LOS ANGELES TIMES
Tuesday February 6, 2001
Enjoying the Ride
* A college freshman says teens who forgo the fast track to pursue their passions will be happier in high school and in life.
As competition for acceptance to prestige universities has reached an all-time high, the very idea of what students should get from high school has become distorted.
Students feel forced to pad their resumes to a ridiculous extent--join every club, play every sport, be in every high-level class--basically look good at everything on paper without concentrating on any particular passion. Doing community service and taking a full load of honors and Advanced Placement classes have value, but doing them merely to get into college is perverse.
Especially if it means not doing the things you love.
Some people--especially parents--have an attitude that treats every phase of life as preparation for the next one. High school is treated as a way to get into a good college, college as transition into graduate school, graduate school as a gateway into the work force, and jobs, well, are gotten and kept in order to make money. "Just close your eyes and bear it until retirement," people seem to think. You can't stop and enjoy life until you're 65? Give me a break.
I've been in the trenches--I graduated from high school last year and am a college freshman now--and I'm here to say there is another way: Follow your heart and get into the college right for you.
High school is not merely a gateway into college. It is an experience in itself, perhaps even more important than college in terms of self-development.
There are certain reasonable steps that students can and should take in order to keep their college options open, like taking a relatively high level of academics, getting good grades, studying a bit for tests such as the SAT.
But if you do everything merely for tomorrow, then there's nothing to keep you happy today. There's a line you just shouldn't cross.
If you love to write poetry, for example, but you're spending so much time doing math and science that you no longer have any time for writing, then you've crossed that line. If you just hate English, but you love science, and you're studying and studying for that AP English course and don't have any time to devote to science, then you've crossed that line.
If you have extracurricular activities that mean a lot to you, and you feel like you have to give them up because people say you should be spending time doing other things because they "help you get into college," think again. Don't give up your passions. And parents, don't let your kids give up what they love for some pursuit of future prestige. It doesn't pay off.
When I first entered Berkeley High, a large public high school a few blocks from the UC Berkeley campus, I had this deep desire to achieve at some high level and go to Harvard or one of the Ivies. Who knows where that urge came from, certainly not from my parents, but it was there in full force.
I have always loved to write--poetry, fiction, anything really. From a young age writing has been my primary genre of creative expression. In registering for ninth grade, I enrolled in every high-level class available--but all of those classes were in math and science. There were no freshman honors classes in the humanities. As a result, I worked really hard and did well in these classes, but I wasn't able to keep up with writing, wasn't able to maintain this passion.
Halfway through my freshman year, my parents noticed what was happening, and questioned what I was doing. In talking to them, it became apparent to me that I was giving up a part of myself, and it just wasn't worth the payoff. So the following semester I went into the normal math and science classes and cleared more time for myself.
For the rest of my time at Berkeley High, I followed my heart, so to speak. I poured myself into activities that spoke to me. I edited multiple publications on campus, I published poetry, I spent hundreds of hours doing things that meant the world to me. All the while, some people told me that I was making a mistake, that if I wanted to get into a good college I should do what all the other college-bound kids were doing: putting their noses to the grindstone, trying to do everything at once, be in every AP and honors course in every possible academic area, join every club. But I didn't listen, and I'm glad I didn't.
I took care of business, I had a good grade-point average and a decent SAT score when I applied to colleges. But more importantly, I was happy and I had a good sense of who I am. There is something in high school, in education, that goes beyond grades, there is a joy to learning that is often forgotten. (A good teacher and friend once advised me: "Don't let school get in the way of your education.")
I ended up getting accepted into most of the colleges I applied to--including some very selective ones. I'm saying this not to brag, but to emphasize my point: that maintaining your passions and following your dreams helps your future, doesn't hurt it. I used the same thinking in choosing a college.
Everyone assumed I would go to Stanford or UC Berkeley because of their prestige. But after visiting the various colleges that accepted me, I decided that those two really weren't the schools for me. I chose the much less-known
Professors at Occidental seem accessible and friendly, and the student body is focused on community, on collaboration, as opposed to the highly competitive environment at some of the better-known schools. As I told someone recently who questioned my decision: Prestige isn't going to make me happy when I wake up every morning.
High school was one of the best experiences in my life, and I'll always remember it warmly. I don't hear this kind of comment too often and that makes me sad. Despite the problems plaguing American education, high school can be wonderful in many ways. If students take care of business, but also follow what they love, then they will flourish. And if they do this, then college will take care of itself.
I recently read a quote in Newsweek from a college counselor. She was talking about getting into prestigious universities, about how to be a patch on the "quilt" of admitted students. "With no outstanding passion, you don't fit into the quilt. I don't care what you do, get out and do it. If you collect butterflies, get out there and collect them." I couldn't agree more.
And if students don't get into the college they want to, at least they will have had four good years of real education, growing personally, following their dreams.
There will be a college that fits each one, that wants each one. Even if it's difficult to see at the moment, I look back now, just months later, and see how true that is.