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From Harvard-bound to Houston-ground: Here’s to 2019

Pooja Salhotra
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Pooja with Bailey

In addition to writing articles for The Buzz, Pooja Salhotra spends time in the office cuddling with the beloved Hoffman retriever, Bailey.  

It was my 25th birthday, and I was supposed to be at a Bruno Mars concert with my mom; instead, I sat sandwiched between two strangers on a flight from Houston to Boston. As I sat in transit between the comforts of home and Harvard Law School—an institution that brought out doubts and fears I never knew I held—I blasted Bruno Mars on my headphones and made a birthday wish that 25 would become more than a quarter-life crisis.  

While listening to Bruno Mars’ That’s What I Like and ignoring the in-flight safety presentation, I lamented that this flight, not prime seats to a fun concert, was the reality of my 25th birthday. The concert was supposed to be a respite from the drudgery of my first semester of law school. It was supposed to be an escape from the silent law library to enjoy a night of music in downtown Boston. When I bought the tickets, I knew going to a concert on a weeknight wasn’t the wisest decision, but you only turn 25 once, so I had told my mom that “law school can rest for a day,” and she made plans to spend my birthday with me in Boston. 

As often happens, though, life got in the way, and the concert tickets lay unused on my bedside table while I sat uncomfortably on an airplane on Sept. 27, 2018.

Let me back up. 

One week before my birthday, I had packed a suitcase and dragged myself home to Texas. At that time, I was four weeks into my first semester of law school at Harvard, and things were not going as smoothly as I had hoped. Though I had spent the first two weeks enamored by brilliant professors and engaged in my new classes and non-stop events, I was soon drowning in reading and paralyzed by a constant fear of the infamous “cold-call” during class. I’d sit on the edge of my seat, wide-eyed for the full two-hour class period, dreading the moment when I would be caught dumbstruck by a professor’s question. I was scared of failing to live up to Harvard’s standards and failing to live up to my own expectations for myself.  

Adding to the academic workload, the mind-boggling array of extra-curricular activities, the looming summer internship applications and the rush to find a new best friend pulled me in different directions, testing my limits.  

Slowly, I felt myself spiraling downwards. When I tried to read cases, my mind rushed with thoughts, questioning my place at Harvard. I spent nights tossing and turning, unable to fall asleep as my mind raced, too anxious to rest despite feeling exhausted from the busy days. 
    
Psychologists describe the relationship between stress and performance with the “Yerkes-Dodson Law,” which dictates that performance increases with physiological/mental arousal, but only up to a certain point. The relationship resembles a bell curve, with the peak indicating the optimal level of stress. If I had to pinpoint myself on that curve during those first few weeks of law school, I was well past the peak. I was probably at the right tail of the curve, harboring excessive stress and experiencing low performance. 

I tried to talk myself out of this state, but my body and mind wouldn’t let up. 

I decided to go home to escape the intense law school environment. I told my parents I was coming home for a couple days, but in reality, I wasn’t sure I would go back to school. In Houston, I found myself thankful for home-cooked meals and words of support from my family, but I was soon itching to go back to school. After having spent months studying for the LSAT and giving up a great job to go to law school, wouldn’t it be a waste to give it all up? I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just because law school was hard.

With a meditation book and mild anxiety medication in hand, I booked a flight back to Boston and found myself sitting in transit on my 25th birthday. 

Back at Harvard, I made it through the following week and was relieved when fall break rolled around. I spent the time off in the empty library, catching up on assignments. But while my classmates returned from break rejuvenated, I came back drained. I felt like I had spent the long weekend digging myself out of a deep hole and that just when I made it to ground level, someone dumped a truckload of dirt over my head.  

Once again, I was inching past the peak of the Yerkes-Dodson curve. I could barely focus on readings, and my mind wandered during class. I knew it was a privilege to be at Harvard and that many people vied to be in my position. I also knew I had worked hard to earn my spot there and that with focus and dedication, I could get through this difficult semester. But I still couldn’t escape the feeling that this wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing and that, no matter how prestigious the law school was, something was not quite right. 

During those tense weeks, I’d often ponder all I had given up on in order to attend law school—the friends who I hadn’t spoken to in weeks because I was “too busy with work,” the stories I had started writing months earlier sitting dusty under my bed, my yoga mat standing untouched in the corner of my room and the family group chat I had silenced on my phone because my law school exams would conflict with the family wedding they were discussing. I started to ask whether I was willing to give up on all these things I cared about, even if just for this semester, to strive for a legal degree. When did I decide I wanted to be a lawyer, anyway?  

