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Be Who Your References Think You Are

I was sitting on the floor of my childhood bedroom, surrounded by all the contents of my closet. To my left was a stack of old Smile Project business cards, my right a hula hoop, and directly in front of me, the grey backpack that carried me through three and a half years of University.

I dumped it on the green carpet and picked up the first folder. So it began.

Piles began to form - 90% of the paper bound for recycling, the other 10% of favorite writing pieces stashed into another folder. At first it was mostly a matter of sorting through old band programs and newspaper articles, the occasional business plan or screenplay. Then, a new category started to pop up - the references.

While this backpack had been my college companion, it held papers from high school all the way through post-graduate work. I found a letter of recommendation a former teacher had written, then another, then another.

References to get into college. References for scholarships. References for internships, for jobs, for fellowship programs.

At first, I didn’t give them much thought - I had a lot of work to do and didn’t want to get sucked into reading every paper that came out of this Mary Poppin’s-esque bag.

But then I read one. And my heart softened a little.

And then I read another. And another. And another.

I thought of who I was in high school. I thought of who I was in college. I thought of who I am now, as a 25-year-old “professional” in the “real world.” Was I living up to who my mentors thought I was?

Shaking my head, I reminded myself that letters of recommendation are all about bragging and making the person you are recommending look as good as possible. That was the shiny, positive, “slept well and had a healthy breakfast” Liz. They didn’t know the messy, unsure, “spent five minutes looking for a pen that was in her ear” Liz.

Then I sighed and gave myself the space to really think about it. My English teacher. My first boss. My writing professor. I scanned letters and names of the incredible adults who have shaped who I am as a person, who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and who saw potential and nurtured it. And I felt this rush of gratitude.

I haven’t been sure, lately, if I’ve been living up to the person they wrote about in their letters. And while maybe reading those letters would have made me feel dejected and disappointed in myself, instead, I felt a glimmer of potential.

If I could be that person then, I could be that person now.

I have a new goal for myself. I want to live every day to the values of “Letter of Recommendation” Liz. That doesn’t mean everything is always perfect and in order. But it means I try. It means being curious about the world, being open to new adventures, and - dare I say it - being rational when necessary.

It means treating everyone I meet with unmatched kindness. It means having a boundless energy for joy. It means letting small stresses fall behind me. It means loving everyone, unconditionally, no matter what. It means dancing with whimsy and striving every day to be the best I can for myself, for loved ones, for my community.

That day, surrounded by chaos in the room that used to house all-nighter study sessions, in the house where I posted my first “Happiness is” and founded The Smile Project from, I am reminded of what it means to step up and be the person my mentors think I am.

Today, I strive to be the person I know I can be.

Love always,


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