1DF Voices: Empowerment Through Rejection

When Emily Szabo, a Case Western Reserve University student who serves on our Student Advisory Board, came to us with an idea for a blog about empowerment through rejection, we knew it was just the right topic for our next 1DF Voices blog

After receiving her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Emily is now a doctoral candidate for mechanical engineering and biomechanics — how incredible is that! But, that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t faced her fair share of rejection. She applied for almost 300 internships one summer and more than 150 scholarships last year! I love what she wrote here for 1,000 Dreams Fund — and all of you.

-Christie Garton

1,000 Dreams Fund Founder and CEO

Empowerment Through Rejection

I surmise that many, if not all, of us have received an email that reads, “We regret to inform you that…”

Emails like this used to ruin my day. I would go through the motions, distracted, consumed by negative thoughts, and feeling inadequate. I felt like I wasn’t smart enough, like I wasn’t good enough. 

Now, I use each rejection as an opportunity to learn and to feel empowered.

College has been an incredible journey. My transition was challenging, as I adjusted to the rigor of engineering courses and living away from home. After my first year, I felt confident. But, by my second year, my life was not falling into place exactly how I imagined it. Rather, it was being shattered. My courses were more challenging than I had anticipated; my extracurricular involvement grew to be overwhelming; and I was consumed by applying for summer internships to gain work experience. 

While school and extracurriculars were stressful, I felt in control of those. Summer internship applications? Not so much. As I read each job description, I felt discouraged. My credentials, or lack thereof, did not seem to align with any company. The classic paradox, “You need experience to get the job, and you need the job to get experience” became my mantra. I received countless emails and phone calls beginning with, “We regret to inform you that…” I felt hopeless. Nearly all of my classmates and friends had received internship offers, so how was I not good enough to receive one, too? After applying for nearly 300 internships over six months, I received an email with the line, “We would like to offer you…” I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Someone believed in my potential.

Those six months were mentally exhausting. I was obsessively checking my emails. I was constantly on edge. Whenever a classmate spoke about their impressive offers, I felt envious. I couldn’t measure up. During that time, I didn’t believe in myself. I staked my value in the opinions of others. I felt alone, like I didn’t fit in. I felt insecure, even within my own circle of friends. I was spiraling out of control. 

There was no “lightbulb” moment in which my life suddenly transformed. During and after that experience, I spent time redefining the way I think about myself and how I react to rejection. I listened to music and podcasts, journaled, spoke with friends and family. Slowly but surely, I rediscovered myself and my self-worth. I felt happier. I put my phone away and stopped checking my emails every five minutes. I stopped comparing myself to my classmates. I felt calm and enjoyed spending time with my friends. I began reframing my rejection as a journey of resilience.

While that summer internship, now a few years in hindsight, is only one line item on my resume, it changed my life. In retrospect, those rejections propelled me forward, professionally and personally. Professionally, that internship ultimately prompted me to pursue my interests in academic research. If I had accepted a position elsewhere, that may not have happened. Personally, I recognized my ability to be persistent and resilient in the face of rejection. Those rejections set me on a path of self-discovery. Rather than dwelling on the dozens of rejections, I shifted my focus to celebrate my success. This paradigm shift in my mindset changed the way I live my life. 

Years later, this new mindset was put to the test when I applied for 150+ scholarships within one year to fund my graduate school pursuits. I spent hours sifting through opportunities and writing dozens of essay submissions. As I reflected on the content of each essay, I realized that my unique experiences have shaped me. I may not have a perfect grade point average like my roommate, but I work on problems and ask questions until I fully understand a concept. I may not have discovered a galaxy or founded a company like my classmates, but I have connected with my community through volunteer work, tutoring students, and sharing engineering devices for veterans. While I won a handful of scholarships, I didn’t feel endlessly hopeless upon receiving far more rejection letters. Instead, I felt hopeful. Now, I give myself a moment to feel disappointed and hurt. Then, I delete the rejection email, and look to the future.

 Whenever your fate is in another’s hands, it may feel like you don’t have any power. However, your worth is not dictated by the outcome of one success or one rejection. Each of us is a collection of successes and rejections. Instead of obsessing over a submitted application, or staking my entire life on one opportunity, I began focusing on what I could control: the present. I pursued short-term goals and opportunities that would enhance my life and prepare me for the future. If I succeeded, I would be okay. If I was rejected, I would be okay. By focusing on what I could control, I reclaimed my power. 

In this age of social media, we don’t often publicly announce rejection. We only see the accolades, fostering an inaccurate sense that rejection is uncommon. However, everyone experiences rejection. This may seem obvious, but once we truly grasp this concept, it may feel less shameful to be rejected. The people who seem to only attract success have likely experienced their fair share of rejection. Some of the brightest minds, including Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, and Albert Einstein, were rejected. It’s simply part of being human. By speaking out about my rejection, I have connected with other students who have felt similarly. I was not the only one. While I could allow rejection to be a setback, I challenged myself to feel empowered and to embrace my humanity.

To this day, I still find myself receiving far more rejection than congratulations emails. Yet, I feel secure. I recall how all those rejections, years ago, led to a life-altering internship. Instead of allowing rejection to be the loudest sound in my head, I can reframe it as an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to seek another incredible opportunity.

 Your worth and your potential do not change based on one rejected application. Believe in yourself! You will eventually receive that coveted “We would like to offer you…” email that could just change your life. 

Emily Szabo, Case Western Reserve University
Doctoral Candidate, Mechanical Engineering, Biomechanics
Master of Science, Mechanical Engineering
Bachelor of Science in Engineering, Biomedical Engineering: Biomechanics
Research Assistant | Clinical Orthopaedics Laboratory