The Arts of Timing & Comparison

Sometimes it is difficult to think of a blog topic that may interest, or draw the attention of, many people. I honestly thought about and started writing intros for a few topics and quickly lost interest or realized I didn’t have much to talk about. However, something that has been on my mind & heart for the last few weeks is the importance of timing and not comparing yourself to others.

Whether it be in terms of when to have an important conversation, when to make your next move career wise, when to start a family/relationship, when to get a pet, when to go back to school, or anything in between, proper timing is essential. The outcome often depends on whether the timing is correct – and this is something that I’ve personally struggled with. Most often, the struggle comes from comparing my life to someone else’s, though our stories are always 100% different.

Over the last few months, I’ve fallen victim to comparing the timing in my life to the timing in other people’s lives. As I’ve heard and experienced myself, what others show you via social media and often what they tell you via their words tends to be a “highlight reel” or a culmination of the best things happening. When people are celebrating the victories that you wish you were celebrating for yourself, they often leave out the specifics about the hard work, pain, and suffering that may have gone on in order to achieve these victories.

When people get a dog, they don’t post pictures on social media of the accidents the dog has inside, the 4 am wake up calls to go to the bathroom, the chewed up furniture/clothing items, or the times when the dog just won’t leave them alone despite them spending all day with them. Instead, you get cute pictures of a precious animal that makes it seem like that is how they are 100% of the time.

When people post pictures of their newly-earned diploma, they may caption it with words that allude to the idea that it wasn’t easy, but there isn’t enough space for them to write about all of the things they went through over the 4+ years it took to achieve it.

I believe that our Corvias family should be a group of people who embrace individuality instead of comparing ourselves to each other. It has been so refreshing to see people’s vulnerability and accomplishments through posts in our Facebook group, and to see other people genuinely congratulating them. However, if you are one who sees accomplishments and milestones happening for seemingly everyone else in your life and have been wondering why these things aren’t happening for you – I encourage you to evaluate whether or not the timing is right. If it is – think about how you could better your chances. If it is not, don’t worry – continue to believe in your abilities without comparing your situation to others.

Puppy Love

So, I’ve officially experienced both kinds of puppy love – my 14-year-old “wow, I will never break up with this wonderful boyfriend and if I do I’ll never get over it because we are meant to be 4 ever” love (spoiler – he was not that great & I did get over it) and now, REAL puppy love with our new dog Bear. I’m going to focus on the second kind for this post!

Warning: this post contains a LOT of absolutely adorable puppy pictures.

A lot of thought went into getting a dog. When my husband Zach & I first got married, we adopted a dog a week after our honeymoon. We were married and the next logical step in our heads was to start a “family”. He was a really cute 1-year-old german shorthaired pointer and we named him Moose (we realized after naming Bear that we apparently like to take an animal and name it after a different animal??). Moose was super sweet & friendly but we realized we made a big decision in a very short amount of time and after a few emotional conversations & long days, he ended up going to live with a family friend. As crazy as the world is, the family friend moved and last week my in-laws adopted him, so he is back in the family! However, Moose taught us that while we were grown ups, we were not ready for the responsibility of a dog, no matter how badly we wanted one.


Moose in 2013

When we moved to Chicago almost 3 years later, getting a dog felt further away than ever. We had no time & no space in our apartment, and we couldn’t come to an agreement on the size of dog we wanted. Though we both love big dogs, Zach wanted a smaller dog since we were in an apartment, and I was very stubborn in my ways of wanting a big, cuddly pup. So we were at a stand still, and that was okay.

A few weeks after I graduated nursing school, Zach randomly asked if I wanted to get a dog. We were going through a transition between school & work and I was going to be at home a lot studying for my NCLEX exam, and nursing has a pretty nice schedule where I’d be home quite a few days a week. We decided to sit down & research the price of different breeds, what resources were around us that we could utilize, and how it would change our day-to-day lives. Let me tell you – no amount of research will show you just how different your day-to-day life will be.

We went to many shelters and saw SO many adorable dogs, but never found “the one”. In addition, one of my dreams has always been to own a Bernese Mountain Dog, but they come with a very hefty price tag that we weren’t willing to pay. The search kind of died down, and though it was a bummer, we were at peace with the fact that nothing was working out at that point. However, one Friday afternoon in January, Zach sent me a listing for this sweet little 8 week Bernese Mountain Dog/Blue Heeler mix puppy and I could feel in my gut that he was meant to be ours. His owner had named him “Pippin” which was my nickname for my childhood dog that had unfortunately died a few years earlier, and I felt some kind of sign that he had picked this pup for us. I went to a friend’s house that night and showed her this little puppy and told her that I KNEW he was going to be ours.

