Earlier this year I sat down Emi Nietfeld, the author of "Acceptance", a memoir of her journey through foster care and homelessness to build a successful career and a life filled with purpose and meaning. Part of her life’s story includes graduating from Harvard in 2015 and working as a software engineer at Google, which was an experience she wrote about in a viral New York Times op-ed titled, “After Working At Google, I’ll Never Let Myself Love a Job Again”. Emi is passionate about mental health, personal development, and helping young people navigate their careers.
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Summary of the Conversation
Emi Nietfeld grew up in Minnesota and was raised Evangelical Christian. When she was 14, she was sent to a residential treatment center where troubled teenagers are locked up. In her memoir, "Acceptance," she talks about how the "grit" mindset comes at a cost. The book follows her story through a myriad of systems.
"I think it's useful as a tool to have a book that does cover, anorexia, bulimia, and self-injury," she says. "Just reading that relates to parts of your story could help all of us with this discovery and this process of self-acceptance". College classrooms are often safe havens for many people. The idea of self-acceptance can not only be helpful for students, but also for the faculty or the administrator. Emi believes it's important to recognize the impact the past three years had on young people.
"A lot of people need a reset button and a little bit of space to grieve what has been lost," she says. "I feel like there are a lot of powers that be, that have told people we just have to keep going," she adds. "One of the biggest tenets is really listening to what young people want and desire from their lives. Even going back to before the pandemic and looking at what systemic forces have shaped people's lives."
Getting to a place of acceptance is about recognizing, "Here are the things that happened to me and why they happened." And recognizing what the impact is so that you can move forward.
"Acceptance" talks frankly about mental health because oftentimes mental health discussions stay quite surface-level (eating disorders, substance use, self-harm, the impact of sexual assault, and abusive relationships.) Those can be really scary topics that can be hard to talk about, but they're also what so many young people are experiencing.
"It's one step to have self-acceptance, but then it's another (massive) step to be open and honest with other people," she says. "I would really encourage, faculty members and administrators, to think about the ways that they can show up for students and be vulnerable".
In "Acceptance", Emi does not pull any punches. She says it's the type of book she wishes she had had as a young person. "I hope that people read "Acceptance," and recognize the ways that I was pretending to have this picture-perfect life. We all hide certain parts of our identities and we all make assumptions about other people. Storytelling is a vehicle for teaching that doesn't feel top-down or feel like a set of instructions. It really gives access to learning and teaching in a much more kind of natural and authentic way."
Emi says memoirs can be such a powerful genre in part because you don't have to have much in common with the protagonist in order to identify with it. "We're all human and we're all having struggles. Just this week I got an email from a Vietnam vet who told me that he was crying throughout the book," she says. Emi hopes the book will help students and parents see the different ways that mental health shows up in students' lives.
Ian Evenstar: I want to hear just a bit about yourself and how you went from living in a car to graduating from Harvard and then becoming a software engineer at Google.
Emi Nietfeld: So I grew up in Minnesota and I was raised Evangelical Christian. My parents were married until I was about 10, and then they divorced. And like a lot of other young people, that kind of threw my life into chaos. One of my parents moved away and I lived with my mom who dealt with compulsive shopping and hoarding, and like a lot of other kids, she took me to therapy to deal with the divorce and also thought that maybe I had ADHD, and while the treatment can be lifesaving for some kids, it threw me into the cycle of being medicated, being hospitalized and not being able to deal with the turmoil going on at home, where we often didn't have hot water and there were mice everywhere. And so when I was 14, I was sent to a residential treatment center where troubled teenagers are locked up and given a lot of therapy and kind of punished until they change. And that was when I decided that I really wanted to go to college and get out of that situation. Following that, I was in foster care and when I was a junior in high school I got a scholarship to an arts boarding school, I left foster care, but I spent my holiday breaks staying with friends, couch surfing with relatives, and at times sleeping in my car, staying at a shelter. The whole time I was very fixated on getting into college. And when I was 17, I got into Harvard and went there. And as we're gonna talk about today, as a teenager, I hoped that would be my ticket out. But there are unique challenges that students with backgrounds like mine face, even when they get to a university that has a lot of resources and can support them, the school doesn't always know exactly how to, and the students don't always know how to ask for it. So that was the position that I was in. But I was very lucky to study computer science and get a job at Google where I worked for four years.