For the next week, I agonized over whether to stay at Harvard or leave. I had been running the proverbial marathon since middle school—working hard to earn top grades to get into college, then working hard in college to find a job, then studying intensely for the LSAT to gain admission to law school. I desperately wanted to take time off to decompress and to more carefully consider my career goals. But I also didn’t want to jump off the treadmill. I had made it to the dream law school and leaving would mean getting off that treadmill while everyone else powered ahead. 

For several days, I weighed the pros and cons of staying vs. leaving. I sought advice from fellow students, friends and family, and I even confided in professors. But there didn’t seem to be a “right” answer. If I left, I had no idea what I would do with myself, and if I stayed, I was committing to a grueling semester for a career I wasn’t 100 percent sold on. I wavered back and forth, one day deciding to leave and the next day spending hours in the library to finish my reading assignments.

On one Sunday morning in October, I finally made up my mind. I had just finished my toughest week of the semester, and I had signed up for a Sunday morning yoga class to try to relax. But the Vinyasa flows that normally bring me peace were amplifying my stress levels. Forced to tune into my own body, I noticed that each of my muscles were contracted and aching, even though I hadn’t worked out in weeks. When the yoga teacher instructed the class to move into Warrior II pose — a position that exudes power and stability — I felt weak and unsettled. My legs trembled, my heart palpitated, and my mind was filled with anxious thoughts about school. While the class transitioned to a more challenging pose, I turned to my mat and sat in child’s pose. The room was spinning around me, and something inside of me was screaming that it was time to get out. 

I ran out of yoga class into the cold Boston air. Realizing that an activity that once brought me contentment and peace was only increasing my frustrations, I suddenly saw my situation with clarity. I had forced myself to pause, and I listened to the aches in my body and the unease of my mind. That morning, I called my family and told them my decision—I was coming home. Then, I sprinted to the library, still in yoga pants, to print out the leave of absence request form. 

By Wednesday, Harvard had approved my request for a year-long leave of absence, I’d said goodbye to my classmates and professors, packed up my suitcase and returned my law school textbooks to the bookstore. 

Within hours, I went from a law student to an unemployed 25-year-old with zero job prospects, living in my childhood bedroom in Bellaire. If you look up quarter-life crisis, I was pretty sure I fit the bill. 

Pooja Salhotra, Gayatri Salhotra, Raj Salhotra, Joni Hoffman

As a 2012 Buzz summer intern, Pooja (at left) rode with The Buzz during the City of Bellaire July 4th parade and festival. Pictured with Pooja are (from left) Pooja’s cousin Gayatri Salhotra, her older brother Raj Salhotra and Buzz editor Joni Hoffman. 

It was when I was in the middle of hacking away on my laptop applying for a job as a legal assistant that I looked up from my computer and spotted a familiar face in my neighborhood Starbucks. Within seconds, I was embracing Joni Hoffman, editor of The Buzz Magazines, who I hadn’t seen since 2012 when I spent the summer after graduating from high school interning at the magazine. We set up a time to meet and talk about a potential job at The Buzz. 

The following day I was sitting in the conference room at The Buzz office, brainstorming story ideas. Within a week from that meeting, I had published an online article and had become a part of the Buzz team again. 

As I look back on 2018, I’m in awe of all that has happened. If you asked me 10 years ago where I pictured myself at age 25, I would have said I would be far away from Houston. To me, Houston was a boring city with few opportunities. I pictured myself in NYC, and I imagined that by the ripe age of 25, I’d know exactly where my life was headed, or at least where I wanted it to go. I clearly had it all wrong. 

But even though I’m now back in a city where I never thought I would return, and I’m still somewhat unclear on my aspirations, I am certain that in this moment, I am right where I’m supposed to be. I have always been unable to settle on a career, too excited about different options and wanting to dabble in everything. Writing for The Buzz has given me a chance to do just that—in the past two months, I’ve written about topics ranging from President George H.W. Bush, to the Hindu New Year, Diwali, to Sarah Grace, a student at HSPVA who performed on NBC’s The Voice. Throughout the process, I have discovered parts of Houston I never knew existed. 

Over the next few months, I am excited to continue exploring Houston as I report on the city’s events and hidden gems and meet more fascinating neighbors. Storytelling has always been pure joy for me, so I am incredibly lucky that I ran into Joni on that random fall day, and that she’s taking a chance on this very confused 25-year-old. 

I have no idea what 2019 will bring. Regardless, I’m confident that it’ll bring more than a quarter-life crisis. 

Editor’s Note: The Buzz is thrilled to welcome Pooja as part of our editorial team. Pooja is a graduate of St. John’s School and Yale University. Read her Buzz articles here.  

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