22 April, 2013

Enough Brainwashing. Choose a College.

Note: I’m speaking from a personal standpoint. You can choose to interpret this material however you want. This is not intended to be one of those articles pitting schools against each other and comparing which one comes out on top. Everything is my opinion and my observations. Which also means that I will be speaking for UC Berkeley, and most of my generalizations is only under the assumption of UC Berkeley. Also, you don’t have to read my story, after 3 pages in, I realized it may not be as relevant or excited to you as it is to me. Jump to the reflections part if this is too long of a read.

I remember almost exactly a year ago when college decisions came out. I was devastated. You see, at the college I attend now, UC Berkeley, there are a variety of students who get admitted, but generally fall into 2 categories. There are students who are happy to make the cut, and then there are students who fall from grace from the Ivy’s. Last year, I fell into the latter half of the population.

After fumbling to get everything together, I made a last-minute decision to attend UC Berkeley from the pressures of my parents. I actually never considered going there. It was always kind of a safety school for me. I’ve done mental calculations in my head, which I would evaluate myself against my peers, figure that I was in the top 10% of my school, and assume, yes, statistically speaking, coming from a rich and well educated school like Palo Alto, there is somewhat hopeful chance that, yes, I do deserve to go to the Ivy’s.

But that acceptance letter never came, and I dreaded my eventual defeat. I was forced to face the reality — I was not in the top 1% of the world. I was repeatedly told through numerous emails that despite all my struggles, my accomplishments, my friends, and my existence, that I was not special enough. Furthermore, I was going to attend a school that would theoretically be surrounded by thousands of students who look exactly like me.

For the first couple of weeks when I attended UC Berkeley, I socialized, I tried out as many clubs as I could, and I made damn sure that I wouldn’t be like any other Asian there. I was confident, but I was also arrogant as hell. I prided myself knowing that I was better than everyone else because I wasn’t part of the system and because I belonged at a higher-ranked school.

I’ve done things that were immature and were lashing outs from my bruised ego. One of them was that I chose comfort over uncertainty. To me, Friday nights were not interesting enough for me to go out and venture. People were either spending Friday nights partying or staying indoors studying. I chose to not associate with either stereotype and just lounged in my dorm. I would surf Reddit sometimes, play guitar on others, but generally, I felt too suffocated to do homework, but too repulsed to go out and party.

I also didn’t expend the effort to make close friends. My schedule is packed. I’m busy, how would I have time to make friends? Another consideration was that it was hard to find someone as intellectually stimulating as me. People talk about how excited they are to be at UCB, about how difficult single variable calculus was, and I just sit there, thinking, “Wow, how did I end up with people like them?” It was an immature thought, but it was understandable in hindsight.

After coming back home for winter break feeling somewhat defeated and unaccomplished, I took a self-reflective time-off to re-evaluate my trajectory. I was not happy with myself. I was a resentful being with little going on with my life. It seemed I could either be resentful or defeated for my circumstances.

At the beginning of my next semester, I managed to get dinner with some of my personal mentors, two UCB students who seem to have more of life figured out than me. They offered me solid advice for some of the difficulties I was facing.

One of the more memorable advice came from my friend Carl, who told me that “It’s not about the position you are in life. It’s about the velocity at which you are going.” This struck me viscerally. Most of my life I’ve been trying to get to point B, and always felt like I’ve been shortchanged or I’ve been staggering behind. The regrets of the past and the worries of the future bothered me so much they’ve made me miserable and helpless. Everything was outside my control. It took Carl’s words to understand the only thing I should focus on was the present and how I was continuing to develop.

I decided to adopt several changes my next semester to see how everything would work out.

Instead of combatting my lost sense of identity, I decided to try to embrace the anonymity it gave me. I tried rejection therapy in Berkeley for 30 days, which entailed me getting trying to get myself rejected at least once a day to overcome my fear of rejection. I didn’t have to worry so much about my fears of rejection in Berkeley because if I screw up an interaction, it’s not like the other person could recognize me the next day, and it’s also not like I could recognize them either. There was a very liberating sense of freedom associated with this revelation, and the whole therapy has taught me how to differentiate myself.

