Hannah Boutros

Mothers Rising Above Hardship

For many reasons, I am so glad to have participated in TSR this year. Throughout my time at Stanford, up until my senior year, I did not have a creative outlet besides creative writing. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I wanted to do something different and outside my comfort zone.

In my family, creativity is prized. My mother is a talented vocalist. She was the main soprano in the Notre Dame Folk Choir during her time in college, and growing up, we spent many car rides singing alone to Les Miserables, Annie, and other musical soundtracks. I never minded that I couldn’t sing as well as my two sisters and brother. We were all having too much fun!

My brother plays the guitar and sang in his high school band. My two sisters did it all: they were talented painters, singers, and dancers. I tried my hand at painting during high school, and it wasn’t a good creative fit for me. Finally I found the flute, and enjoyed playing for four years. I remember deciding not to bring my flute to college because I was nervous about losing it or having it stolen, especially after my flute was stolen from my mom’s car on a Friday afternoon during my junior year of high school. I haven’t played it in four years, actually, but playing the flute is something I hope to pick up again after graduation.

My three siblings all study the humanities, and I was the outlier; the only one of us interested in science. Looking back, I think this is part of why I gave myself less credit with creativity. I tended to discount myself because everyone else in the family is artistic, but TSR has truly and profoundly changed that for me.

When I came to Stanford for freshman year, it was my first time in California. I was so excited to meet new friends, explore biology and psychology, join student groups, maybe try a computer science class, and discover new interests.

As an upperclassman, I decided I wanted to do some writing. I had written a “book” when I was 12. I use quotation marks because it was around 60 pages in actuality, but it felt like a huge accomplishment to twelve-year-old me! So my junior year, I took English 90 and it significantly changed how I perceive myself, as well as my creative ability. I wasn’t very proud of the first short story I wrote in that class, but I certainly was proud of the second one. It was completely different from anything I had written before, and I think that’s the moment I realized that I wasn’t giving myself enough credit. There seemed to be more to my creative potential.

At the very beginning of my senior year, I found TSR during a conversation in passing with Kierstyn. We had both arrived back on campus just in time for fall quarter, and we were chatting excitedly about the classes we were planning on taking. She mentioned a capstone class where you can combine a creative interest with a passion you have in biology, and my curiosity was piqued. I asked for more details and promptly enrolled on Axess.

At the start of fall quarter, I had a general idea of what I wanted to do with my TSR project. I knew I wanted to do something to add value to the lives of refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. I had been moved by my interactions with refugee children in a one-room school in the Lebanese mountain village where I was raised. In addition, I had a general idea that I wanted to use video-making as a creative medium. I had never made videos before, though, but I knew there were resources on campus that I could turn to for help.

Looking back, I wonder what this year would have looked like for me if I had not known what I wanted to do with my TSR project at the start of the year. It actually excites me to think that I probably would have done something involving creative writing. I have a sense that I will gravitate towards creative projects in writing as a hobby after graduation.

Moving on to the inception of my project. After meeting with an inspiring professor who urged me to consider using the video recording booths at the Stanford Medical School, I enrolled in a class that would teach me to use the software involved in making the health education videos I wanted to make for refugee women. I did learn a lot during that class, but I didn’t feel that video-making was a natural skill that I had. The process of video-making felt slow; every step felt forced. But I understood early on that it is a learning process. The more I practiced, the more it would get easier and feel more natural. I tried my best to convince myself of this.

For me, this was a unique project because I had plenty of ideas, but just didn’t know how to implement them. I had never faced this challenge before. I can say with confidence that I wouldn’t have been able to complete this project if I hadn’t actively sought out help. At times, I would reach roadblocks: places where I literally would not have been able to continue without help from someone who understands Photoshop and Camtasia better than I do. I remember that feeling of slow realization that I was about to get stuck during my work. Next, it always felt like there was an activation energy necessary to get up, walk out of the room, and go find help. But I was always glad that I asked for assistance. In my future, I will try not to hesitate asking for help, since I know it will help me create better work and also feel more confident in the process. Asking for help doesn’t mean you’re a failure. On the contrary, it means you want to do as good and thorough of a job as you can. I found that it was key to ask for help at an appropriate time: when the person wasn’t busy or otherwise occupied. I learned to be tactful about when to ask, and to respect the person’s time.

Although I definitely needed outside input to get this done, I got a lot out of the independence aspect of TSR. I relished the ability to create my own schedule with video-making. I loved setting my own deadlines and keeping myself accountable to reach my weekly milestones before workshopping. I think this is a skill that will come in handy later in life.

One major challenge that I faced with this project was at the very beginning of winter quarter, when I was writing the scripts for my videos. I was having a hard time making it sound conversational, and my peers in workshop were doing the best they could to help me. At one point, I had written an entire script and I didn’t think I would be able to use any of it. So I scrapped it. Goodbye, words. And I did what anyone would do in that situation: call their Mom on FaceTime.

So I did! And she picked up, ten time zones away. I asked her if I could orally tell her some of the health education messages that would be included in the video, to help Syrian refugee mothers. She said, of course. And so I explained some of those messages (related to breastfeeding and immediate newborn care). My mom told me: “That was great! I think you’ve got it. Now let’s type this.”

Moral of the story? If more than a couple of your classmates bring something up in workshop, it is worth paying significant amounts of attention to. Also, always call your Mom when you’re in doubt. And lastly, think simplicity when working on someone. For the script to sound conventional, it made sense to try and read it out loud to someone.

