By Anastasia Faunce
It’s the only universally required course at the University of Minnesota (UMN), and every year, more than 5,000 students enroll in First-Year Writing (WRIT 1301).
The goal: To help students develop the skills, tools, and knowledge to participate effectively in the communities that are central to their personal, academic, and professional lives. The bonus: A growing awareness of themselves as writers — each with their unique voice — who have something to say and contribute.
One way to enroll in the course is through the UMN Twin Cities Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which allows motivated high school juniors and seniors to take university courses for both high school and college credit.
Just ask PSEO student Smiraa Misra, a senior at Eden Prairie High School (EPHS) who has not only earned college credit paid for by the Minnesota Department of Education*, she’s also discovered that unique voice to carry her forward.
Misra took WRIT 1301 last year when she was a junior at EPHS. In May, she was one of only 12 students from the pool of more than 5,000 chosen to share her work during the inaugural First-Year Writing Student Showcase.
The program’s 60 faculty and graduate instructors nominated work they “believed exemplified the goals and values of First-Year Writing.” From there, a selection committee chose the most outstanding projects.
Smiraa’s work, titled “Our Atman Never Dies,” has been described as a “multimodal visual essay” by nominator Kimberly Strain.
According to Strain, “Smiraa’s project demonstrates the power of storytelling and the ways in which art, religion, family, and culture can serve as a form of emotional and spiritual healing.”
Smiraa explains how the video remix “was about narrating my essay alongside corresponding pictures to present it in an audio-visual format, and to make it more accessible.”
She talked about her PSEO experience and what she looks forward to in her senior year and beyond.
How did you learn about PSEO, and what prompted you to enroll in the program as a high school junior?
Smiraa: I learned about PSEO from my upperclassmen who had participated in it and said it was worth it. I was convinced to enroll when I found out the amount of flexibility, variety, and freedom you had in the program when it came to classes, especially compared to high school.
What has been your favorite UMN course so far?
Smiraa: My favorite course has to be LAW 3000 (Introduction to American Law and Legal Reasoning). I’ve always loved learning about the justice system and the methods in which cases are analyzed through the lens of the law. This class was perfect to start learning about legal analysis and writing.
Is there a particular course you’re looking forward to in the coming year?
Smiraa: Biology and psychology. … I love understanding the inner workings of living things, and biology is critical to understanding that. On the other hand, I love learning how humans interpret the world around them differently, which is why psychology is also interesting for me.
What do you like best about PSEO?
Smiraa: There’s a lot of freedom that comes with being in PSEO. I can start my day when I want, and end it on my own terms as well. I can space out classes so I can work in the mornings, go to class, eat out, and come home for extracurriculars. There’s less busy work, so I can balance academic and free time a lot better. There’s a huge variety of classes for every interest. I love this type of flexibility when it comes to choosing my academic path.
Tell us about your post-high school goals.
Smiraa: My goal is to major in biochemistry during college, and specifically work in the field of pharmaceutical/therapeutic innovation. … From then on, I plan on going to law school and becoming a lawyer.
What advice would you give to a high school junior or senior considering PSEO?
Smiraa: The best advice I can give is figure out your priorities. If you’re someone who seeks more freedom in school, then think about PSEO. If you’re someone who wants more structure, then think differently. You can be successful no matter what, just prioritize what you want.
* The Minnesota Department of Education covers university tuition, course fees, and textbooks for PSEO students.
Editor’s note: Anastasia Faunce’s article, focusing on Smiraa Misra’s essay about grief under the Post-Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, was initially published on July 13 for the College of Continuing & Professional Studies at the University of Minnesota.
Faunce is a writer, editor, and content marketer for the University of Minnesota. Her fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including “Water~Stone Review,” “Fiction on a Stick,” and “Open to Interpretation: Water’s Edge.” In addition, she edited three books in the “Open to Interpretation” series and “Of Beards and Men: A Portrait Series.” Whether written or visual, she revels in sharing people’s stories.
Featured below is Smiraa Misra’s essay.
‘Our Atman Never Dies’
By Smiraa Misra
What is death? This is a question that every person on Earth will have to struggle with at some point in time. The idea of death often seems to evade us — we understand that it’s the end of a life, but we don’t know how to conceptualize “the end.” For children, who are just learning how the world works, “the end” is even more difficult to understand. Is it when our brain stops working? Or is it when our body begins to break down and decay?
As we grow older, we begin to recognize that death is far more than just a physical body decaying. It is not just the end of a life; it’s the end of an existence. Death is an emotional roller coaster that never ends. Once children begin to comprehend the end of a life, reality actually sets in. Questions arise about how it works, why does it happen, and what’s on the other side? Alongside these questions comes fear and paranoia. I myself struggled with the reality of death and the uncertainty of what came after it.
