Free your mind

The poem below was actually written several months before I was admitted into Under A Tree, and I really didn’t have any intentions of sharing it to anyone. But after being part of sessions like Cold Dead Hands and Things We Carry I thought this would be a better fit than anything else I would have written. This poem was a personal response to what I was going through at the time, but being in this fellowship has helped me remember that everyone goes through things and everyone needs a hand. The poem is about changing your perspective and recognizing the great powers of the mind, which happen to be main ideas in stage two. This way of thinking really helped me get through a lot, and although it may not resonate so deeply with everyone, I’m hoping to touch just someone.




Open your eyes,

Open your mind.

Rid yourself and rid your life of your mental, physical, and spiritual restrictions.

Let yourself run wild,

Let yourself run free.

Explore new beginnings and respond to greater callings.

You’d be surprised what the other side holds for you,

You just have to be willing to make that step.


Liberate yourself,

Change your perspective.

Change the way you look at life.

The power of your thoughts is incredible really,

You have the power over things,

Or things have the power over you.

So which will it be?

Will you make the most of your time

And look for the good in all things?

Or will you let the negative overcome the positive?

Will you let it swarm you?

Consume you?

Until it’s like you’re drowning,

Free falling.

Free falling into a rabbit hole of never ending restlessness,

And hopelessness,

And depression,

And anxiety.

Of never ending darkness,

And dark thoughts,

And torment.

Too bad this isn’t Wonderland,

And too bad you’re not Alice.

Too bad this isn’t a bad dream,

And that you’re you,

And this just might be your reality.


Change your focus,

Rethink your priorities.

It’s important that we set ourselves up for success in the future,

But it’s crucial that we set ourselves up for happiness right now.

Tomorrow is not promised.

Be grateful you lived through yesterday,

You’re blessed if you see another.

But you’re living in the now, so focus on right now.

Give your attention to what is presently at hand.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fast pace of life

And miss the most beautiful moments.

Cherish what you have,

And appreciate where you are.

Trust the plans that God has for you.

Trust that you are where you are for a reason,

That greater is coming,

And you’ll be paid in full.


Search for peace,

Search for you.

Be really, genuinely at rest

And find the real, genuine you.

Reach deep within yourself and uncover your truths.

Solve your inner conflicts.

Satisfy your hunger,

Thirst no more.


You cannot control what happens to you,

But you can control how you react.

You can control what you do,

And you can control who you are.

Be the best that you can be.

Strive to be better than who you were yesterday.


Better yourself,

and never squander an opportunity.

What a waste it would be if you didn’t live your best life,

A shame really.

That’s how some people decide to live their lives I suppose.

They’re okay with remaining stagnant,

They’re okay with settling.

Some people are okay with staying in that rabbit hole.

They’re okay with their life spiraling out of control,

Their negligence and nonchalant attitude

Running them to ruins,

With a crash

And then they burn.


But I know my worth,

And I know what I want and where I want to be.

And there’s a lot of things that I don’t know,

That I’m completely unaware of.

Like how I’m going to get there,

And the specificities and details of it all.

I don’t know what will happen tomorrow,

Heck I don’t know what will happen in the next five minutes.

What I do know, though,

Is that staying in the same place isn’t part of the plan.

I might wander in the desert a little while longer than I anticipated,

But if you learn from the situations and circumstances of life

Then nothing is ever a waste of time.


I will succeed,

And more importantly I will grow.

I refuse to live a life of regrets and empty promises.

She believed she could,

So she did,

Therefore I can,

And so I will.


Johannie is a junior at Somerset Academy. She is glowing, growing, and on the way to being her best self. Everything will manifest because she wrote it, and she feels she is not lucky but blessed. Johannie is an unfinished masterpiece, and adds, "Everyone will be waiting on the reveal."

Alumni Spotlight: Shada Thykandy

When I first applied to Under A Tree at the end of my sophomore year of high school (May of 2016), I never could have imagined the everlasting impact it would have on me. And how could I have?

