One of my favorite outreach activities at Stanford is being a Project Motivation panelist for ethnic/socioeconomic minority high school students. As a panelist, I talk about what it was like for me to go to a low performing high school, what they can do to get into a good college, and what doubts I had about going to a competitive university. Participating in these types of panels requires a different form of empathy and understanding that isn’t as necessary in regular college admissions panels.
There is a particular moment that keeps ringing in my mind when I think about college admissions and the way we talk to minority students.
I was answering the usual questions students tend to want to hear about: my high school preparation, financial aid, and leaving my hometown. One student asked about how to set himself apart from other students in his personal statement.
Another panelist gave the spiel everyone has heard at least once in their lives: just follow your passions, find something you’re truly dedicated to, start a charity, build something cool, etc. He glowed as he talked about making movies with his friends, then going on to do film studies at Stanford.
I could feel the tension building behind each student’s eyes.
I knew that exact feeling of dread because it was the anxiety that kept me up at night and made me feel completely unworthy of Stanford. It was the same feeling of frustration I sensed every time I did tutoring at my high school and had to talk to a student about why he or she was having a hard time.
Evaluating students based on their high school accomplishments assumes that all students have the time, resources, and support necessary to pursue whatever they choose to do. That is, it is certainly possible to pick out stellar students based off this metric, but such a process leaves underprivileged students out of the picture.
I think back to all those students I tutored and the conversations we’d have about why they weren’t doing well in school. Sometimes, yeah, they just didn’t care. But more often than not, they couldn’t do their homework because they were working to support their family, taking care of sick relatives who couldn’t afford treatment, or helping their family in some other way. There are simply more important things in life for these students than pursuing their own interests.
When I think about my own anxieties in high school regarding my perceived lack of accomplishments (and therefore, passions), I feel outraged by how I was convinced that I was unworthy by both myself and by public opinion on these issues. I was unworthy of an elite university not only because I had no tangible accomplishments to show for my high school years, but because any attempt to explain my circumstances was a copout — a way to gain admission to a university not through my own merit, but through sympathy for my situation.
I recently came across an email discussion of my personal statement, which contained this:
I don’t really like the idea of talking about my parents. You guys keep telling me to, but it doesn’t feel genuine, it just feels too forced. I know that it’s a huge point and I should explain that I grew up with adversity and I feared being attacked at the store and all that, but it doesn’t really “fit” into my essay and I don’t want to force it in unnaturally. [...] Do admissions officers really want to see that there is nothing more to my life than the fact that I was poor?
Talking about it made me feel guilty. I was clearly unaccomplished and undeserving of colleges like Stanford. My own pride was at stake, and acknowledging my socioeconomic status would be a way of ingratiating myself with admissions officers while not truly representing myself separately from my environment.
Looking back at my high school life now, I don’t know why I was ever ashamed. Sure, I never started a company or did medical research or took advanced classes. Instead, I spent most of my high school years working with my parents at our family’s store. I would get home from school at 3pm, work from 5pm-10pm, go home, and then go straight to bed.
I never stayed up late after coming home from work. My mom was worried about whether work was taking away too much time from my studies and often asked me if I could manage working rather than staying home to do homework. Rather than telling her the truth and letting my aging, overworked parents take my place, I convinced her that my classes were just so easy that I was able to finish my homework on my own time.
The truth is that I stopped doing my homework when she was at the store so that she wouldn’t feel guilty and force me to stay home. I would go to bed as soon as I came home from work because there was no way for me to justify staying up — I said I had no homework! Instead, I woke up early in the morning, before everyone else was awake, so I could finish the work that I couldn’t do at the store. I was constantly scrambling, and there was never any time for me to consider doing more than work and school.
At the same time, all I could hear was that star students across the nation were curing cancer and changing lives. I felt inadequate, unworthy, and as though I couldn’t ever compare. In retrospect, I know that dealing with the circumstances I was in mattered more than following some vague passions I had as a high school student. But at the time, all I really knew was that there were people who assumed that I hadn’t done anything in high school because I was lazy, incompetent, or just lacking in ambition. There are people who will look at minority students and complain that they only achieve through affirmative action, through pity, and not at all because they might have something wonderful to offer to an otherwise homogeneous environment.
So, I knew exactly how the students felt. Each one of them was feeling that sense of dread — that interplay between “I haven’t accomplished anything,” and “I have not had the same opportunities and resources as most American high school students.” Hearing yet another person tell them to pursue their passions and to write about all the incredible things they did on their personal statements was just another way to remind them of the differences between their lives and the people who typically go to college.
I was luckier than most students in my situation. I had people telling me that Stanford was within reach. I had people helping me with my application and convincing me it was okay to acknowledge these challenges. I had people convincing me that I might be worth a shot in spite of my academic background.
But not everyone has that level of support. These students are hearing tales of amazing, privileged students and nobody is telling them that it’s okay to not fit that mold. It’s okay to not have it all. It’s okay to have priorities other than self-actualization at the age of seventeen.
I jumped in and interrupted the panelist’s endorsement of “pursuing one’s passions.” I told them that they didn’t necessarily have to write about how they changed the world; rather, things like taking care of family, working, or growing up in a troubled home are important and relevant parts of their lives that they shouldn’t be ashamed to write about. I told them what I had gone through.
I could feel each student release their breath and sit up just a little straighter.