Humans of Harker: Turning barriers into stepping stones

Jessica Pan challenges her limits and world

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Helen Yang

“Moving to America, I was really scared in the beginning. It was like coming to an amusement park where there are a lot of people having a lot of fun, and then finding out that everyone is different from you. Academic challenges are easier to deal with, but making new friends—these kinds of things are more emotionally attached. I had to embrace the environment, and then the environment embraced me,” Jessica Pan (12) said.

Standing in the cool January afternoon atmosphere, with her feet shoulder width apart and an easy smile on her face, Jessica Pan (12) exudes an aura of comfort and content. Whether it be moving to a new country, joining the volleyball team with no background in team competitive sports or exploring different career paths, Jessica constantly seeks and grows from different challenges.

When she moved from China before her sophomore year, Jessica found herself immersed in a new culture and faced with language barriers. Determined to explore and connect with her peers even before the school year started, she decided to attend volleyball tryouts.

“Academic challenges are easier to deal with, but making new friends—these kinds of things are more emotionally attached. Here, people grew up together and so it was kind of hard to just come in without knowing anyone,” Jessica said. “I’d never played competitive or team sports before, and I didn’t know anyone, but I was like, ‘Okay, I’m just going to do volleyball tryouts for three weeks,’ and that was really where I first found a place where I belonged.”

Her close friend, Constance Horng (12) accredits her smooth integration into the community to her outgoing personality and internal sense of confidence.

“Jessica’s a friend who really radiates positivity, someone who’s extremely comfortable around people,” Constance said. “Obviously, at first this was a new environment, but it was actually a pretty quick transition because she’s really resilient and good at adapting to different situations. She’s a person who is really able to bounce back very fast.”

Jessica’s attitude of exploration permeates all aspects of her life, even at home, where she cooks dinner for her family each night. Like with all of her other activities, she lets her cooking stray beyond the familiar by cooking without a recipe.

“Cooking and eating food is a really good way to de-stress for me. Mostly I do Chinese, Japanese or Korean food, because I’m good at cooking without a recipe. Western food is like, ‘you need to do this for 15 minutes’ or ‘you need to do that for 20 minutes,’ and I’m really bad at following recipes, but when I can just put everything together myself—a little bit of this, a little bit of that—it just tastes good and I enjoy it,” Jessica said.

Stephanie Xiao (12), Jessica’s friend and fellow advisee, recalls eating her meals and bonding with her while staying at her house for three days.

“We ate all our meals together, and every night she cooked for me, because she’s great at it and I’m a terrible cook,” Stephanie said. “It was a lot of fun, and I value how close we are—she’s social and confident and has a lot of strong characteristics.”

Jessica has also ventured into the business world, an interest that she developed as she grew up listening to her parents working in business. Since she joined Harker, she has taken the Principles of Business course and worked with a team of students to launch the Harker Incubator program—a summer project that expanded to become a year-long honors course.

In the second half of her junior year, Jessica decided to delve into psychology, drawn by its connections to business. She now takes AP Psychology and spreads awareness about mental illness through a WeChat subscription account that she created, where she writes and translates articles about mental health.

“[Mental health] is not really something you can talk about in China, and it’s thought of being related to weakness. When you search for psychological clinics or psychiatrists on Baidu, [a Chinese search engine], it’s really hard to find anything even online,” Jessica said. “It’s really hard for people to get help, so I wanted to do something to break the stigma and I ultimately wanted to create a platform where people can get information and support.”

Overall, Jessica values her high school journey as an experience in which expanding her comfort zone and exploring new ideas has rewarded her with close friendships and diverse encounters.

“It was like coming to an amusement park where there are a lot of people having a lot of fun, and then finding out that everyone is different from you, but at the same time kind of the same as well,” Jessica said. “I think friends bring my different aspects of life together and are a very important part of how I manage to do a lot of different things. So [even though] I was really scared in the beginning, I had to embrace the environment, and then the environment embraced me.”