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Meet Vienna Mbagaya, Epidemiologist Turned Entrepreneur

I moved from Kenya to a suburb in New Jersey when I was 14 years old. I was eager to assimilate and fit in, but my accent and misplaced social cues often betrayed me. So much so that in the first week of school, no one understood me when I protested being placed in special education classes.

For the first two years of high school, I skipped the lunchroom cafeteria trauma altogether by opting to hang out in the library and read as much as I could about the life my peers led and I didn’t. Ms. Ramirez, the librarian was in on this, and out of empathy, gave me weekly passes to sneak into the library during lunch period. On the days that she wasn’t in, I’d quietly eat my lunch in a bathroom stall, fearful that someone would hear the crunching of my brown bag and discover the self-imposed humiliation and exile that I preferred to feeling invisible among my peers.

“No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all members thereof. If no one turned around when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as we were non-existent things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would before long well up in us, from which the cruelest bodily torture would be a relief.” William James, The Principles of Psychology (Boston, 1890).

At first, I went unnoticed. Unseen. On those lonely days, I’d sit in the school bus at the end of the day astonished to realize that I had not spoken nor had a word been spoken to me for a whole day. I interpreted this as a deliberate exclusion, indicative of my unworthiness. Admittedly, I felt more connected to my surrounding when a group of boys would chant derisions at me as we waited for the school bus. If it wasn’t my short boyish hair they found hilarious, it was my cheap clothes; and if it weren’t that, then it was my accent. No matter what it was, the attention was a relief. Finally—I’d think to myself: contact.

In his convocation speech at Syracuse University for the class of 2013, George Saunders laments, via New York Times: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly. Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth? Those who were kindest to you, I bet.”

One of my most influential teachers was Mrs. Blauvelt, who gave me my first American novel, Toni Morrison’s ‘Songs of Solomon’ , and awakened my love for American literature. She would tell me over and over again that I had not even begun to scratch the surface to my potential. In her soft voice, Mrs. Blauvelt encouraged me to jump off the cliff and soar, even when all I could see was how far the fall was if I failed. In the middle of the semester, she moved me from her English class to Mr. Aulicino’s honors class. There, Mr. Aulicino challenged my writing and often stayed after school to help revise my essays and teach me American idioms and vernacular. With Mrs. Blauvelt as my advocate, I had moved from special education classes, to honors classes by the beginning of sophomore year. She saw what I didn’t, and convinced me to have faith until I too could see my true potential. This is also true of my Biology teacher, Mrs. Lutz.

As my mother worked two full-time jobs while raising four teenagers and pursued her business degree, I had guardians in my teachers. Since she could rarely make it to academic award ceremonies, it was my teachers who cheered me on, reinforced my work ethic and championed my academic excellence.

As time went by, things got better, and I even made two friends, Heather K. and Amy A.; their kindness lingers vividly as though half a lifetime hasn’t passed. But how could I move on from that 15 year old sneaking her lunch to quietly eat in the bathroom? How could I not honor the girl who never dared to look up at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, lest the other girls fixing their hair and makeup noticed and wondered why she bothered. Did she think she was beautiful?

As an adult, I continued to carry this phantom, self-afflicted burden of wanting to be seen as someone worthy of her aspirations. This came at a cost, and I developed an anxiety towards others’ approval of my worth. It took layers of untruths, and camouflages to play the role of approval-seeker, disguised as confident and well-adjusted. I continued to live for others.

“It is powerful to show your neediness some days, to show your unreasonable anger, your inappropriateness – it takes courage to be so visible and risk the approval vanishing. It is revolutionary to wear no masks, no hats and be the same ‘you’ in business as at home. Why do we exhaust ourselves wearing masks for people who need us to be other than our real selves? I recommend removing the masks and seeing who stays. The ones that do really get you and are the ones you want to hang out with and work with.” Via Jamie Catto

That is until I one day woke up to an isolated person I no longer recognized; one who had perfected the art of feigning connectedness while feeling lonely. The more comfortable I became behind my mask and excelled at distancing myself from my fears, my pain and my struggles, the more I aspired to live out loud and let my wounds scab and heal in the open. Over time, the remnant scars are not only a reflection of time passed, but also a reconciliation of the conflicting identities I claimed.

It is with the same kindness afforded to me in my years living in the U.S. that I intend to reach out to those who have felt invisible. Through “The Invisible Neighbors” project, I voluntarily excise from social-exclusion, and connect with my neighbors as it was done to me.

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5 Comments

  1. Eileen Blauvelt says:

    Vienna, You were never invisible to me. It was a pleasure to have had the honor of being your teacher and playing a small part in your life.
    Eileen B.

  2. Julie Hurd (aka Mrs Lutz) says:

    Ohhh my beautiful Vienna. My shinning star. You never seise to amaze me. You know that the scars from childhood are what make us into the people we are today. My lovely, you wear you scars so well. You are one special gal who undoubtably will affect the lives of many. I pray one day your shining star will come back years later a write about how much you had an impact on their life as you have so kindly done for us. And I don’t agree- invisible, never. You stood out like a golden medallion in a pile of silver coins. I treasured you !!

  3. Electine Sifuna says:

    Ohhhh!If only I knew!!!!

  4. Debi Kellerer says:

    Vienna, what a gift, a shining star you are to the world!! Thank you for sharing your story, for being vulnerable, being an open and an example for all of us. Taking risks that provide opportunity for your spirit and essence to talk flight and be free!

  5. Out of my head and into my life. This was beautiful & very resonant! Thank you for sharing. Look forward to connecting with you some more. You have just reinvigorated an Idea I have. Email to you forthcoming.

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