How could I have envisioned the countless conversations I would have, feeling angry or wronged, inspired or galvanized? How could I have predicted the dynamic perspectives I would hear and even incorporate? How could I have foreseen meeting Danny Meyer, an individual and leader who has truly changed my life and would make me want to be a better leader? How could I have seen the way my views would be challenged, doubted, shaken?

I couldn’t have.

Under A Tree is not just an extracurricular activity or even just a fellowship -– it is a community -– one that I call my own, one that champions robust, candid dialogue on issues like race, self-identity, morality, religion, and gender norms, with unique and inspirational individuals. One where I would become a mentor, guiding a new cohort of powerful and intellectual fellows.

Shada (Third from Left) & The 2018 Fellows of the House of Mazari. Two of the fellows she mentored last year, Rachel and Julian, are now mentors for the current fellowship. No other house provided more than one mentor except hers.

That’s why even as a college student, long after the program has ended for me, UAT keeps me questioning. It keeps me thinking, challenging, engaging, conversing, and believing. Believing in social change, and that our efforts are the most fundamental part of that. Under A Tree permeates my life to this day, in the best way possible.

In Under A Tree, you don’t just hear people’s perspectives – you listen to them. You develop a sense of agency, awareness, and accountability, a longing and sense of urgency for justice. And it is your generosity and donations that have allowed us to continue to reward and recognize the leaders of tomorrow as we should. UAT hasn’t just been there for me – it keeps me rooted in what really matters.

Shada Thykandy is a Freshman at the University of Florida. She was the co-valedictorian of Somerset Academy High School’s 2018 graduating class. She first joined Under A Tree in 2016 as one of its Ethical Citizenship Fellows and returned the following school year to become a member of the student leadership team, guiding and supporting the fellows of the House of Mazari.

From Freedom Fighter to Terrorist, The Racism of Our Revolutionary Hypocrisy

From Freedom Fighter to Terrorist, The Racism of Our Revolutionary Hypocrisy

“While most in our group strongly opposed terrorism, many felt that violence was more acceptable and even potentially necessary. But to me, they are indistinguishable concepts.  Terrorism is merely a classification given to those who would use violence to liberate their people.”

Behind A Bubbly Girl

Behind A Bubbly Girl

“I realize that the confidence that was stolen from me has finally been restored. I may not be the author of my experiences but I am the author of my own recovery. I am not alone, I remind myself. And in the course of sharing this story and hoping to spark more awareness and dialogue, I hope that you, too, can realize that you are never alone either.” ~Anonymous Fellow

My Little Millisecond

The first stage of Under A Tree’s Ethical Citizens Fellowship asks its fellows to grapple with questions of identity, culture, and the human search for values across generations. One of our most talked about sessions forces the fellows to position themselves within a broader cosmic context where they are asked to reflect about the importance and weight of their existences when reconsidered from the near-infinite vastness of time and space.

Below, House of Dumezweni Fellow, Karen Cadet, reflects on what it means to take ourselves a bit less seriously without sacrificing our sense of duty, compassion, and commitment to do good with the little time we have:

Our universe is so vast and is made up of so many infinities.

In comparison we are barely significant.

Our life means absolutely nothing to the universe.

We only get a taste of life; out of 13.8 billion years of the universe’s existence each of us are only here for about 79 years.

In other words, if we were to crunch the universe’s life span in one year, we would barely have a millisecond.

To the universe, our time spent here is a millisecond.

So, why does my life matter?

Why does any of our lives matter?

To the universe, we are merely a speck of dust.

So, where does this leave me?

My existence doesn’t matter to the universe

But it matters to me.

I like to think my millisecond is all I have, all the universe has so graciously given to me.

So, why not make the most of it?

My time here is so little so I’m going to live my life to the fullest and do what makes me happy.

