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.

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What it’s like to unfollow 98.5% of your Facebook friends

A few months ago, I unfollowed someone on Facebook on my phone.

Conveniently, Facebook prompted me asking if I wanted to unfollow more people, leading me to a page with a bubble for each of my friends, groups, and pages. To unfollow, I simply had to tap the bubble of their face.

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And over the next few months, I used this page to unfollow massive amounts of people. In one sitting, I unfollowed half of my friends. In another, I got it down to about 60/70.

But after a bit too much deliberation of “do I really care to know what ______ posts”, on an impulse, I unfollowed  everything: all my friends, all the pages I liked, all the groups I was in. It took about 5 minutes of frantic bubble tapping.

Slowly, I’ve been adding people back in and unfollowing them again, trying to reach some sort of equilibrium for the “ideal feed”. Here’s where I’m at right now:

  • 2 groups – my college class group and my scholar group
  • 2 pages– my high school and the Student Congress page
  • 8 people– 1 friend from middle school, 5 people I regularly talked to in high school, and 2 family members.

Observations:

  • My feed got boring. Fast. It’s hard to notice at first, but soon you’re looking at the same few posts over and over again. I don’t think unfollowing people decreased the frequency with which I checked Facebook, but it definitely decreased the amount of time I spent each time
  • You become acutely aware of how stalker-like social media is. I noticed it the most the few days I decided to only follow one person. It’s creepy to keep up with all the pictures someone likes and people they friend. And some people I wanted to keep for precisely that reason. (I convinced myself to unfollow them…eventually.)
  • I missed seeing stuff. I missed almost all the pictures from my high school graduation and prom. Sometimes I saw a profile picture change a week late (or more). Sometimes I felt awkward liking a post or a picture late so I didn’t. (To those friends-sorry.) But now it bothers me less.
  • FOMO and social media envy died down– Seeing a post with 200 likes on it that’s a week old doesn’t feel that bad anymore. Realizing that I missed a social outing a month ago matters less than it used to. And it doesn’t feel like people are bragging about their social lives anymore, even though I made the conscious decision to unfollow them, not them.
  • I read individual profiles more. Now my new time waster is bouncing around individual profiles. Cue the stalker factor.

I like social media like this- a way to look up profiles of people you’re thinking about, and a way to message them if needed, a reference book of sorts.

Can I undo my choice now? I don’t think Facebook allows you to follow massive amounts of people in the way I unfollowed people. So unless I manually go through all 500 friends I unfollowed, this change is for the most part permanent.

I don’t regret this decision, and with the influx of people I’ll meet in college, it might be for the best. I’d encourage you to try something similar. At the very least, try unfollowing half your friends. It’s easier than you’d imagine, and no one has to know.

Guest Post: Relative Deprivation, aka The Psychology of First World Problems

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By: Dinah Baum

[Note: Being only a newly minted high school graduate who has yet to know the ‘real world’, the examples given will be mostly school related. Exactly what you want to read about during the summer, I know.]

It’s second semester senior year, and university admissions decisions are being sent out. I’m absentmindedly checking my email when I notice that Rice University has sent me a notification indicating my admission status has been posted. I eagerly type in my email address and password to see the outcome. It takes less than 10 seconds for me to read “I regret to inform you that….” The sentence doesn’t need finishing. I know I have been rejected.

I suppose I am lucky. I had not developed any emotional attachment to the University, nor did I have a parental alumnus I had to shamefacedly break the news to. Even if I had been accepted, I may not have chosen to attend. Thus, this rejection, while disappointing, did not reduce me to tears or throw me into an existential crisis. And yet…I was still more upset than I should’ve been.

Was it because I’d applied as a history major, my strongest academic subject and still been rejected? Or because I had chosen to drop debate that year, making me look “uncommitted” to the admissions officers? As joyful Facebook posts found their way onto my feed, the answer became clear. I was demoralized not by my own rejection – instead, I was dejected over the acceptance letters many of my friends had received.

[Note: Friends who were accepted/are attending Rice: Those well wishes I gave you were genuine, not just some attempt to not appear bitter. I don’t begrudge you your acceptances at all.]