We met him the next day & immediately fell in love and reserved him. He was one of 13 dogs in his litter and was the last to be selected (which we still have no reason why – we may be biased but he is LITERALLY THE BEST). We picked him up the day after I took my NCLEX but went to visit him multiple times because I was afraid he would forget who we were (I was already a crazy dog mom!).

Our first time meeting Bear! He was soooo little. ❤

Pictures from one of our times visiting him before we took him home.

He has been a LOT of work. He peed on the floor 4 times in the first 30 minutes we got him. I’m pretty sure Zach & I looked at each other with immense regret during those 30 minutes, but we have only looked at each other with immense gratitude since. He has brought SO much joy, laughter, and surprise into our lives. He is cuddly, adventurous, extremely stubborn, and full of personality – just how we like. However, he is also expensive – I am pretty sure dogs need as many vaccines as children and for some reason I can’t put him on my insurance plan 😉 – and very time consuming. He is young and learning so much and constantly needs to be touched or talked to or even looked at to feel comfortable.

Bear’s First Day Home!

Thankfully, a lot has changed since his first day at home. I am not ashamed to share that I have actually cried while reflecting on the last 9 weeks we’ve had him – he has doubled in weight but probably tripled in stature. He loves going to dog daycare & playing with others at the dog park. We are still working on the whole “don’t choke yourself while on the leash” part but have a harness now so that we don’t look like bad parents when he’s literally choking himself when he sees another dog on the street. I don’t know how it is with human babies, but I feel like he is growing up in front of me & I can’t get enough!

Some random pictures because why not? 🙂

I think it is important to pursue the things that make you happy, but don’t force anything. I am thankful for our experience with Moose because it taught us to wait and really critically think before putting ourselves in that situation again. He was definitely worth the wait & was without a doubt meant to be our dog. ❤

Scholar Spotlight: Sarah Nakasone

As we often learn during our Corvias Alumni Summit, members of our family are constantly doing inspiring and world-changing things that somehow we don’t know about. A few months ago, I saw a post from current scholar Sarah Nakasone that mentioned she was going to be spending the summer in Africa working first-hand in implementing HIV transmission prevention through a truly life-changing medical treatment. I’ll let her explain the rest, but I think that after reading – you’ll be impressed & inspired to invoke change in your own community.

For those who have not yet met you in person, please tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Sarah Nakasone and I’m a current junior at the University of Chicago where I study epidemiology and international power relationships in medical activism (think WHO, United Nations policy but with a lot bit of Ebola and HIV thrown in). My father is an army officer, though my best friend has since joined the USNA, making the Army-Navy football game a fractious time in my circle of family and friends. My family was at Fort Meade, Maryland (about an hour from DC) when I received the Corvias Scholarship though they have since moved to Virginia, so I consider Chicago home for now. Future plans change with alarming regularity, though I assume it will have something to do with HIV considering my recent work. Ideally, I’d like to complete a master’s program in epidemiology and then go on to medical school, the goal being to work in infectious disease with low-income communities here in the US.

Fun fact wise- after growing up as a military brat, I have a huge passion for travel and will have visited five different continents in the span of about a year this December. My friends joke that if they want to find me, it’s probably easier to just spin a globe and pick a spot randomly than anything else. I also bake anytime I get stressed, a hobby that has served me well when trying to build goodwill with new flat mates.

How did you become aware of the project or get in contact with the Gates Foundation? Where did you find your passion for helping those affected with HIV, and were you specifically looking for a project in this area?

I started working in HIV prevention my senior year of high school. I was part of a dedicated engineering program where all of us were required to complete a capstone project and my project focused on developing apps to help educate youth about HIV (Baltimore, where I was going to school, still has a large problem with HIV). Considering I was going to a Catholic school, it was seen as a little bit of a ‘risqué’ project (I remember the principal scolding me because the phrase ‘HIV and other STIs’ apparently made our very conservative nuns uncomfortable). I think that stigma was what made me initially interested in continuing prevention work- I wasn’t used to being told that I shouldn’t do something, and that resistance made me want to do it even more.

(This is, of course, a TERRIBLE reason for doing anything so don’t follow my example here.)

I continued doing HIV prevention work once I got to college, still running on this ‘how-dare-someone-tell-me-what-I-should-and -shouldn’t-be-doing streak’ and ended up on a project researching PrEP. PrEP is this new drug that, if taken once a day, can prevent an HIV negative person from getting infected (think of it a little like birth control for HIV!) The Southside of Chicago, where I live, has a huge problem with HIV infections. As it stands, one in three black gay or bisexual men are HIV positive and we fully expect within the next few decades, about half of them will have been infected with the virus.

It is probably the hardest work I have ever done. I remember days when I would come home in tears because guys in the study would confess to me how their friends were dying of AIDS or because every single person we tested that day would be positive for the virus. But it’s also what finally gave me a good reason for doing the work. I would talk to men who had been activists for decades and committed their lives to stopping those around them from getting infected. People who confessed to me how much their lives had changed because of PrEP- because they didn’t have to worry about getting infected. We were making a difference with our research, even if it was just in the tiniest of ways.

