and iron. 

There are too many variables to consider. 

Water has a high specific heat capacity. Staying hydrated is important. 


The second through fourth sessions I attend are all about different ways to avoid burnout. 

2) How to be resilient
3) How to play with LEGOs to reduce stress
4) How to activate your creative side to escape your day job through art walks, crafting, and emptying your brain out every morning via writing. 

I wish the last third of #4 actually worked. 


I wanted to go to a liberal arts institution for my engineering education. I guess I wanted reputation, too. In Virginia, there’s nothing more prestigious than Mr. Jefferson’s University. 

I want to work in renewable energy, food, and/or water systems. I get a minor in Global Sustainability. 

Climate change will kill us. I go to several conferences and career fairs. No company seems to actually care. 

A video of a hamster’s unlimited growth as it takes over a city, Godzilla style, is seared into my brain.

I write on the side for fun to compete in slam poetry competitions. 

I burn out. I am prescribed anti-depressants. 

I rest. I read. I write. 

I decide to go to school again. 

For a Master’s in Fine Arts. At a tiny school called Hollins.

I am constantly asked, “why the switch from engineering to creative writing?”


The fifth and last session I go to is titled “Work-Life Balance in a Post-Covid World.” BTS’ “Permission to Dance” plays while we’re waiting, and I am disappointed. 

1) Because it’s not Blackpink or Twice (We are at an all-women’s conference! No men allowed! #Gatekeeping is justified in certain situations)
2) Because we are not in any sense of the word “post,” in a “post-COVID” world. 

Less than a quarter of the people in the room are wearing a mask; one of the presenters is talking about how hard it’s been to hire people at our university. 


Once I get my graduate assistantship, I stay on campus more to make use of my dining plan. The average price of a meal is $6, so if I eat two meals a day in four months, what is the monetary value of my meal plan?

If I make only $350 a month and work an average of 10 hours a week, am I earning minimum wage? How is minimum wage determined? How is a living wage determined?

How is living quantified? 


Session #4: Creativity & Community: The Ultimate Anti-Burnout Tools suggests scheduling regular “artist dates” to bring out your inner “painter, poet, screenwriter, or musician.” 

These artist dates are meant to get you to “pay attention.”

Capitalism prevents us from paying attention. Capitalism requires complacency. Capitalism and self-care are incompatible. 


The first club I join at Hollins (because there is no Vietnamese Student Association) is KPOP club.

While KPOP is capitalist consumer culture on MonsterTM, the Friday meetings are a nice way to end the week. To dislodge all the English taken in and replace it with a language I do not understand. 

Good music and fun do not need to be translated. 

While there is no VSA, there is a community of Vietnamese international students who I befriend in my second year. I get complimented on my Vietnamese but still struggle to read their group texts.

The one thing I do understand is when they tell me “nay phở ngon!”

Eating with them and hearing their laughter becomes the true value of my meal plan. 


I enjoy going to conferences for free meals and swag and to people-watch. 

The number of stimuli can be overwhelming, but I have learned that zoning out is an act of self-preservation. 

I retain enough information to tell stories whenever I get asked, “What did you do this summer?” 


Over the summer, the university underwent a major restructuring. The Office of Student Success, Well-Being, & Belonging combines academic affairs, student activities, housing and residence life, and my branch—diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

Promoting the values of DEI requires support. Which of the following is NOT supported?

A) A life boat, a raft sailing after a helicopter crash into the ocean
B) A pillar of people whose purpose aligns perfectly
C) A column crumbling under the weight of its crown


It’s the last session of the day, and I don’t know if I actually got anything out of the conference other than continued bitterness against capitalism. The theme might as well have been “Girlboss 101.” 

The presenters survey the room about their silver linings of the pandemic. She starts by saying that it forced our school to go digital—to use PDFs and electronic signatures instead of paper. 

I snicker on the inside. “That sounds about right for our ‘Mom and Pop University’.” 

Another person says that it was cool to collaborate with other departments that she otherwise would have never interacted with on the COVID task force. 

The consensus for the major challenge of the pandemic was that the boundary between work and home got blurred due to lockdown. 


This year, I am staying on campus at Hollins, on the Front Quad, a miniature version of The Lawn at UVA, a designated National Historic Landmark District. The process to be a Lawn resident requires an application and a stacked resume of UVA’s most prestigious (white) clubs.

Here, anyone can live on the Front Quad. Equity. 

Luckily, UVA changed their secretive ranking system after my application cycle, making leadership in multicultural clubs earn the same weight as historic organizations such as The Honor Committee, The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society (the oldest club on Grounds), and The Cavalier Daily. 

Here, masks are still mandatory in classrooms when most universities in the state dropped their mandates. 

Here, a poster for Hispanic & Latinx Heritage Month was defaced—cut and ripped up. 

At UVA in 2022, a noose was put around the Homer Statue.