Enter the concept of relative deprivation. A term coined by sociologist Samuel Stouffer during WWII, it describes the fact that our sense of deprivation (in my case, an acceptance letter) is governed not by absolute position but relative position in relation to others. There’s another catch – we tend to only compare ourselves to those we’re around most often rather than everyone in the world.

At that moment, I was not comparing myself to all the high school seniors across America, or in Texas, or even in my own high school. Intellectually, I understand that many more students were rejected from Rice than accepted. I was in good – and plentiful – company. However, psychologically, emotionally, I was comparing myself not to the students down the hall in regular classes, but to my own group of highly academically competitive friends, and they seemed to be experiencing great success. To expand on this, who was I to be so upset about a simple rejection? I’d already received several acceptances from other good institutions. There are millions of children who will never have the chance at any college education, or even a primary school one. How could I complain when I know there are children in my own city who are attending failing schools, growing up in poverty, and are statistically unlikely to even set foot in a community college, let alone a four year institution? What a first world/privileged problem: “None of the universities that accepted me are prestigious enough!

Relative deprivation is a surprisingly simple concept that has a multitude of implications. For example, Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway have higher suicide rates than China, Vietnam, and Greece. This is in spite of the fact that Switzerland, Denmark, and Norway are ranked as the top 3 happiest countries and (on average) have a better quality of life than China, Vietnam, and Greece. Why are people in the “better” countries committing suicide at higher rates than people in the “worse” countries?

As Malcolm Gladwell put it, “If you are unhappy, but everyone else around you is unhappy too, then you’re actually sort of fine. You don’t feel so bad. On the other hand, if you are unhappy and everyone else is jumping up and down for joy, you are really unhappy – you’re in a very serious place.”

On an ending note, I think I’ll steal one of Mr. Gladwell’s examples of the effects of relative deprivation.

Consider two universities. One is Harvard, the other is Hartwick. Odds are you only know about one of these places. Consider this chart. (I realize the SAT is of dubious value in predicting college performance, however this gives a rough idea of basic math skill.)

Harvard

STEM majors     Top Third     Middle Third     Bottom Third

Math SAT                753                        674                   581

Hartwick

STEM majors     Top Third     Middle Third     Bottom Third

Math SAT                569                      472                    407

It may surprise you to learn that the percentage of STEM degrees earned by each third is roughly the same. At both Hartwick and Harvard, the top third earn a bit over 50% of the STEM degrees, the middle third earn about 30%, and the lowest third earn about 20%. What these results show is that while math ability certainly matters in obtaining a STEM degree, it’s not the only factor. If that were the case, one would expect almost everyone at Harvard to be earning their STEM degree – the Harvard low scorers are still better than the Hartwick high scorers. Morale, not just math ability, matters – and if you’re the last in your class (even if it is at Harvard) your morale is probably not very high.

Considering I’ll be studying computer science, perhaps my rejection from Rice was a blessing in disguise.

Letter to myself at 15

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Dear Fan Amy,

Hello! Yes, people still call you “Fan Amy” because of your stupid Facebook name. Don’t worry- you’ll get it fixed after you send Facebook your driving permit.

Is everything alright? High school going well for you? Okay, that was a rhetorical question. I know that you’re going through a ridiculous amount of insecurity and frustration right now. I remember all those nights where you go to sleep hoping you won’t wake up and all those nights where you don’t know why you’re awake but don’t want to go to sleep.

And oh dear the AWKWARDNESS. Your junior year, you’ll hear a police officer say that a place isn’t safe if it doesn’t feel safe. Similarly, you couldn’t be unawkward if you didn’t feel unawkward. Despite what people told you, you certainly felt awkward.

I was going to include a description of how all your failures and insecurities from freshman year got better by senior year, but I took it out. It’s three times as long as this letter, and it’s too personal for the web. Besides, I want you to become comfortable with that uncertainty, that horrible existential fear of not being enough, and to keep doing things even though they you feel out of your skin uncomfortable.

