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Honoring my father’s legacy while finding purpose at UCLA

Sarah Nalbandian and her father pose for a portrait. (Courtesy of Sarah Nalbandian)

By Sarah Nalbandian

June 28, 2023 10:24 a.m.

This post was updated July 2 at 5:53 p.m.

I thought college was meant to be a time of excitement, adventure and personal growth. It was supposed to be a chapter of my life during which I would flourish, gain independence and step into adulthood with confidence. But when my dad unexpectedly passed away, my world shattered, and my once-clear vision of the future was suddenly blurred by grief and uncertainty.

I received the news of my acceptance into UCLA just weeks after my father passed. Instead of the vibrant excitement I felt anticipating the results from my application portal, I felt numb and silent. The absence of his support made the journey that I would embark on disheartening.

Amid the congratulations I received from other family members upon my acceptance, knowing I could not hear my dad express his happiness left a void within me, reminding me of all I had lost.

My academic dreams seemed distant and unattainable as the weight of loss overshadowed my every step. I struggled to see a path moving forward. The carefree college experience I had always dreamed of felt like an unattainable mirage.

My father and I had an unbreakable bond. He was not only my best friend but a reflection of myself in countless ways. Through life’s most challenging trials, he had an incredible ability to put a smile on my face, always there for me as a pillar of support when I needed it the most.

(Courtesy of Sarah Nalbandian)
An infant Nalbandian is held by her father as they sit on a floral sofa. (Courtesy of Sarah Nalbandian)

As an immigrant, my father left Syria to provide for his family, leaving little room for pursuing a college education. Yet, within him, a profound longing existed for me to venture into the realm of higher education – a dream that remained etched in the cosmos, an aspiration he cherished but couldn’t fulfill firsthand.

Growing up, I had always heard stories of the sacrifices my father made. He worked hard to create a better future for our family. This fueled my determination to work hard to get into a good college as a high school student, understanding that this achievement was a tangible way to honor his efforts and make him proud.

I knew I would do everything in my power to pursue higher education, and in the process, dedicate it to the loving sacrifices he made for his only daughter.

The tragic aftershock of grief, leaving me feeling hopeless and empty, made me rethink continuing my education at UCLA. My mind raced with thousands of questions rephrasing the same statement: “What is the point if he’s not here to see me accomplish everything he once prayed for?” My grades plummeted, my motivation was close to none, and I felt that my time at this school – and our dream – was coming to an end.

UCLA’s bustling campus, once vibrant and full of possibilities, now seemed like an isolating maze.

During the initial months of my freshman year in college, I faced many challenges adapting to the new environment. As if the usual hurdles of transitioning from high school weren’t enough, I also carried the burden of grief, which added extra weight to my already heavy load.

As I settled into Hedrick Hall in fall quarter, the sight of fathers assisting their daughters with the tasks of carrying their luggage or mattress toppers evoked sorrow. I longed for the opportunity to share that experience with my father, to feel his presence by my side as we tackled challenges together.

As my first midterms came along, I struggled to find ways to study without welling up with tears after remembering our last conversations together. The weight of the exams combined with the absence of his supportive comfort made studying even more challenging, eventually leading me to drop one of my classes.

I found myself making excuses to skip lectures, using the pretense of tending to my father’s grave, as if it needed constant cleaning. My sleepless nights crying over his passing were catching up to me as I dozed off in Franz Hall. I was gradually losing sight of my future without my father’s presence.

While my friends would venture out to have fun and embrace the hectic social scene on campus, I often found myself confined within the four walls of my classic triple dorm room, dealing with the overwhelming emotions from the loss of my dad. As they reveled in carefree moments, I struggled to gather the strength to pull myself together, wiping away tears and attempting to focus on my homework.

My father was the guiding light in my life, the person I turned to for support and advice. Instead of seeing the comforting messages pop up on my phone when I needed him the most during the school year, my messages failed to send, a constant reminder of his absence and the void in my heart left behind.

Late one night, as I immersed myself in reading my past text messages with my dad, I stumbled upon a heartfelt text that resonated deeply within me. My father was a very emotionally attentive man and held a remarkable ability to uplift my spirits through heartfelt text messages. Even at times when he was busy at work and could not make a phone call, his thoughtful messages would find their way to me, always making my day brighter. One particular message caught my eye.

“My beautiful Sarah, I will make sure everything that I do in my life is in your favor, for you in the future. Love you. See you later.”

This simple message felt like an overlooked encounter, waiting to be read once more. It was a reminder of the immense love he bestowed upon me, even from beyond.

My tears welled up as I cherished this precious message, grateful for a chance to hold onto his words once more.

The message prompted a profound realization that I couldn’t let my grief overshadow the bright path he had envisioned for me. My father’s selflessness allowed me to pursue my dreams, and I could not give that up.

To regain my academic motivation, I established a new routine: I woke up early every morning to grab breakfast from The Study at Hedrick instead of skipping it altogether and occasionally took a morning walk around campus before getting ready for class.

Recognizing the significance of words and communication from my father, I began a morning journaling routine to process my emotions and keep his memory alive. I also joined the Daily Bruin, embracing the power of storytelling to connect with others and share meaningful narratives, just as my dad once had done in his life through the constant text messages and voicemails he left on my phone. These endeavors allowed me to honor his legacy while finding a purpose for myself at UCLA.

I committed myself to taking notes during class instead of convincing myself that I would review the slides later in my dorm. As a result of these adjustments, my grades remarkably improved, and my mental well-being underwent a positive transformation.

I purchased a small frame and added a picture of my dad and me to keep on top of my desk shelf, reminding me that he’s always there to cheer me on.

Nalbandian and her father stand in front of the Disneyland attraction "It&squot;s a Small World", brightly decorated to celebrate Christmas. (Courtesy of Sarah Nalbandian)
Nalbandian and her father stand in front of the Disneyland attraction “It’s a Small World”, brightly decorated to celebrate Christmas. (Courtesy of Sarah Nalbandian)

Motivated by a deep desire to honor my late father, I began embracing college life at UCLA with a newfound seriousness. Every assignment, lecture and opportunity became a chance to make him proud, driving me to push beyond my limits. With each accomplishment, I felt his presence guiding me, instilling a sense of purpose and determination to succeed in his absence.

I began to clearly see a new road map for my future. While acknowledging that my father couldn’t be physically present to celebrate my accomplishments, I made a heartfelt commitment to devote all my efforts at this institution to honor his memory. I pledged to carry forward the hope he instilled in me to persist and not give up. I recognized and appreciated the sacrifices he made for me to pursue higher education.

The love, selflessness and intellect he embodied will serve as guiding forces to carry me through the upcoming three years of my journey at UCLA.

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Sarah Nalbandian
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