Why should I waste my time on negative people, things, and thoughts?

Why put my energy in things that don’t mean anything to me?

My time here is so precious, my little millisecond.

So as a mere speck of dust, I’m going to take my little millisecond and run with it.

Leaders of the Now

It was 10:55 pm and I still hadn’t finished my application. The deadline was approaching way quicker than I expected and I could feel the combination of anxiety and adrenaline running through my veins.

Waiting. That’s all I was doing. Seconds became minutes, minutes became hours, hours

became days;

I ended up hitting the submit button as the clock struck a minute before midnight, feeling like my application was okay, nothing special, just okay.

We were in the midst of Hurricane Irma, so the lack of power left me with the only thing I could do: wait.

“Don’t be nervous”, “Just be yourself”, and “You’ve got this” didn’t help relieve the butterflies I was feeling when I logged onto my Zoom interview call.

I heard the ping of an email notification

We did it. We got in.


Under a Tree is proud to introduce this year’s UAT fellowship mentors, Katy Cook, Stefano Pastrana, Sameer Sridhar, Julian Suarez, and Rachel Rios, as they take you through their experience as a fellow in last year’s cohort and explain what it means to return this year as mentors.  


It’s been a full year since the day I attended my first Under A Tree live session. A year full of tears, self-realization, growth, laughs, memories, doubt, strengthened convictions, new people, and new ideas. UAT3 (‘17-’18) was something that I never knew I needed. It gave me the opportunity to reevaluate and fortify my beliefs. It gave me hope and solace when I needed it. It gave me friends that I couldn’t imagine my life without. Above all, it gave me lessons that I will carry with me as I walked through the rocky path that is life. Now, as a mentor for UAT4 (‘18-’19), I try to think about how different my life would be if I hadn’t gone through UAT3 or if Under A Tree had been founded at a different school, but I can’t seem to do it. I don’t want to believe in a world where people don’t care about social justice, where people lack empathy, or where kids are told that they are “too young” to be leaders, and because of Under A Tree, I don’t have to. Because of Under A Tree, I know that I will always have a group of understanding, strong, passionate, and amazing people by my side ready to help me fight the good fight, ready to make the world a better place than we inherited it.

                                                                               Lead Mentor, House of Campos, Katy Cook

This past school year, I had the privilege of participating in the Under a Tree Ethical Citizens Fellowship as it started its third year. From the start, I never could have been able to imagine the ways in which I would grow both as a person and an activist through the sessions and discussions lead by the amazingly capable leadership team. I am so honored to be able to contribute to UAT in a substantive way this year by joining the cohort again – this time as a mentor – to help new fellows guide their way through this process as they learn more about both themselves and the world around them. Now I can do for my fellows what the previous leadership team did for me – provide me with the platform, knowledge, and wherewithal to speak and act on the topics I was passionate about.

I am so excited to be starting this new, fourth year of Under a Tree and cannot wait to see the growth of my fellows and the ways in which I will grow alongside them (Go House of Hawking!!).

                                                                  Mentor, House of Hawking, Stefano Pastrana

Under A Tree has meant more to me than I can possibly put into words. I have never been in any sort of program like Under A Tree, as no other program that I have come across gives any sort of reassurance of what I personally find most valuable. I value my opinions, thoughts, and passions, far more than my less trivial responsibilities. I would rather pour all my ambition and work into something promoting things that actually matter, instead of studying for some test I have the next day. The things we cover in Under A Tree may seem like surface level stresses at first thought,; but in all reality it is so important to discuss these issues so something can hopefully come out of it.

That is another thing that I value so much about Under A Tree — it gives all the fellows that go through the fellowship an outlet to be passionate about whatever topic they see fit. We put our wonderful ability to not only be activists, but more importantly organizers, to an amazing use by leading missions, capstones, and discussions.

