Zuzanna, 30, Poland (US)

zuzanna-instagramWhat is your story of strength?

My story is rooted in being the eldest sibling of an immigrant family. I was born in Poland, and when I was two we fled to a refugee camp in Austria, where we sat for a year figuring out where to go. We applied to a lot of countries and eventually moved to Canada, then to the U.S. several years later, where a lot of the support systems for immigrants just don’t exist like they do in Canada. That was really difficult. It takes so much to be an immigrant

As the eldest sibling, your parents are so consumed by just surviving and everything else falls on you. I didn’t realize until I grew up that having to walk your four-year-old sister to preschool and then walk your six-year-old sister to first grade and then walk yourself to third grade and then pick them up from school and feed them dinner and help them with their homework and bathe them and put them to sleep is not normal behavior for an eight-year-old. But it was totally normal for me. My parents both worked or went to school, and when you’re an immigrant the nuclear family is literally all you have. There are no grandparents to reach out to or lifelong friends or neighbors. There’s nobody else. The oldest kid is inherently the third in command and has to shoulder a lot of the responsibility. On the positive side, you end up being so tough and you learn so much about life so early on. I dealt with so many logistics, like paying bills and answering phone calls before the age of ten. It shocked me when I went to college that these were things that many college-aged kids didn’t know how to do. So I think that’s where a lot of my strength comes from, and a lot of the reason my organizational skills and people skills are so strong. It’s because they got put to the test for essentially 15 years longer than for most kids. When I see weakness it’s not that people are emotionally weak, because I think emotional weakness is a good thing and being vulnerable is a good thing, it’s more of a logistical weakness. Like when people say, “I don’t know and I don’t know how to figure it out.” That was never an option for me.

I also think that strength, for women in particular, can come from financial independence, too. You hear a lot when you’re younger that money doesn’t buy happiness. But I think money buys freedom – freedom of choice, freedom of will. So I think a lot of my strength comes from my education and earning potential and it allows me to do the things I want to do without depending on anyone else. It’s really liberating. I think women get vilified a lot for making a lot of money. They get called “alpha” or get judged for prioritizing their career or their education. But it’s empowering to be able to do all of that.

Can you tell me about a woman in your life who embodies strength?

I moved to Texas from Canada toward the end of high school, and I had no idea what I had gotten myself into going to college in the Texas panhandle. I was now in the middle of a new, conservative culture, which was totally unfamiliar to me. It was a whole new world. I got lucky that the Assistant Dean at the honors college was a woman named Kambra Bolch, and she was awesome. She walked into my very first class at Texas Tech with a pixie haircut (before pixie cuts were cool). She was this no-makeup, pantsuit-wearing badass, which was not normal in this conservative type of environment. She took me under her wing and was the best mentor I’ve ever had. She was a lawyer who had chosen not to practice law. She helped me so much in picking my major, figuring out how to get into law school, and what kind of job I wanted when I moved to Washington, DC. She is strong because she stays true to herself and to her values in an environment that’s really different. I think it’s draining to be of one culture if you live in a different culture, or to hold certain values and to live amongst people who have different values. I thought it was cool that she didn’t do it in hiding. She was herself around all of her students and she was never ashamed.

Can you tell me about a time you failed or disappointed yourself?

This is less of a time that I failed, but it’s a time I got a slap of reality. I graduated at the top of my high school class and first in college with two degrees and a 4.0 GPA. Then I got into this fabulous law school and I thought everything was great. It turns out, once I got to law school, I was totally mediocre. It was really intense to not only no longer be the best, but to not be anywhere near the top. It just made me think of one of the best pieces of advice I had ever gotten, which I got from an unexpected source. She told me that every decision you’ll make in life is about how big of a fish you want to be in how big of a pond. If you want to be a smaller fish in a bigger, more interesting pond, you’ll have to deal with all that that comes with. When I was younger I enjoyed being a big, sparkly fish, but law school was a turning point for me and I realized the value of being in a bigger pond. I went to class with people who are currently clerking for the Supreme Court and who could very well sit on the Supreme Court themselves someday. I remember being in class with people who would say something and I would have no idea what they were even talking about. It just made me realize how much better it made me and how much it pushed me to be around that. They say you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with, so if you’re in a small pond the five people you spend the most time with are going to bring you down. On the other hand, it’s a little exhausting when the five people you spend the most time with are smarter than you and prettier than you and more successful than you and have a better network than you and whatnot, and that’s exactly what law school did for me and what living in Washington, DC does. I think part of being strong is being humble enough to know that it will make you better to challenge yourself, even if today it doesn’t make you feel good.

How can women better support each other?

I think it relates to being comfortable with your own shortcomings. I think the reason women don’t support each other is because we get so little credit for what we do as it is, in the workplace or in our personal lives, that as soon as we get just a crumble of credit from a male partner we tend to be selfish about it. It’s important to know that the more you can share those crumbles among other women, the more men will recognize the contributions women make across the board. Instead of fighting for the little amount of recognition that you get, I think we should fight to live in a world in which women get more recognition period. A lot of times, especially in law, what happens is a male partner will ask a question, a woman will give the answer, and the partner will just gloss over it. Then a man will present the same idea and the partner will be like, “Wow, that was a fabulous answer!” So I just have to call people out. Don’t be afraid to interrupt and say, “I can acknowledge what he said, but just to be clear, she said that 20 minutes ago.” It’s a small action, but I think it’s all about that little stuff. If more women just acknowledged the other women in their lives in all sorts of ways, then more women would feel that that is normal and they would feel less in need of recognition. Women are used to having to fight for credit all the time, but particularly in the legal field I’ve observed in the generation above me that there are two types of women – the women who grew up in an all-male environment who determined that to get ahead, they would have to act like men, so they are really assertive and sometimes even mean. They take a hazing approach to other women. They think, “I had to go through all this crap, you will too.” Then you have other women who say, “I went through hell and back to become a partner at this law firm but I think it’s completely inappropriate.” Those women become fabulous mentors to other women. More women need to recognize that just because you have it hard and just because you have to fight doesn’t mean that everyone else should, too. It doesn’t mean you have to continually allow this cycle. That’s where the change is going to come from. The more women get treated well by other women, the more they’ll treat other women well.



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