Humans of Harker: Finding comfort in the uncomfortable

Elaine Zhai expands her limits through new experiences


Shreya Srinivasan

“I realized I wasn’t being my true self [in middle school]. I was putting myself in a box. I used to be really intentional with the words that I was saying, but once I got open [as] I grew up, I lost that need to be completely filtered. That’s one of the best changes that has ever happened to me, just growing more confident,” Elaine Zhai (12) said.

Upbeat music drowns out the sound of the starting engine as Elaine Zhai (12) backs her car out of the driveway. Turning out of her neighborhood, she navigates the streets of Saratoga, making her way to her destination with the only criteria being that it’s a place that she hasn’t driven to before. 

Elaine’s never been a stranger to adventure. When she was younger, she always experimented with new activities such as basketball, fencing, archery and even exploring her neighborhood’s tree complex. After getting her drivers license last year, she only became more interested in discovering what her greater surroundings had to offer. 

While Elaine has always been eager to try new things, there was a period in middle school where she restricted herself in ways as simple as wearing her ponytail exactly the same everyday. However, when reflecting on her middle school experience in her journal the summer before freshman year, Elaine made the decision to move out of her comfort zone in the coming years of high school. 

“I realized I wasn’t being my true self [in middle school]. I was putting myself in a box,” Elaine said. “I used to be really intentional with the words that I was saying, but once I got open [as] I grew up, I lost that need to be completely filtered. That’s one of the best changes that has ever happened to me, just growing more confident.”

Close friend Advika Phadnis (12) has been able to witness this increase in confidence, even noting that they “compliment each other’s growth.”

“We both challenge each other to step out of our comfort zone a lot more,” Advika said. “We’ve noticed things about ourselves like sometimes we tend to shy away from things or not experience things fully so we challenge ourselves to do that [together].” 

In high school, Elaine opened herself up to new experiences by joining DECA as a freshman and softball as a sophomore in order to break past the limitations she had once placed on herself. 

“Softball was another one of those things that I did in high school where I was trying to actively push myself out of boundaries,” Elaine said. “It was difficult transitioning from volleyball, a sport I had been playing alongside my friends for years, to something completely new, but putting myself in a position where I had to be comfortable failing and asking for help was an extremely valuable experience.” 

Snowboarding was one of the activities outside of school that Elaine took up solely because she “like[s] to try new things.” Her first time snowboarding the black diamond run was actually the result of taking the wrong lift. Even after being stuck on the lift alone for half an hour, Elaine didn’t back down from the challenge in front of her but rather fully embraced it. 

“Snowboarding pushes me to test my limits,” Elaine said. “There’s something about paving my own way down a mountain that is so liberating and empowering. Some of my best memories have just been taking a new lift, absorbing the view and exploring different trails all the way down.”

Close friend Fonda Hu (12) has recognized this willingness that Elaine has to “see the positive out of every situation” even if it may be new to her. Since first meeting in seventh grade, the pair have skied together every year, attended a concert and hiked Mission Peak for sunrise on New Year’s Day among other experiences. 

“She’s been more open to trying new things and going new places so I really admire her for that,” Fonda said. “She puts herself out there a lot, and not only to live a new experience herself, but also to help others. That’s something that is a fundamental part of her personality, just looking out for others.”

While many of Elaine’s experiences have stemmed from her desire to branch out, there’s one activity that has stuck with her since sixth grade — being a member, and now co-president, of Future Problem Solving (FPS). 

“[FPS] is very collaborative, it’s very creative, and it’s just a really great community to be a part of,” Elaine said. “I met some of my closest friends through FPS so I’m really grateful to have grown up in that environment that champions creativity and also logical thinking because those are values that I carry with me and are important in my everyday life.“

Close friend and FPS co-president Stephanie Shen (12) admires that Elaine is “willing to go way out of her way to help make things easier” for those around her. From helping lighten Stephanie’s workload during FPS to dropping off food at her house, Elaine’s compassion shines through in all her actions. 

Stephanie also appreciates that Elaine is incredibly driven and that she always brings her ideas to the table especially during FPS, mentioning that “it really helps to have someone like that on the team.” 

“She’s someone I look up to now in FPS,” Stephanie said. “She’s such a leader, and in the group doing packets, she’s always really on top of everything we’re doing. She’s grounding us but also having a lot of fun.”

Ultimately, Elaine simply wishes to learn from her experience and always better herself, a change that was brought about by a poster on her elementary school’s wall. The quote, which read, “Be someone you would be proud to know,” resonated with her, and she continues to apply it to her life.

“I try my best to hold myself to high standards,” Elaine said. “I’m always trying to grow as a person while also just being there for other people. It’s important to me to learn from my mistakes and truly grow from them, and it’s a value that has permeated every aspect of my life.”