Schoolin’ Life: Vanessa Uhlig

In today’s installment of Schoolin’ Life, we get to know filmmaker and graduate student Vanessa Uhlig.

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Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m a 30 year-old film production graduate student at University of Texas at Austin. It’s my first year of graduate school so I am still adjusting to an intensive program of writing, shooting, and editing my own work and that of my other classmates. I’ve been watching a lot of films in my free time and have been revisiting one of my favorite genres, heist/crime thrillers, and have recently started learning jiu jitsu. This is also the first time I’ve been living back in the US in about four years, and it feels great to be getting to know the great city of Austin for the first time while being able to relax back in my home culture.

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

Adventure. Around the time I graduated from undergrad at 22, I could feel my legs needing to stretch and get moving. After my first day at my first job out of college – an office job at a Bay Area solar start-up – I came home and cried. I was afraid that this was where I’d end up in life and there weren’t any more adventures to be had. I made a conscious decision over the next year to do whatever was in my power to fight against that kind of lifestyle and explore as much as I possibly could in the world while I was young. And for the most part I was successful at that; I spent the rest of my 20s living in foreign environments, learning new skills and languages, and eventually finding my calling as an artist.

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

I come from a lower-middle class family. I was lucky to have the support of my parents creatively, but I always knew that out of college I needed to be able to support myself with a full-time job. My family didn’t necessarily disparage art, but they did remind me to have an income and look for ways to monetize whatever I was interested in pursuing.

What was your first job like?

I can’t remember which of these I held first, but when I was 15 and 16 I had a few jobs: serving coffee at Starbucks, working the insurance desk at an autobody repair shop, and working the retail counter at a local perfume shop. I also did a lot of babysitting. It was exciting to have a job and a paycheck as a young person, and even though the jobs pretty much sucked, I still felt beholden to them with a strong sense of responsibility. I had to wake up at 3 am to open Starbucks at 4 am most days that I worked there, and it was rough, but there was something magic about being the first person that some customers would talk to each day and about starting the day that early in the morning. I think I also gained more of an appreciation for school since being at work was so much less interesting.

What was your first apartment like?

I shared an apartment with a girlfriend after college in Oakland, California. We both had boyfriends and all four of us had gone to the same college so we were all friends. We cooked a lot and drank a lot of wine, and there was always music or NPR on in the background. Strangely, a neighbor gave us a huge flatscreen TV, and much to my roommate’s dismay, my boyfriend and I watched a lot of Lost. It was my first time living in a more urban neighborhood, which was exciting – I could walk a block to the coffee shop or grocery store, and people came by campaigning for various political issues. One night, a girl was canvassing and I invited her inside. We ended up talking for an hour at my dinner table, just because I was so excited to meet someone this way.

Did you experience any big life changes?

Of course. I moved around a lot in my 20s – every few years at least. I felt like I had to reinvent myself each time, just to adapt to the new situation – I went from a small town in the Sacramento Valley to Oakland, then to Bangkok, Thailand for a year, then San Francisco for a few years, and finally a few years in a rural town in Guatemala. Each place had its own unique flavor and drew out a different kind of inspiration in me. And each time I think I recognized that I don’t really change much in the end, for better or for worse – wherever you go, there you are. By the time I hit 30, I could finally embrace that, which gave me the freedom to move back to the US for good and create the kind of life I want right here at home.

In what ways did your friendships change?

I think the general trend is/was from friendships that deal a lot with personal vulnerabilities to friendships that are grounded in love and respect. I’m fortunate to have maintained strong friendships over the past ten years. Even though we’re all busy and all living in different places, I consider these friendships one of the greatest gifts and accomplishments of my adult life. I try to stick to gratitude and respect to guide me in friendships rather than getting caught up in little daily annoyances or gripes. The little stuff goes away, and at the end of the day I’m still amazed and honored to have such great friends.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

Let it go! Relationships are WEIRD and how they manage to stay alive can sometimes be an amazing mystery. It takes so much love and trust to be with someone else – give them the benefit of the doubt and move on. I have learned this, but I still make this mistake and have to relearn it about once a week.

How did your relationships with your family change?

My relationship with my mother evolved to be completely different in my 20s than it had when I was younger. I don’t feel like we have ever had as strong a relationship as we do now that I’m older. I think she and I are very similar and used to butt heads a lot, but now that we’re both older and have fewer opportunities to be in each other’s daily lives, we tend to let the smaller stuff go. We can laugh about each other’s neuroses more.

How did your worldview change over the course of the decade?

It’s definitely had ups and downs as I’ve moved between areas of very extreme wealth and very extreme poverty, “progressive” versus “traditional” cultures, etc. I think at this point I have an appreciation for the many different cultural textures that I’ve been exposed to, but I feel also more urgency to equalize the playing field. There used to be a novelty for me in the “developing world” – things like real people collecting your bus fare or making homemade ice cream on a three-wheeled cart in the afternoons on the city street, to sell for ten cents. More direct, pedestrian-oriented lifestyles. I still see the charm in that but I see also the way that technology and globalization is causing unbearable economic disparity and making it hard for people to have enough to eat, which is so much more important than how picturesque a culture is on a postcard or in a few months’ travel journal entries. Unfortunately, it seems the more I learn the more I feel like an outsider in other cultures, or the more aware of those disparities I become.

Do you have any regrets? Are there things you wish you’d done, hadn’t done, or done differently?

I regret having ever doubted myself. I do it every day, as we all do, but it’s a waste. There really just isn’t enough time in life to wrestle with your own doubt. If you’re thinking about something, just do it. Don’t overthink it.

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