Because one day last semester, I spent 20 minutes during lunch wandering the quarter-mile halls alone because I didn’t want to talk to a teacher. And that was after an hour of working up the courage during my office period. Sound familiar? I felt just like you then, an awkward freshman with a heavy backpack not knowing where to go during lunch.

Except this was second semester senior year- literally when I should have felt on top of the school. After too much overthinking, I eventually opened the door, had that conversation, and it was worth it- it takes you to New York, you get on national television, and you meet some pretty awesome people.

But it still bothers me. What took me months of indecision, self-hatred for not simply brushing aside the inferiority complex and working harder, my friends telling me that I wasn’t one of them, an hour of talking to myself, and 20 lonely minutes in the halls, other people had decided at the beginning of the year in an instant it seemed.

In college, I won’t have the luxury of wrestling with my feelings and indecision for that long, and I’m worried about what price I’ll have to pay. It seems like you would understand, since you’re already a freshman- what are your thoughts?

Embrace the awkwardness, because it’s not going away. I love you.

-The 18 year old Amy

P.S. I’m making things sound too melodramatic. Here’s two lighthearted spoilers: 1) “Amy didn’t make the AIME” will continue to be the biggest joke in Math Club until you graduate, 2) Something called “dank memes” will make their way into conversations with your friends. You’ll have a love hate relationship with them.

Essaying to College

I’m at the second meeting of the Emerging Latino Leaders with over 40 other high school students from across Houston. I am one of three non-Latino/Latinas in the room, more of a bystander than a participant. I was invited as part of the HISD Student Congress, not as one of the members identified as a potential leader.

It’s lunchtime, and my mouth is burning from eating the homemade tostadas (I had completely ignored the heaps of sour cream that people were putting on their plates), and I run out of the room to get a bottle of water. Everyone else had cheered when the meeting organizer announced the food that was being served, but I had never even heard of tostadas, and evidently, I was not prepared to handle the spice.

As I enter the room where food is being served, I bump into Carlos, the adult who had invited us.

“So what do you think of the meeting?”

“Great!”  Silence.

The Latino chief of staff to the mayor pro-temp (“the personal assistant to the vice mayor”) spoke to us that morning about the importance of being civically engaged.  He talked of the importance of low voter turnout amongst the Latino population, about the low representation of Latinos in city council, about the day to day decisions of the city governments.  I felt like I needed to say more.

“Well, I mean,” I sputter out. “This whole thing about civic engagement never really mattered to me until I joined the Student Congress. It’s not something my family ever really talked about, and it’s interesting to see so many of these issues apply to the Asian community as well.”

Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family with parents who had never voted, I had never seen the political process as one of my priorities. My entire life, I had focused on excelling within my tiny sphere of influence. I had no ambitions to ever run for political office, yet this morning, I felt like I had gotten a glimpse into the hard work that went into running the city. Little did I know, this same lack of exposure affected the Latino community as well.

Carlos and I talk about family and cultural influences in the Asian and Latino community for a few more minutes. By the time he walks away. the burn in my mouth is reduced to a dull tinge, but my mind has been sparked.

After lunch, each of us go up and talk about issues that affect us in our day to day lives. Some people talked about after-school jobs that prevented them from doing homework. Others talked about family obligations, long commutes, cooking, details that got lost in day to day life. I had never been in an environment where I could heard people talk so frankly about their issues. Even though I was surrounded by these same peers for 8 hours a day, I never heard about these struggles.

Even as just a bystander, I had known what I was getting myself into. I knew that I would be surrounded by people of a completely different culture and background, but frankly, I had expected something more…foreign.

At this point, I realized the importance of reaching outside of my bubble, of actively seeking diversity in a community.

The demographics of Houston will be the demographics of the US in 50 years. People keep emphasizing the importance of living in a global world, but I’m come to realize that it’s by digging deep into a community, sometimes just by sitting and listening to people, that people are able to understand one another. The only way to deal with a world that is speeding up is to slow down, to contextualize the problems I see within my own community, to attach to it a personal meaning. Only then can I see the universality of the issues we all face.

 

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.