IE: That was a really eloquent way of laying the groundwork for the rest of our conversation. I appreciate that and I appreciate the fact that both as someone who left a difficult home to go to college in order to find a safe space, and someone who is also now on the faculty side. College classrooms are safe havens for many people. My students today can definitely appreciate that sentiment and that desire to leverage college in that way. In the world of personal and professional development, we hear words like grit and resilience, and discipline, right? But in your book, you talk about how this type of mindset actually comes at a cost and that there are significant downsides to focusing on terms like this. Can you tell us just a bit about that?
EN: So in my memoir, "Acceptance", I write a lot about the messages that I was getting from adults as a teenager in the early 2000s, so 2006 to 2010. As a society, we have been very focused on this idea of grit. Kids are just "tough enough" that they can overcome any obstacle, and that it's really a question of "mind over matter." And I think this can be very useful in certain contexts. It's great to help other people find their inner strength and their purpose and their meaning to move forward, and I also experienced it in ways that were really detrimental. While a teenager who couldn't go back home, there were certain things in my life that I couldn't control and I was smart enough and old enough to know that. And so that led to a kind of distrust of adults who I felt were not being completely honest with me. And I think that is, as an educator, that is one of the most important things that you can be, especially with teenagers who care so much about authenticity and truth. And it honestly took me years to unlearn this idea that no matter what we go through, we can be stronger for it and that we need to be. Because the truth is that stuff happens in everybody's life that affects them, and that has lasting consequences. And so for me, getting to a place of acceptance was really about recognizing, okay, here are the things that happened to me, and why they happened, and the bigger forces in society that shaped adolescence, and recognizing what that impact was so that I could move forward with it, instead of pretending that it didn't happen, this wishy-washy thinking that could just imagine it all away.
IE: So this idea of acceptance or self-acceptance, how can this be? Can you tell us maybe more specifically how this is a tool for personal development, especially among students at a university?
EN: Yeah, I think we as slightly older people, right? I'm a millennial. And I grew up in a different context, one where there was a lot more optimism when I was a child, where we could believe that things were still like that; everything could be made for the better. And I think the kids today, Gen Z and the whole generation below them, don't live in that world. and we're all aware of the impact of Covid and the pandemic and social media on young people's mental health. And part of recognizing that college students today really can believe that everything that's happened might be for the better because they've been witnessing senseless shootings, global warming... And so I think it takes a radically different approach than falling back on those ideas of grit. I think it's just really important to recognize, okay, what impact has the past three years had on young people? Even going back before that looking at, okay, what systemic forces have shaped your life, whether that is racism or sexism or income inequality, and being upfront and honest about that as a way to move forward?
IE: Yeah, I think that's really well put. And also, it gave me this perspective or this insight that even from the faculty's point of view, having their own acceptance of the last three years and their own acceptance of some of the challenges and the new obstacles that they're facing day-to-day.
Having, again, just drawn from my own experience, having been pushed to take all of my in-person curricula and translate that to an online learning experience, virtually overnight, and then a year later saying, okay, now everything's back on campus. So maybe this idea of acceptance or self-acceptance can not only be helpful for the student, but also for the faculty or the administrator side.
EN: Absolutely. I feel like there are a lot of powers that be, that have told people we just have to keep going, we have to power through, when really at this point, a lot of people need to take a break. A lot of people need a reset button and a little bit of space to grieve what has been lost and just how absolutely grueling the past three years have been, for educators, more so than just about anyone.
IE: So I think you've made it clear that this is a refreshing, contrarian point of view compared to grit, resilience, crunch culture, and all of that. But I'm wondering if there's also a distinction within the body of work or the mindset of acceptance. Is your kind of flavor of acceptance, is it different, in comparison to other strategies when it comes to self-accept?
EN: For me, one of the biggest tenets is really listening to what young people want and desire from their lives, especially in education. Like, why are young people hoping to go to college? What are they trying to get out of it? And respecting those answers even when they're not exactly what somebody might hope for. So when I was in college, for example, I felt I really wanted a job. That was why I was there. I wanted stability. I wanted to have dental insurance, and sometimes I felt really judged by professors and by administrators because there was this sense of that's not what college is for. College is for this, like, intellectual exploration, even though that didn't take into account that different students are coming from different backgrounds. A lot of my classmates were sending money back home, they were not able to really fully focus on themselves.
IE: How do you think your personal story, cause you've been really raw with your story and putting this book out, putting a large part of who you are out in print, that in itself is commendable, but I'm wondering how else your story is about breaking down stigmas and fostering empathy, and I'm hearing you describe acceptance as both listening and also empathy. How can your book or your personal story break down those stigmas and, really, I guess, foster empathy within a university community?