The TSR experience was valuable in another big way for me. One of the best parts of workshop, other than receiving valuable feedback from classmates, was learning to give feedback in a respectful yet helpful way. I wanted to add value to my classmates’ project, while underscoring how truly impressed I was with their work. I definitely got a lot out of the feedback that everyone gave me, and I hope their experience was similar!

The project taught me patience and perseverance. It can be easy to get frustrated at a computer when it isn’t cooperating, but I learned to play some music and work through it. You learn how to bounce back from being stuck, especially since the end goal was worth it. It is so gratifying to have something to show for my hours of hard work. Overall, I think I now deal with setbacks in a totally different way. Before this year, I would get frustrated quickly, and either give up or work unproductively to fix issues. This year, my process of facing and overcoming challenges has completely changed. This might sound funny to you, but I now respect my own time a lot more than I used to! Perhaps this is because I have reprioritized certain things in my life, such as having time to catch up with loved ones on FaceTime, or eating dinner with a friend instead of between homework assignments. And because I respect my time so much more than I previously did, I don’t allow myself to wallow when I am facing a setback. I feel compelled to think quickly and create a game plan for moving forward.

Along with this came a new set of habits and ways that I keep myself organized. Reading the Creative Habit helped with this. And about halfway through the year, my attention shifted to something a little different: how to live a life that is rich with self-awareness and self-love. To me, a yoga practice is essential to try and begin answering this question. But I also really enjoyed the mindfulness breathing and also the future self-visualization that we did in class. To me, this is an important aspect to include in a senior capstone class: many of us had deeply personal ties to the projects we were working on, and it’s always good to reflect on what that means and how it plays out in our projects.

Another takeaway that I am proud to have come to myself is: make your workspace pleasant. I always had Norah Jones, coffee house jazz, or Adele playing in the background as I worked. I often had a latte, an Americano or a fresh orange juice to sip on between bursts of productivity in that booth. And as I am writing this, I’m realizing that I would have liked for my workspace to feel less like a place where I am doing “work”, and more like a place where I am doing “art”. I think I know how to achieve this in the future. The key is probably to find a medium that doesn’t require working on a computer, and having a project that has the sole purpose of satisfying my desire to create (as opposed to helping other people). I know this is achievable for me in the future.

With this project, I went through iterations of ideas for how to present my images, what effects to use, what concept I had overall for the canvas, etc. When I finally landed on a combination that worked, I just felt that it was right. I’m not sure what the nature of this intuition is. It definitely felt like my flow of creating happened more fluidly and easily once I found that winning combination. I did want to use certain effects that didn’t make it to the final cut of the video. To me, this says that even if you have good ideas, they don’t always appear in the final product. I still think that they are a key part of the process.

One of the most beautiful realizations I have had is that TSR started out as a project for others, and gradually became more of a project for me. That’s not to say I won’t put these videos to good use; I definitely plan on that. But I wasn’t expecting to grow as much as I did. One way in which this manifests is how much I learned from my fellow classmates. Being exposed to student art and inspired by filmmakers and photographers in the Stanford community has changed the way I perceive my place here. I now feel that I have a voice and a place in the creative community.

Meeting my classmates and befriending them was one of the best parts of this year. I am totally in awe of all of them! In fact, today I wandered over to Wallenberg just to re-experience their projects. I have a deep sense of pride to have worked with such talented people, and to have given them feedback on their own projects. This weekend, when my family comes to campus, I plan on taking them all through the exhibition to re-visit and re-experience the works.

I think I’d like to say a little more about what I got out of TSR on a personal level. Moving forward, I am inspired to do projects that I find fulfilling. I spend plenty of time doing things directed at helping others, and I am realizing that it is equally important to do things that bring me pleasure.

I must mention that I am so deeply grateful to Sue, Andrew and Sally for their mentorship and unwavering support. I remember sitting with all three of them at the start of the year, talking through my project to figure out what would be feasible to accomplish. It was heartening to see how much they had my best interests in mind with their feedback.

There’s one more important TSR figure that I should mention. I never would have imagined that TSR would have a wonderful little pup to accompany us on our creative journeys. I have to give a special shout-out to Rachel, for her love and licks! Rachel was a remarkably soothing and warm source of comfort for me, especially with the loss of my family dog of sixteen years about a month ago. Rachel is so gentle and loving! TSR would not be the same without her.

I also feel that it’s important to mention how much I got out of the field trips, both on and off campus. The on-campus field trips were wonderful, because to me they highlighted the abundant creative places and resources on this campus. I’m pleased to say that I now know more about the Cantor Arts Center, the Anderson Collection, and the Andy Goldsworthy art pieces we have available on campus. I will be returning to Stone River time and time again.

The San Francisco field trip was particularly fun. I always enjoy leaving the Stanford bubble and interacting with my friends from college in a real-world setting; a place as simple and ordinary as a restaurant or someone’s home. Everyone had a lot to say about the exhibits that we visited, and I deeply enjoyed taking it all in!

I have a deep sense of personal achievement having completed my TSR project. It wasn’t easy, but I learned so much along the way; and what’s more, it’s incredibly satisfying to actually have a deliverable! I am not going to let these videos sit and fester. This summer, I’ll call and email nonprofits and NGOs from my list to kick start a relationship. I’m excited to finally get these videos in a place where they can start helping real people.

What has perhaps been most special is this sense of closure- that I was able to focus on my creative skills, passions and abilities, while beginning to contribute to helping refugees back home. It has given profound meaning to my undergraduate experience, in a way that I would not have been able to anticipate before the start of this year. For example, when people from home ask me what was most meaningful to me during my time at Stanford, or what I am most proud of, I will know exactly what to say. And I am now even more eager to undertake a creative project in a new medium in my future.