My desire to return to the program y senior year as a mentor was primarily influenced by the mentoring I received last year from Shada Thykandy(mentor for the mighty House of Mazari), She exhibited so many traits that I value in all the wonderful human beings that I try my very hardest to surround myself with. She was outgoing, respectful, educated, well spoken, and had the most amazing sense of humor. I hope that at the very least, I can give my fellows as amazing of an experience asShada gave me.

                                                                             Mentor, House of Dumezweni, Julian Suarez

Under a Tree has been a fulfilling and eye opening experience from the first session to the last. The fellowship has prepared me for practical activism and has taught me the necessary skills I need in order to inspire change. My leadership skills have exponentially grown, not only in my civic duties, but in all instances of my life. Under a Tree has presented me things that I can never unsee, and I have learned things I will never be able to forget. My core values & beliefs have been tested & revised over and over again within my year as a fellow in UAT. The journey has inspired me to embark on my own exploration to find self. I can no longer ignore the plights & injustices of others through what I have learned in UAT. I hope to inspire and provide an informative and fruitful experience for my fellows this year. I want to facilitate their growth and help them better themselves through this life changing journey.

                                                                     Mentor, House of Lee, Rachel Rios

When the fellowship started, I found myself surrounded by like-minded individuals who wanted to createchange as much as I did. Little did I know that, by the end of the year, I would form lifelong bonds with every other student there. I also had the pleasure of being in the House of Ono, working closely with four other fellows throughout the year and our mentor, Zoe Lee. As the year came to a close, I reflected on the myriad of life lessons I learned and came to a simple yet vital conclusion: this fellowship is the best thing I have ever done in my entire life. I realized that I needed to do everything in my power to continue this family another year so that more students could feel what I feel, which is why I decided to apply to be a mentor. I always had the intention of helping other students in their high school journey as a mentor, but the thought solidified into a reality this year.

This year, as a senior, I have the pleasure of being the mentor for the House of Riordan. I wish to build familial bonds within our house to let my fellows know that they too have a support system they can fall back on whenever they need to. Moreover, I want my fellows to expand their curiosity, and “turn every stone” around them in order to absorb as much information about the world around them as they can. With this knowledge, I hope to help them develop their voices and ideas, allowing them to formulate clear opinions that they can elaborate on whenever they need to. I also hope to aid them in trusting themselves, and help them realize that anything is possible with the courage of conviction.

Even though we live in a world that is filled with many jarring injustices, more often than not, these problems are confronted by silence. I want my fellows to remember that, when the whole world is silent, their voices can and will be impactful, even when the rest of the world may be silent. I want them to know and remember that they will move mountains with their voices.

                                                                                Mentor, House of Riordan, Sameer Sridhar





An End And A Beginning

An End And A Beginning

If you were to tell me a year ago that my life would be forever altered in just a few months, I would have scoffed in disbelief and brushed it away without a second thought. Nothing anybody said would have ever led me to believe that it was the efforts of a man on a mission and a group of the most open-minded and willing individuals that would create an impact on the person that I am today and continue to be every day.

Under a Tree Expo/Commencement '18

This year, the 2017-2018 third Under A Tree fellowship cohort was able to not only accomplish so much, but showcase what they have worked on so tirelessly at our annual Under A Tree Expo/Commencement. The fellows were given the opportunity to present the highlights of their capstone social awareness project to friends, family, and distinguished community members. Their efforts were also rewarded with $11,100 in college scholarships (over $20,000 to date).

This year’s fellowship and leadership team (Andres Castillo, Donna De Castro, Tabitha Cherubin, Jhanae Douglas, Zoe Lee, Nicholas Mijares, and Shada Thykandy) have worked tirelessly and produced work that has the capacity to raise the awareness needed to incite the change that will propel us into a more just world. Through their hard work, passion, and dedication, they were able to truly impact the significant change that not only embodies their own spirit and interests, but the overall mission of Under A Tree.