EN: That's a great question. As you mentioned, "Acceptance" is very honest. I do not pull any punches. It is the book that I wish I had as a young person. For me, the first part of empathy is understanding that different people come from different places that we really do not know when we're looking at somebody, what they have been through, what their life is like, and recognizing that we all hide certain parts of our identities and we all make assumptions about other people. So when I was on campus, people saw me, I'm white, I'm blonde. And it was easy for me to pretend to be somebody who had grown up, upper middle class, with all those advantages. And I did. And I hope that people read "Acceptance" and recognize the ways that I was pretending to have this kind of picture-perfect life, but there was just all of this stuff behind it, which I think is true for just about anybody who's on a college campus.
IE: So you struck a chord in that answer for me, which is this idea of letting yourself go and overcoming the fear. So it's like it's one step to have self-acceptance, but then it's another massive step to then be open and honest with other people and overcome that fear, even if you know the benefit that could provide for others. So any guidance on how a student may overcome that fear of really showing their inner self and showing the struggles that they're experiencing?
EN: That's a really wonderful question. At times I felt like I was obligated to share my story in order to educate other people or be like a voice of some kind of diversity and speak to more students. Now I see how harmful that can be to put that expectation, particularly on young people who have been through the most. At the same time, I think back to college and one of the most powerful experiences that I had was instead of doing a break where we could walk around and get coffee or whatever, the teacher one day told us his story about 9/11 and about the friends that he had lost that day. And it was a very personal story, it had good boundaries, but was deeply emotional. And even though I didn't share anything with him, his vulnerability really helped me feel like that class, honestly, my whole college, was a safer space because I was not alone in being the only person who had been through some hard things. So I would really encourage, faculty members and administrators to think about the ways that they can show up and they can be vulnerable. And even if students don't reciprocate, that does not mean that it's a failure.
IE: And so you mentioned boundaries. I guess boundaries are important in that process. And then you also mentioned just the process or the habit of storytelling. And so maybe putting like a protocol around, "I'm going to start or open class with a story," and that again creates that safe space or maybe that rhythm for you to bring your own personal stories and your own vulnerability.
EN: I've also heard about some campuses that have structured storytelling programs where each student at dinner gets three minutes to tell a story. That kind of group vulnerability can lead to a lot of different people sharing what is important to them without tokenizing certain people's experiences.
IE: Yeah, that's so true. And my experience with storytelling, not only does it create a long-lasting memory in the listener, but it also is a vehicle for teaching that doesn't feel top-down or feel like a set of instructions. It really gives access to learning and teaching in a much more kind of natural and authentic way. Let's talk about just the writing process in general, cause I think to be a successful writer and an author, I mean that in itself is a feat. And I'm wondering if you have specific strategies around the writing process and techniques may be that you've used that could be helpful for educators and students.
EN: I have taken a lot of writing classes and worked with a lot of other people on their personal stories. The most important thing for me and for the people I've worked with is having the opportunity to tell the truth about what happened and to feel accepted as a human being after telling somebody. So even if the writing is bad or it's not a structured story, just being able to get it out there and to really feel like I feel heard, I feel seen, and for me, that's the only place that I can start in order to edit it into something meaningful. And then the second part of my process that was really important was, I went into "Acceptance" and I was writing about my own life in high school and college, it was just, "Okay, here are all the things that happened to me." But I didn't have any context about what this meant in the bigger picture. And part of it was that my life just literally hadn't given me that context. When you are in foster care, most people are not talking to a bunch of foster care scholars about "Why is this system the way that it is?" Instead, you're just there in that situation. So it was really important for me both as a writer and a human to go back and to talk to the people who were involved to research those systems and to build a framework to understand these bigger forces at play. And I think that can be a really powerful tool in the classroom that brings history and economics and current events into the most personal aspects of a student's life to really see how it's important.
IE: So I'll try to paraphrase here. You mentioned firstly, just get it out, doesn't matter if you're a good writer or not, and start there. And then also, go backward in the history and in the timeline to uncover bits of the story that maybe needed a little more holistic point of view and do research on the history and the timeline that helps you advance the story forward. Is that a fair summary?
EN: Yeah. And I think it goes a little bit beyond that too, to understanding not just, "Okay, here's what happened in my life," but here is why it happened, here's how the forces that shaped my life shaped the lives of other people too.
IE: Here's the soft sell question for you, how could your memoir "Acceptance" be integrated into a university curriculum?
