Rejected College Essays: The First

This was the first college essay I wrote and probably my favorite in retrospect. Kind of wish I had submitted it.

We might as well be blindfolded. Nine of my peers and I are ushered through a maze of cubicles into a conference room.  No one remembers the way back. We take seats in chairs around a conference table. The door clicks shut, and the interrogation begins.

I spill out how we broke into a school with 80 students on the weekend and encouraged students to gossip about their schools. Someone produces a box with “classified evidence”: notes I told students to write behind the adult’s backs, reminiscent of a Burn Book.

As the adults hold the notes in their hands and read them to themselves, I blurt out when and where our group is conspiring next . They say they’re going to infiltrate.

I’ve ratted everyone out. We’re exposed.

But that was all part of the plan.

The plan to get the student voice into education, that is. After a year of negotiating, the Student Congress has finally gotten its first monthly meetings with the district administration.

Interrogation? The administration asking how our first meeting at a local high school went. Burn Book? Post it notes we had students write with their concerns. District infiltration? Inviting the administration to come listen to students at our next monthly meeting. It really wasn’t that scary.

But that’s not to say the above scene isn’t how I used to perceive the district. My interest in education reform began as a private endeavor, something I explored on my own through books and articles in a quest to discover how schools sucked.

The process of making my interest public involved a few growing pains. Freshman year, I started a secret Twitter so that I could participate in Twitter chats I had read about online. Sophomore year, I wrote my first article about the student voice. When I shared it on Facebook, I closed the tab immediately and refused to check for an hour. I never dared start a conversation with anyone in person.

The first time I spoke at a board meeting to support the founding of the Student Congress, I stumbled on my first word and confessed 10 seconds in that I was absolutely terrified. My first time on TV, everyone told me that I spoke way too fast and fidgeted too much. Every time I shared my story about how I found my refuge in math problems like how other people found their refuge in art, people gave me weird looks. Whenever we met with adults that first year, I was relieved that I didn’t have to do the bulk of the talking, because I had clearly missed some sort of social training in my 17 years. On the Student Congress trip to Austin, I constantly was unable to stop legislators and engage in a simple conversation.

But after beating myself up after these debacles, I realized that this fear of awkwardness and talking to adults was what held back so many of my peers. The same tiny things that terrified me also stopped those who didn’t speak up, and those perhaps for whom the student voice mattered the most. And until we truly slowed down and listened to everyone in the room, we would only be a congress of the most outspoken students in the district, not everyone.

And if I wanted to convince the people around me that being awkward was ok, I needed to believe it myself first.

As the weight of leading the Student Congress has shifted to me, my heart still skips multiple beats before meeting with any adult. I still sometimes don’t know the right thing to say. I stumbled on the first word of my last board meeting speech again. I still catch myself speaking too quickly sometimes. Sometimes I question if I’m the right person to do this. But reality doesn’t care if I’m the “right” person– reality cares that I am the person that is doing this, and I have no choice but to do my best.

We’ve restructured the monthly meetings for conspiring to create safe environments for sharing.  We’ve promise to keep the stories anonymous, but not the underlying issues. We only bring in the administration after the students talk to each other and build trust.

I’ve learned that listening is as much an emotional act as it is a physical one, and that everyone’s voice is equally strong, whether it’s from the student whose school doesn’t offer enough challenging courses, or from the student whose school offers so many AP courses that student are discouraged from taking classes they genuinely like to protect their GPA. The student who can barely read English and the one who has been labeled GT all his life.

And maybe, some point in the future, many years after my graduation, expressing the student voice doesn’t have to feel like enhanced interrogation.

Rejected College Essays: Nerding Out

An actual essay draft I considered submitting for an open-ended supplement but ended up scrapping.

It came in the middle of studying for my AP chemistry exam. Locked in my room the day before the exam, I had printed a pages of problems to work on as a review. My phone was beside me only as a source of music.  I had my notebook open, and I was silently working through pages of problems, occasionally looking up formulas, and writing everything I didn’t know on a sheet of butcher paper.