Please check out our photo album below as well as a few selected video clips from the evening:

Rachel Rios, on immigrant and refugee rights

Jhanae Douglas, introducing the House of Shahidi

Mia Luna, on the importance of civic discourse

Camille Dumit, on colorism and the beauty industry

Paul Reyes, on the effects of the “model minority” myth

Jose Perez, on challenging rigid gender norms

Alexis Gonzalez Meyer, presenting the Gonzalez Family Scholarship for the Culture of Community

Julie & Hector Rodriguez, presenting the Rodriguez Family Scholarship for Resilience in Leadership

Kyle Vasquez-Schultz, presenting the Garcia Family Scholarship for Women’s Leadership & Empowerment

Sheila Meyer & Marissa Manos, presenting the William Mayberg Scholarship for Wisdom & Justice

Sabrina Flores, presenting the Kathy F. LeMay Scholarship for Transformative Authenticity

Daniel Meyer, presenting the Benjamin Butler Memorial Scholarship for Courage & Integrity

Sabrina Flores, presenting the Sabrina Flores Scholarship for Love, Power & Justice

Daniel Meyer, sharing closing remarks with the UAT3 Ethical Citizens Fellowship grads

Thanks again to the inimitable UAT3 Leadership team and Ethical Citizenship Fellows. We are already accepting applications for the 2018-19 cohort. We would also like to specially note next year’s upcoming leadership team — Katy Cook, Andrea Martinez, Stefano Pastrana, Rachel Rios, Sameer Sridhar, Catalina Cardenas, and Julian Suarez, who we know will continue to work to make UAT even better and more vibrant for our fourth cohort.

~Shada Thykandy, UAT2 Fellow, House of Socrates, and UAT3 Mentor, House of Mazari and incoming freshman, University of Florida, '22.

Farewell, Under a Tree

If someone were to ask me what Under A Tree was, I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s not something you can just explain in one sentence. It’s a family, it’s a community, it’s an environment that we can all come together to share our thoughts and love one another as well. Under a Tree has sparked a flame in my life and I’m forever grateful for that. I can’t believe I have gotten so close with everyone in a matter of 36 weeks. It’s been a long journey of loving myself first and meeting new people as well. I never told anyone this but coming to every session has brought a bittersweet moment for me. Because I always knew that the time was going to end but I didn’t think it would end so soon. I’m going to graduate in less than a week and it’s kind of frightening. I will officially be going into adult life June 21st and I am actually terrified. I met this wonderful group of great people this year and I can’t believe I’m leaving everyone but it’s a bittersweet thing. I want to give a special shout out to my house. I was so lucky to be in the same house as Stefano, Andrea, Toyin, Serena and Nick. In the beginning, I never would have guessed that we would all be so close with each other. We argue sometimes but it’s out of love. I’m so sad that I’m leaving Andrea and Stefano behind but I have faith that they will continue Sagan’s legacy. Thank you everyone for putting up with me and making this one of the best years of my life. I learned how to hug properly because of you guys :). I love each and every one of you and hope everyone will be successful in the future.
— Michaella Saintil, House of Sagan

Thank You, UAT

Thank You, UAT

In the last 9 months, I’ve felt more emotions than I ever have in my entire life. I’ve been overwhelmed, drowning, stressed, elated, heartbroken, excited, loved. Also, in the last 9 months, I’ve met the best people I’ve ever known in my entire existence.

The Race

The Race

“Wear your running shoes and be prepared. The person who wins the race tomorrow wins the scholarship.”

My first thought was, crap. I can’t run fast to save my life. Little did I know under what conditions exactly I’d be running.

Toxic Masculinity

Toxic Masculinity

As a man who does not necessarily conform to the traditional male archetype – the strong, assertive jock who would much rather play basketball than write this blog post – I have always struggled under society’s expectation that I should “man up” — and the most effective way to cause emotional pain within a man is to tell him that, in fact, he is not a man at all