At UVA in 2017, the Alt-Right marched the Lawn with tiki torches and Downtown Charlottesville with weapons. They killed a woman and hurt so many people and students—mentally and physically. 


After the conference, I ask a co-worker how she felt about the conference. She says that she wished there was discussion about why people were leaving higher education.  

The same could be asked about our retention levels. Why are students leaving? 

The lack of internship, study abroad, and research opportunities? 

I think the answer across the US is mental health. 

Could it be workload?

Could it be the fact that students are being ‘gaslit’ into the idea of ‘normalcy’?


My first task as the graduate assistant for the new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion is to send emails. Lots of them. In preparation for the 2nd annual Leading EDJ Day. I remind the presenters to check and update the description for their Zoom or hybrid session. I also organize Excel sheets to audit scheduling conflicts for presenters with multiple sessions. I spend way too much time trying to figure out formulas to make my work more “efficient.” 

I know when to quit and do the tasks manually.


The presenter at Session #2: Building Resilience: “REAL” Ways to Thrive During Tough Times asked, “what energizes you?” The typical answers were food, sleep/rest, friends/family, and music.

I forgot all the techniques she mentioned but pondered this question after the conference and decided that work does. 

“In material science, resilience is the ability of a material to absorb energy when it is deformed elastically and release that energy upon unloading. Proof resilience is defined as the maximum energy that can be absorbed up to the elastic limit without creating a permanent distortion.”

Human resilience requires community. 


The majority of my classes at UVA were lectures and the majority of my homework was group work. Here, it is mostly discussion and independent work even outside of English classes.

Work = force x distance. But how is work measured outside of physical labor?

In words written? Math problems solved? 

“In laughter, in strife?” 

Somedays, I get tired of listening and trying to find a gap to speak amidst all the noise. 

I miss the thrill of midnights, five exhausted brains scratching their heads, four more problems to solve, three coffees in my system, two bags of chips on the table, and one lightbulb going off. Eureka! The miracle of collaboration. 


Post-Conference Survey

1. How did you hear about this conference?

  • Other: My department paid for it

2. What is your main reason for attending this conference?

  • To stay “current” in higher education practices [while avoiding the reality of COVID]
  • To network with colleagues [I wish I had better social skills]
  • To engage in professional development [Did I grow as a person?]
  • To hear particular speakers [“Girl on Fire” was loud and clear]
  • Interested in conference theme/session [while Higher Ed is a major source of burn-out]
  • Other: See #1

3. Did the conference fulfill your reason for attending?

  • Yes
  • No

4. If you answered “No” to question #3, please explain. Otherwise, skip this question. 

5. Please describe what you liked best about the conference. 

See essay. 

6. Please provide suggestions for improving the conference experience next year.

Don’t make it start at 8 am. 


Over the summer, I saw an advertisement for a residency for writers and activists, but it was limited to New York so that the work could continue once the residency was over. 

What if we applied that to our educational systems? Create a new type of school where action is combined with theory? 

Would students be less distraught knowing that their work mattered in the present and not some unguaranteed future? 


Post-Conference Schedule (continued)

Conference Session: Please indicate the level of your overall satisfaction. 

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To be fair, I believe that most people who choose a career in higher education truly do care about students, but they are entrenched in systems that cannot sustainably serve students.

“We think responsibility and the fulfillment of duty are one single thing. Corporate identity. To mold oneself. To consent. Pinned to a set of abstractions”—the writer, Dolores Dorantes, an acharya in the Buddhist tradition, came to Hollins and read. She signed my copy of Copy

I am not a good Buddhist. I admit that I am a cynic, a hypocrite. I too chose to return to a toxic relationship with Higher Ed. 

Higher Ed likes to smoke weed but doesn’t offer me any despite my perpetual anxiety.

Higher Ed likes to keep me on my toes because it knows I have no chill.

Higher Ed sucks me in with its charm of community: a walkable environment, access to friendship, and the promise of learning. 


Everyday, I step out my front door, crunch on the newly fallen leaves, stare at the squirrels, and marvel at the fact that I ended up at a place so close to where my mom’s family settled after immigrating to America, at a place that so closely resembles the aesthetics (but not mechanics) of my undergraduate institution, at a place that so desperately needs to catch up to the present before the future overtakes it. And for what? To read and write. 

To read about writers who are as frustrated with society as I am. Who are as astonished with humanity as I am. 

To write about discovery. 

My Asian father says that I basically threw my chemical engineering degree in the trash.

But I use it every day to take note of my surroundings and to synthesize all my inputs and reactions into a new kind of manufacturing. 

Chanlee Luu is a Vietnamese-Chinese American writer from southern Virginia currently working towards an MFA in creative writing at Hollins University. She received her BS in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia. She writes about identity, pop culture, science, politics, and everything in between. She can be found on Twitter @ChanleeLuu, and her work can be found in Free the VerseSnowflake Magazinethe gamut magCutbow Quarterly, & Tint Journal. 


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