Oddly enough, I felt…happy. Overwhelming happy, in fact. Logically working through each problem, no one looking over my shoulder judging my every step and noticing my stupid mistakes, methodically reasoning through and checking each problem, feeling the tiny pangs of rejection and the short bursts of satisfaction. If decided to go another route, it didn’t annoyingly come back at me. If I needed a formula, I didn’t have to wait hours for a response or remind myself to make sure to follow up the next day.  In other words, nothing held me back asides from my own hard work. It was that same rush of intellectual satisfaction I got in the middle of math competitions, sans the time constraint and competitiveness.

I remembered back in middle school when doing homework alone in my room was the only thing I had to do every night. I dreaded having a textbook and a sheet of paper as my only entertainment for hours every day. (Getting a portable radio into my room was a huge deal.)

But now in high school, I missed this silent studying time. With no structured activities in my schedule (sports, band, yearbook, orchestra, a job, family obligations), I had to determine the balance of extracurricular work and school. As a result, my entire life became a cost benefit analysis, where I would consistently ask “could I spend my time any better?”

Should I spend my time writing an email, or doing my homework? Could I pay attention in class and work on another assignment at the same time? Did I know a topic well enough to do well on the test? And even if I didn’t, would the grade hit be worse than telling people about an event a day late? How much sleep did I really need to do well at x? (Too often, my sleep-deprived brain reasoned the answer to be “not much.”) Often times, Student Congress work seemed more urgent and more glamorous than sitting in front a book, and it would push aside other work that was less glamorous, more time consuming, less urgent. Namely, school work.

Even when I spent hours doing nothing, I would constantly get this nagging feeling that I was missing something and frantically figure out what it was. I began treating doing well on tests as evidence of studying too much. I know that I had formerly overlearned, but it shocked me how little studying I could get away with. Spending additional time on material solely because I enjoyed it seemed selfish, especially when I could spend that same time helping someone else. It took my last minute studying for a standardized test that hundreds of thousands of students would take to realize how much I valued my individual learning process.

In the rush of everything, I had forgotten the simple joy of learning, the very thing that I felt was missing in schools and made me interested in education reform in the first place. In 8th grade, I had spent most of my lunch doing math problems in a teacher’s room because I genuinely enjoyed it. If I was to learn anything properly, it’d have to be without the constant pressure of other things looming over me. Even if it was there, I had to strongly insist that focusing on academics was a worthy use of time.

Sure, bringing 100 students on a trip to Austin was exciting, but so was sitting with a book doing math problems. Sure, writing an amicus brief and getting national press coverage was thrilling, but so was reading drafts of the brief and struggling for several minutes to word a sentence properly. Hosting Student Congress meetings on my own was exciting, but so was figuring out a meeting format that would be both informative and engaging for students after my Cabinet had told me that they felt bored and ineffective after our meetings that first year.

That summer, alongside other things, I worked as a summer student at MD Anderson.I had no intentions of going into medicine or research, but I was curious to get a glimpse back into the academic world I had seemingly alienated.

What I found surprised me. There was no pressure to get things right the first time, as long as I had something correct to present at the end. Even though I was in front of a computer for most of the day, I had the chance to talk to the people around me. Directly asking my mentor questions in person followed by an immediate answer was in stark contrast to asking and waiting for a response via email or chat. People openly criticized other peoples’ ideas without any criticism of the person. People ate lunch in front of their computers to get more work done. No one in my department spoke English as their first language, yet when it came to explaining their project, they all spoke perfect (though accented) English and explained complicated concepts more clearly than some of my teachers. I was jealous of the people I worked with, jealous that they could spend the entire day working on a few things, jealous that they got to decide how to spend their 8 hours every day, jealous that what I only had a summer to learn, they could do all year.  Even though I knew I was enamored partially because it was my first exposure and that the novelty would most likely wear off quickly, I carefully observed everything about the environment around me and embraced my work.

As I returned to school, I began to feel this struggle again- whether to stay quiet and do my work like I had done over the summer at MDA, or to focus more on the outside world, the so-called “real world” through the Student Congress. I still cannot tell whether I’m an introvert who revels in nerding out, or the awkward extrovert who feeds off the energy of a crowd. I realize that these are not mutually exclusive, but more and more, I feel like the frantic peddler running in between two worlds that keep demanding increasing amounts of time and energy without any aim as to where I’m going. Only time can reveal where I ultimately stay.