This Junior Feels a Weight on her Shoulders — But She’d Never Tell You

After securing a $10,000 research grant as a first-year, junior Isay Acenas has moved onto projects as wide-ranging as working in the Sydney Fish Market and in U.S. Foreign Aid. She’s also in the second of four consecutive semesters abroad.


Sam Klein

CAS junior Isay Acenas visits a falcon hospital in the United Arab Emirates in January. Isay has done research in the UAE, studied in Sydney and Buenos Aires and will study in Madrid next spring. (Staff Photo by Sam Klein)

Sam Klein, Managing Editor

Isay Acenas doesn’t want to talk about the entrepreneurship program she started in the Philippines as a sophomore.

She doesn’t want to talk about how she’s in Buenos Aires for her second of four consecutive semesters abroad. Or about being recognized by the state of California in high school for establishing a safe space for Filipino youth in the Bay Area.

Isay wants to talk about weightlifting.

She says she’s lived four different lifetimes, but weightlifting has been her constant since she was 14.

“It’s a mental state where it’s me against the weights, and nothing in my life matters,” Isay says. “My phone is on airplane mode. No one can reach me, talk to me.”

Weightlifting is an Olympic sport, and it’s not all about strength — incorrect form can disqualify an otherwise successful lift. Weightlifting isn’t powerlifting, which consists of well-known exercises like benching, squatting and deadlifting. For Isay, training — she’s quick to specify that it’s training, not working out — includes powerlifting to build strength, but also practicing her form. And practicing her form. And practicing her form more.

For the six years that Isay, a CAS junior, has been weightlifting, she has kept training journals, a new one every year. When she trains, she writes down her numbers, but also any thoughts that she has. She keeps the old journals, but doesn’t look back at them.

“I hate being in my feelings,” Isay says. “I want to write things down, and I want to make things tangible, but I think if I look back I’m too scared of regressing.”

To understand the significance of holding onto her journals for this long, it helps to know about Isay’s insistence on a minimalist lifestyle. Last semester, she was studying away in Sydney. Currently, she’s in Buenos Aires, and this spring she’ll be in Madrid. Each time she transitions, Isay is careful to limit herself.

“I only brought a small suitcase here to Argentina, and I have a list for every time I go abroad,” Isay says. “I’m like, I’m only going to bring four shirts, three pants, stuff like that. I just prefer to have few things and have control of them.”

She also keeps just 30 contacts in her phone — an act of Spartan self-discipline that forces her to form incredibly close relationships with a select few people.

One of the 30 is Gallatin junior Carlin Guervil. Isay and Carlin lived in Goddard Residential College together as first-years, but first bonded while living together in a homestay in Guatemala during spring break.

Carlin remembers how, at a festival there, Isay picked up the host family’s youngest child and held her on her shoulders the entire time so she could see. Since that trip, even as Isay wanders between study away sites, she and Carlin have remained close.

“Whenever we talk, I know that the conversation goes in a whole bunch of different directions,” Carlin says. “She’s capable of having conversations about everything, and there was never a point at which we had one superficial conversation, one generic conversation.”

Carlin calls Isay a great listener, and marvels at how she gets him to talk about dreams and aspirations, while rarely discussing her own. But it’s impossible to talk about Isay without talking about her unquestionable success.

Following her first year at NYU, Isay, along with CAS junior Charlotte Dankwah, secured a Davis Projects for Peace grant, an annual $10,000 award which goes to a single project per university. Their proposal, “Irrigate, Elevate,” sought to improve communication between farmers and researchers to facilitate long-lasting agricultural entrepreneurship. It was based in Tarlac, a rural region of the northern Philippines, and promoted Alternate Wetting and Drying as a way to improve rice yields. Isay’s project also emphasized gathering feedback from farmers to improve the practice on the fly.

After spending the summer developing her project — and constructing 12-by-12-foot fences around rice paddies — Isay came back to NYU. She received the 2018 Making a Difference award, which NYU President Andrew Hamilton awards every other year to one student, one alum and one faculty member.

But then, it was time to challenge herself and take a step back, Isay says. Just as she does at the gym, she put aside the accolades and praise and external voices, and turned to herself to ask what she needed to take with her — and what could stay behind.

“I couldn’t push it further, and I knew that if I did, it would only be because people thought that I would, and I wanted to fulfill what they thought of me,” Isay says. “I think I’m kind of stepping back for these coming two years, and I’m just focusing on getting a job, getting an internship.”

“I think different things are exciting me now, But my visions of how I want the world to be will never leave me.” — CAS junior Isay Acenas

Since that summer, Isay has worked full-time in the Sydney Fish Market, been a part of a summer research project in the United Arab Emirates and now is working for U.S. Foreign Aid in Buenos Aires. There doesn’t seem to be a common thread that ties together everything she’s accomplished. Isay says sometimes she questions it too. She also says she insists on constantly proving herself wrong.

“I think it comes down to that I need to challenge myself,” Isay says. “I need to throw myself off guard.”

She doesn’t just throw herself off guard, but others too. As a first-year at Goddard, she was the president of the hall council, where she met CAS now-junior Madison Conkle. The first week, Isay informed everyone that meetings would be limited to 30 minutes, despite having 75 minutes budgeted. Madison says she was skeptical at first, but then the plan worked out flawlessly.

On hall council at Broome Street Residential College as a sophomore, where meetings were not as streamlined, Madison recognized the uniqueness of Isay’s leadership.

“She comes up with these things all the time and she just doesn’t hesitate to completely do them,” Madison says. “Like what she does in the Philippines, she has an idea and she just goes for it. She doesn’t ever let things stop her.”

Isay rarely talks about herself, and admits that she constantly tries to redirect conversations to the person she’s talking to. When prompted to consider how she wants to be thought of, Isay says she doesn’t want people to think about her.

After all, the easiest way to avoid worrying about meeting expectations is not to let people set them in the first place. Isay moves too fast for expectations, but some things about her remain constant.

Her passions may shift, and her future path remains a mystery to everyone — probably intentionally. One thing that is sure to stick is her near-stubborn insistence on challenging herself.

It’s the reason why she can back squat 305 pounds. (No, that’s not a typo.) It’s the reason why she spends all those hours training, phone on airplane mode, alone in the gym. It’s impossible to win weightlifting; no matter what number you hit, there will always be another two 10-pound plates to throw on the ends of the bar, clear your head — and lift.

“A hundred pounds today is going to be a hundred pounds tomorrow,” Isay says. “And if I can lift it today, but I can’t lift it tomorrow, that’s all because of me.”

A version of this article appears in the Monday, Sept. 30, 2019, print edition with the headline “Abroad for Four Semesters, This Junior Chases Change.” Email Sam Klein at [email protected]