As part of my degree program, we are required to do internationally-focused work and I wanted to continue working with PrEP. In circumstances that probably sound better suited for a networking conference (I have a friend who fought Ebola with someone who was engaged to a guy, who worked with a woman who needed someone with my background), I basically fell into the project on which I currently work. My current boss, Dr. Maryam Shahmanesh at the University College London, was working on a district-wide evaluation of DREAMS and, given my background with PrEP, she invited me to join the team and help design parts of the evaluation that would try to see how we could best give PrEP to young women. There wasn’t any formal application here, I just got very lucky that I had done similar work in the US and knew some well-connected people.

To back up a little bit, because I know that’s a lot of acronyms and introductions at once, DREAMS is a program that’s running in 10 sub-Saharan countries in Africa and is funded by the Gates Foundation and PEPFAR (a US program that tries to help fight AIDS abroad). DREAMS wants to make sure that young women grow up determined, resilient, empowered, AIDS-free, mentored, and safe so that we can cut rates of HIV by 40% in girls. I’ve been specifically working with the DREAMS program in uMkhanyakude District here in South Africa. The district is incredibly affected by HIV- 35% of the population has it- and young girls are at the most risk given that they generally don’t have the power to ask their partners to use condoms and get involved with much older men (‘sugar daddies’) just so they can make a little money for school or food or shopping. We think that PrEP can be a real help here because they would be able to take it without their partners knowing, but the South African government is still trying to plan how to get it to young women. My job has been to research how best we could get PrEP to young women (e.g. who should give it out, what sort of community education should we do, how should we market it, etc.)

It’s a different sort of life, being here. I live in a guest house with other researchers so often we will stay at the office for 10ish hours a day, only to go home and debate our research over shared meals and wine (good wine is about 40 rand a bottle, or $3.50) Most of us were born somewhere else and have no family here, so we become each other’s family. In my three months here, I’ve lived with a French nanotechnologist, a Malawian Ph. D student, a bunch of Brits, an Australian doctor, and a whole mess of South Africans. It made 4th of July an incredibly interesting affair because we had a multi-cultural bunch of us sharing my home-made apple pie with no one but me being quite sure as to why we had to celebrate anything.

What was the biggest thing you learned about the population you were working with that surprised you?

I think what surprised me most about living and working here is how often HIV does not rank as the primary concern for so many people. Many of the people in my generation lost parents to the disease and many of them are likely to be infected by it one day but it isn’t necessarily the thing about which they worry the most. 80% of the people here are on government assistance because they can’t find work, for example. It’s really hard to think about a disease that may affect you someday in the future if you’re starving today. It’s one of the many factors that will make ending AIDS here extremely difficult.

What did you learn about yourself during this experience both professionally and personally?

I loved my work this summer and I count myself as so, incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity. I have been surrounded by amazing people and have had the chance to grow both as a person and researcher here. I do not take that for granted. But I also realize that this is probably not the area of the world in which I want to work. AIDS in Africa gets a lot of attention (as it should) but we have a huge problem with AIDS in America as well- we just don’t have the problem in groups that attract a lot of interest and funding. It’s easy to spin stories about young women who don’t have the ability to negotiate for condoms and are thus at risk for HIV. It’s less easy to talk about injection drug users or gay black men or transgender women.

Something that was mentioned a lot during our Corvias Alumni Summit this year was the idea of hope. Knowing that our world is in desperate need of hope right now – what kind of hope do you now have after finishing this project for this population? Can that hope be transferred on a global scale?

Hope has been something I’ve thought a lot about here as well. There are so many days when you get caught up in these statistics about how many people who are infected and the numbers don’t seem to be getting better or they’re not getting better fast enough, no matter how hard we try. Somedays it feels a lot like lobbing water balloons at a forest fire. But then you talk to nurses here who remember what things were like before there were drugs to treat HIV and how their patients would die alone. How all day they would listen to the cries of people they could not save.

And we are so far past that. HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore and people here largely have access to the drugs they need to treat it. What seems like baby steps in the moment become immense progress in the end when you have the opportunity to look back.

I think that’s what gives me hope, both here and in HIV work in general. You have so many people who are committed to making this incremental progress, even when it doesn’t look like progress at all. I keep this quote anyplace I work so that I remember it:

“When we study the biographies of our heroes, we find that most of their time was spent in quiet preparation doing tiny, decent things, until one historic moment catapults them to center stage and causes them to tilt empires.”

            I am surrounded by people every day trying to do tiny, decent things. And that gives me a lot of hope- both for here and for our world.

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Interview & Pictures: Sarah Nakasone
Questions provided by: Samantha Seifert