I never would have thought an email from a college Teaching Assistant (TA) would stick with me for nearly a decade. But one has, and remains memorable to this day.
Nine Easters ago, in 2008, I was in the second semester of my freshman year at UW-Madison. College was a huge breath of fresh air after some difficult teen years coming out as an atheist to my very Catholic family.
I was grateful to join the campus’s student organization AHA (Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics) and to finally have Sunday mornings free. Little by little I became more okay with talking about my lack of belief with certain others.
One of the places I felt safe to share my beliefs was in my Spanish 203 class, taught by TA Elizabeth Walz. For one composition assignment, I chose to write about discrimination against atheists in the United States and how it affected me personally.
In the simple sentences I could form at that point, I wrote in Spanish that it had been about three years since I began self-identifying as an atheist, and that it had been hard to come out to my family. “I don’t tell many people I’m an atheist because I don’t want them to judge me before they know me,” I wrote, “but it doesn’t feel good to keep it a secret.”
While we were on spring break, Elizabeth forwarded an optional survey to our class, which would help a grad student conduct research about motivations for learning languages. I submitted my answers—why not?
She wrote back and thanked me for having participated in the survey.
The email could have easily ended right there, confirming she’d received my survey, but she went on. In a second paragraph, Elizabeth let me know that she was there if I ever wanted to talk about anything. She hoped that celebrating Easter with my family hadn’t been too uncomfortable, but based on my composition, it probably hadn’t been the easiest of weekends for me.
She closed with a friendly reminder:
Acuérdate de que tienes apoyo moral también en la universidad, ¿vale?
(Remember that you have moral support in the university as well, okay?)
I was so touched.
I stared at the screen and then read the email again.
Here I was, just a tiny freshman in a campus of 40,000 students, and yet here was my TA—who had her own grad classes, lesson planning, grading, and an incredibly intense M.A.-Ph.D. Qualifying Examination to worry about, not to mention her personal life—stopping to think about me on this weekend, asking was I okay?
I remember feeling a little guilty, actually, because Easter with my family hadn’t been notably difficult, and I thought there was likely someone more deserving of such concern.
But the message which reached me clearly is that I was not alone. I had support here at the university, people who cared about my well-being and feelings, starting with my Spanish TA. It was also the first time Spanish words had a very real impact on me, which made the email even more striking.
This compassionate act cannot be measured or quantified, but rather appreciated and paid forward.
I still have this email, and it’s the only one I ever received at my wisc.edu address to hold such significance. It reminds me to be the Elizabeth in other people’s lives—to let others know they’re not alone. Because a thoughtful email? It can change everything.
So today, take a minute to consider: Who could you lift up? Send a short note of support or encouragement—to a friend, an organization you support, a stranger on Twitter, the atheist freshman in your Spanish 203 class.
That quick email might be one your recipient holds on to for years and years to come.
Your words matter, and you can use them to make a difference today.
This post is also published on Medium.