I could never understand the permanence of death until the death of my grandpa. I was 6 years old when he died, and before then, death was never a tangible concept. How could people simply cease to exist? It didn’t seem possible. I watched my grandpa be carried off in a glass coffin to his cremation site in blissful ignorance. I was smiling. How couldn’t I? He looked at peace and happy. I thought he was asleep. Only once I saw my dad, my invincible dad, cry, did it click: my grandpa was not coming back.
I finally cried. For the first time, as a 6-year-old, I understood that death was not temporary. It was not just “falling asleep.” It was everlasting.
From that moment onwards, the nightmares started. I could never fall asleep. The fear of what came after death kept me in a constant state of tossing and turning. Even if I drifted off for just a second, I would wake up from a harrowing vision of my family dying. Whether I was awake or asleep; it didn’t matter. Death, as a whole, refused to let me sleep. I refused to talk to my parents about it, afraid that even mentioning the word “death” would manifest it into existence. Unfortunately, the universe seemed to hold a vendetta against me, because one night, my fear that had been persisting for months culminated into an intolerable panic attack.
Smiraa Misra reflecting on her essay
“My piece is a story of grief. Of coming to terms with losing our loved one — of using bits and pieces of our cultures and beliefs to interpret and process the world.
It’s not meant to be a world-changing piece. I wrote this piece as a safe space for those struggling with the loss of loved ones. I hope after reading this, you’re able to find a moment of peace and acceptance in the chaos of the world.”
I was heaving, sobbing. I felt like there were metaphysical hands clutching onto my throat, so I couldn’t breathe. This time, I was riding on death’s emotional roller coaster with no restraint to keep me from falling. The darkness of my bedroom closed in on me. I couldn’t see or hear anything. The next few events were a blur, but I remember the lights turning on and my parents rushing into the room. I could barely see their faces through my tears. They sat next to me until I managed to calm down. They asked me what was wrong, and I talked to them about my fear of death. My fear of losing those I love to death’s universal power. My fear of the uncertainty of what came after.
My parents shared a look of both surprise and sadness. They didn’t seem to have realized the internal turmoil I had been going through since my grandpa’s funeral. I remember my mom engulfing me in a tight hug, grounding me to reality and telling me it was OK to be afraid. It was OK to grieve my grandpa’s death, and it was OK that I was having difficulty coming to terms with the irreversibility and unpredictability of life ending. I then remember my dad’s comforting voice and his hands firmly holding mine. He said he wanted to tell me a story about the cycle of life and death in Hinduism, our religion.
“In Hinduism, death is never necessarily the end. There is a constant cycle of creation, preservation, and destruction. Brahma creates life, Vishnu preserves it, and Shiva destroys it. But, do you know why Shiva destroys life? It’s so he can recreate it. Life dies so it can be reborn in another form. When we die, our atman, or soul, is reincarnated as another form of life. So even if one of our lives ends, we continue to live on through our soul.”
Watch the video remix of “Our Atman Never Dies.”
Honestly, I didn’t understand my dad’s wisdom at that point. Everything went in one ear and out the other. My head was still spinning, and silent tears continued to drip from my eyes. After what seemed like forever, my disorientation and panic began to ebb away, and my dad’s words finally clicked. Those simple words changed my entire perspective on death, and thus, on life itself. There was a strange comfort knowing that even if my physical body ceased to exist, my spirit would never die. My religion provided some type of assurance, some type of faith for me to grasp onto even in the face of death’s ambiguity.
Now, even though I am still afraid of losing the ones I love, I am no longer caught in fear’s paralyzing grip. When I think about death, I don’t feel paranoid anymore. In fact, I feel a bittersweet sense of hope. I hope that even if I lose someone in this life, my soul will do its best to find them in the next.
Today, even as I’m much older than 6, I still wonder how I was able to comprehend and cope with death by using my religion. I no longer saw death as the absolute end; rather, I learned to see it as a new beginning. The story about life and death that my dad told me is the concept of reincarnation, a foundational aspect of the cycle of life in Hinduism. I understand that reincarnation is a part of my religion, but I know that reincarnation is a belief that spans various belief systems across the world.
A major South Asian-based religion that also subscribes to the idea of reincarnation is Buddhism. I’ve always wondered how the cycle of life and death compares to a belief system separate from mine. Is the fundamental concept of reincarnation consistent across both Hinduism and Buddhism?
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