I almost failed out of college and it nearly broke my self-confidence. I had been at the top of my high school class, class president, classically trained pianist, the total golden child. So when I decided that I wanted to attend Columbia University for grad school, I was more than a little sure it would be close to impossible.
My goal was two-fold: Prove to myself that my years of academic success in secondary school had not been a fluke and second, prepare for a career in children’s media. But first I had to get in.
So I enrolled in a GRE prep course and threw myself into the class. The first session was pretty scary and by the third, I was positive it was not going to get any easier. I reconsidered my plan to take the GRE. I thought, Nerissa, play your cards. Play to your strengths. Is test-taking your strength? Oh right. Nope.
So for the first time in my life, I considered how I should go about getting into graduate school. What were my special strengths, skills and secret talents? Were any of them applicable to getting into grad school?
I got a job working on a project sponsored by the dean’s office on campus and enrolled in one class as a non-matriculating student. I had a new plan: Ace the class while working on campus, get letters of recommendation from my boss and my professor and pray that playing to my strengths of writing compelling papers, being a lively participant in class discussions and contributing to the community through my job would be enough to bolster my application.
I worked my butt off that semester. With finals approaching, I felt confident I would get an A in the course, so it was time for phase two. I approached my boss about writing a letter of recommendation for my application. She very graciously immediately agreed. My professor was not quite as eager. Days turned into weeks as I waited for an answer and the application deadline approached. Finally, she said no; she did not know me well enough and the semester was not completed. I decided I just would not take the first no for an answer. I took the bold step of asking if she would be open to at least writing a short note unofficially endorsing my application and simply dropping it off at the admissions office. After quite a few uncomfortable conversations, where I impressed upon her how impactful I felt her endorsement would be, she finally agreed. I remember feeling awkward and worrying about what the professor would think of me, but in the end, I'm glad I got over it because I got in!
I revisit that moment of persistence again and again. I have lept into many other opportunities since then that have felt far out of my reach, landing my first job in television, my first job leading a team, my first job in a tech startup. Now, after nearly a decade of working on compelling media for kids, I am leaning in for another first: Starting a company born out of my graduate school research in children’s media. Our first product is a mobile game for teen girls that breaks down major life milestones into actionable missions (think prom, back-to-school, puberty). On its surface, the product helps girls connect with each other, receive and give advice, and get cool rewards. But the bigger vision is a platform for girls to help each other through their daily struggles, to lean in and to develop the tools to live life without limits.