Pay It Forward: Deconstructed

The phrase “pay it forward” gets tossed around a lot in the Goodnight Scholars Program. Jeremy Park ’20 breaks down this popular expression in his first-year scholar blog debut.

“What size coffee are you getting?”

I was standing in line at Port City Java, waiting to get some coffee before my next class — how else do you get through a computer science lecture at 1:30 p.m.? — when the girl in front of me turned and asked this question.

Slightly confused, I told her what size I wanted. I asked her why she asked, and she responded, “Just curious.”

She then ordered two cups of coffee, one of which was for me. Taken totally off guard, the only thing I could say was, “Thank you.” She responded, “Just pay it forward.” I didn’t even get her name.

“Pay it forward” is a big mantra for the Goodnight Scholars Program, a phrase deeply embedded within the community. It’s even a part of the Goodnight Scholars mission statement. So what does “pay it forward” really mean? The most commonplace definition, courtesy of Google, is to “respond to a person’s kindness to oneself by being kind to someone else.”

But there’s more to it. Because the moment she said “pay it forward,” something clicked. I had been hearing it a lot the past couple of months, but it was here in this random coffee shop encounter where “pay it forward” seemed less like an abstract concept and more like a powerful reality.

Since that moment, I started to think more and more about the true meaning of “pay it forward.” As I see it, this idea consists of two parts: gratitude and generosity. We are grateful for what others have done for us, and we use that gratitude as motivation to help others. Maybe the girl in front of me was so grateful to someone else who bought her coffee the week before that she was moved to buy something for me. Exploring the dynamic between these two ideas has been a major theme of my first-year so far.

Ever since I stepped foot on campus, I’ve been amazed at all the things NC State has to offer. Through the Goodnight Scholars Program, I’ve been given countless opportunities for my personal and professional growth through programs like the first-year seminar, dinners with NC State faculty, and presentations from people like TED Senior Fellow Nina Tandon. College is an endless buffet of opportunities. There’s always something interesting going on around campus.

I can go to D.H. Hill Library and listen to talks from women from BuzzFeed and well-known podcasts. I can go to Hunt Library and see the history of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in North Carolina put on display. This week, I’ll learn how to make music with a synth at the library, and next week I’ll attend a workshop on how to make comics.

How cool is that? When people ask what my favorite part of college is, I say college satisfies almost every curiosity that I have.

How cool is that? When people ask what my favorite part of college is, I say college satisfies almost every curiosity that I have.

So with this abundance of opportunities, how should I respond? I should accept each moment with gratitude. As the 19th century English writer G.K. Chesterton writes, “The aim of life is appreciation; there is no sense in not appreciating things; and there is no sense in having more of them if you have less appreciation of them.”

Not only am I grateful for my college experience now, but for everything that had to happen for me to get here. Leaving everything that was familiar in South Korea, my parents packed up and moved to the Land of Opportunity before my oldest brother was born. So I grew up in the Leesville Road community in North Raleigh, and I stayed there through elementary, middle, and high school. I’m thankful for my parents and all my teachers at Leesville that have helped me get to where I am today.

Even what prefaced the start of my college experience has really turned these past couple of months into an exercise in gratitude. Just 10 days before I arrived on campus for the Goodnight Scholars Summer Retreat, I was in India, where I got to work with a non-profit that helps educate children in slums. Simply walking through those streets and having honest conversations has made me realize how privileged I am to have been born and raised in America. I wish I could put into words what I saw and experienced, but it’s honestly something you can only see for yourself. My time overseas has truly put college in a different light and has framed this entire journey of gratitude.

But gratitude alone isn’t what “pay it forward” is about. “Pay it forward” causes you to be grateful for your past and present in order to be generous in the future. LeBron James is a great example of this idea. A product of Northeast Ohio, the three-time NBA Champ and four-time NBA MVP plans to send 1,100 kids to the University of Akron for free. James’ heart for the area that raised him is a prime example of “pay it forward.” In similar fashion, I am here at NC State because of the generosity of Dr. Jim and Ann Goodnight toward their alma mater and community.

So what then for me? As someone who is not (yet) a 12-time NBA All-Star, I can’t “pay it forward” in the same way LeBron James can. But “pay it forward” does not need to be strictly a philanthropic mission. Similarly, “pay it forward” is not only about buying something for the person behind you in line at the coffee shop either. It is a principle to guide our day-to-day lives.

For me, as a college freshman studying computer science, “pay it forward” means being more generous with my time and resources because of how generous others have been to me. It means making the most of my opportunities now so I can help bring those opportunities to other people. Volunteering at my church, lending a friend a helping hand, or even encouraging someone can all be small fulfillment of paying it forward in my daily life.

When I think of all of the people who have invested in my life (it takes a village, they say), I want to invest in others’ lives too. When I think of the great teachers I’ve had like Señora Sollie and Señor Ross, I’m motivated to help bring quality education to students everywhere. When I think of how beautifully green NC State campus is, it moves me to use computer science to help create a more sustainable future.

That is the logic of “pay it forward”: to extend the same grace you’ve been shown to other people. Whenever I acknowledge all the blessings in my life, it makes me want to share them with others. Because gratitude is the engine of generosity, and generosity is the apex of gratitude. I’m just so grateful for my time here at NC State and for everything that had to happen for me to get here. So I want to steward this time well; “pay it forward” is a call to be a good steward. As the great philosopher Uncle Ben once said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Perhaps the way we will learn to give is to simply acknowledge all that we’ve been given.