EN: Yeah, it already is in a few places and I've seen it happen in a few different ways that I'm just really excited about. And one thing that's my dream is to be like a "first-year read" or the common reads that universities have. And I think it can be a really fun book because it talks about "What do we hide? And what do we reveal?" And looking at, okay, different students come from different backgrounds, how do we be kind to each other and interact with each other? Knowing that's the case without always knowing all the specifics. And I think the other reason that it can be important is, "Acceptance" does talk really frankly about mental health, and often mental health discussions that I'm privy to stay pretty surface-level. And it's generally okay to discuss depression and anxiety and stress, but there are a lot of topics that are going on in students' lives but are not really being discussed. So eating disorders, substance use, self-harm, the impact of sexual assault, and abusive relationships. And those can be really scary topics and they can be hard to talk about. And they're also what so many young people are experiencing.
IE: So tell us more about that. How does the memoir contribute to conversations around mental health or mental wellness?
EN: On the most basic level it follows one person's story through a bunch of different systems. You go to the therapist like, "What kind of treatment are you receiving?" Medication, the ways it can be really helpful, the ways it could be less helpful, and it wasn't great for me to live it, in a way. I think it's useful as a tool to have a book that does cover, anorexia, bulimia, and self-injury, and that hopefully, provides a safe and neutral place to talk about those topics without making it about one student's life, or without making it be this weird thing. Because these topics, they're not rare, and, so I hope that it provides a safe and neutral ground for educators to open up about these topics and for students to think about, "How have these affected my life? What choices have I made that are helpful for me or maybe not as helpful?" And then also looking forward to realistic ideas about what I'm struggling with, "How can I get help? What are the steps that I can take to get myself into a better place?"
IE: And even if it doesn't, even if that thinking and that reflection don't appear in later conversations in the classroom, what I'm sensing is that the book can be a very important first step just to have acceptance for yourself, right? Just reading that relates to parts of your story could help all of us with this discovery and this process of self-acceptance.
EN: Yeah, absolutely. And I think memoirs can be such a powerful genre in part because you don't have to have that much in common with the protagonist in order to identify with it because we're all human and we're all having struggles. And just this week I got an email from a Vietnam vet who told me that he was crying throughout the book and that is so amazing to me that there are ways that we can, even in this really fractured world, we can connect as humans around our joint vulnerabilities and the things that we all have been through and hiding.
IE: Yeah, it's counterculture because we always put that fancy facade out, especially on social media, so I think you're right. I'm just hearing someone else's and seeing someone else's vulnerability. Even if we don't have a direct experience with what they've gone through, it can help us in our own struggles.
Do you have upcoming projects that will continue to contribute to this space and contribute to this conversation around personal development and mental wellness?
EN: I just published an op-ed in the New York Times about mental health disclosures in college applications called "I Edited Mental Illness Out of My College Applications. I’m Not Alone." and doing more journalism in the college mental health space. And I'm also really thrilled to be going to universities and doing workshops with students and speaking about these topics. I think it's really such a difficult time for young people and it's such an exciting time because they are really at the forefront of raising mental health awareness of destigmatizing mental health, and it's so exciting to be in conversation with them.
IE: Wow. So I have two follow-up questions. One is: if someone were to solicit you as a speaker and they wanna learn more, where do they go? But before we get to that, I also want to hear more about this recent op-ed piece that you just did. It gave me shivers when you describe the title, it's "Whoa, I feel like I did that in my college application." Who's the audience for that?
EN: It's really a combination. I wrote it hoping that it would help students and parents and college counselors and guidance counselors. That's the nearest to my heart because I remember being in that situation and having no idea what to do. And I also think it's really important for college admissions officers and educators and faculty to understand, "Here are the different ways that mental health shows up in students' lives." And that for some students, particularly those with fewer means, it can be really impossible to hide. As I was interviewing people, I was struck by the empathy that admissions officers and ed faculty had for students. And also the ways that we don't talk about the fact that if you are a student living in rural Tennessee the healthcare you're gonna receive is totally different than if you're a wealthy student living in a big coastal city.
IE: That's true. And the mental health challenges are going to differ as well, given each of the circumstances. So how would one reach out to you if they wanted to book time and learn more from you?
EN: You can follow me on my website, eminietfeld.com. I have a newsletter that I send out once a month with my new articles.
IE: So final thoughts, final takeaways for our audience?
EN: We all know young people are going through a tough time, and I really hope that reading about what other young people have been through and their journey to get an education can open up doors for conversation and can invite frankness and authenticity to some of these topics that aren't necessarily easy to pull off, so that's really my wish with this.
IE: Excellent. I enjoyed our conversation. Thank you for not watering down your point of view and really showing up in a genuine way. I encourage all of our listeners to read the book and connect with you further, thanks Emi.
EN: Thank you so much for having me. This was wonderful.
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