Speaking of friendships, I’ve also made more time to make and nurture friends. Luckily, I still had several friends that stuck around long enough to see my change, and I was able to become closer friends with them.

I also dedicated time trying out new things (no drugs). Swing dancing? It sounded interesting, so I tried it out on a Friday night (while I thought most people spent this time partying), and I love it! I regularly attend the swing dancing group now. Recently I’ve found out I have too many meal points, so I asked the community if anyone would like to grab lunch or dinner with me. Overwhelming responses, my week is filled up with lunch and dinner dates now.

Now that I’m almost done with my first year here, I feel a new sense of excitement and adventure in my life! I’m heavily involved with the most amazing computer science group in the world, Hackers@Berkeley, I have a supportive network of friends around the world (not just in Cal), and I’m learning so much from my school, my peers, and myself. I keep an active blog keeping track of all the exciting things that are going on from day-to-day.

My Reflection

I was having lunch a couple of weeks ago with my friends Mark (Stanford) and Daniel (Cal) and we were discussing some of the complaints Stanford and Cal students were having over their classes. Mark said (some serious paraphrasing here), “Some of my classmates were complaining to the professors that the midterm had material that wasn’t explicitly covered in lecture. Students would grumble, ‘Wait? You want us to extend our knowledge? Outrageous!’” Dan recounted a similar experience in Cal which students complained to an economics professor who put a midterm question that asked students to infer the answers. The point I want to make is that it seems that students seem to rely too much on institutions for their educations. They seem to adopt this kind of reasoning, “It’s not my job to learn. It’s your job to teach.”

Academics only serve as a microcosm of a bigger problem at hand. I think there is a growing trend of students who rely too much on letting their colleges define who they are. The effect permeates from the bottom most schools to the top tiered Ivy’s. The lower-tiered students feel disenfranchised, “My college sucks, and therefore my life will suck as well.” The top-tiered students feel entitled, “My college is good, therefore my life will be good as well.” Though statistically top-tiered colleges on average fare better financially than lower-tiered colleges, it has been shown and demonstrated that the discrepancy is not due to the college. In a study cited by my friend, researchers have determined that if you compare the average Harvard student and the average UMich student, there is a discrepancy in financial well being. However, if the researchers took away factors that separated individuals like outgoingness, people skills, optimism, and confidence, then each individual’s schools makes almost no contribution to an individual’s income. Because we let our college define these attributes of ourselves (e.g. Harvard students are outgoing, Stanford students are entrepreneurial, MIT students are intelligent. Berkeley students are hard-working. And at the same time if Harvard rejects me, that must mean I’m not outgoing enough), we fall into the grooves the educational system.

These attributes, whether it’s confidence, people skills, resourcefulness, or creativity, could be obtained sans a good college, and even without any college. You yourself are accountable for your own education. If the school isn’t teaching you what you want to learn, you should be seeking other avenues for learning. You should be in the driver seat of your education, and your life.

I think it’s a legitimate question to ask what would happen if you strip a man away from his possessions, his material wealth, and his history. What would be left of him? What will he have left to prove himself? That should be a question that you should be asking yourself, “Without my college degree, what will I have left to prove myself?”

A couple of weeks ago I was pondering about the influences my external environment have on me. It would be foolish to deny that college has no tangible effect on an individual, but at the same time how could I mitigate the various pressures around me that ask me to be someone who I am not? After all, I still had homework to do, grades to earn, and a living to make. After discussing my problem with my floormate, Patrick, I jokingly mentioned that “Yeah… I think I should go read a book about self-confidence or something” (I have a small-obsession for self-help books). Patrick pauses for a second, and he respond, “You know what? You should learn karate.”

“What?” I asked. “How would that solve my problem?”

“In Japan there is a form of karate named [insert Japanese karate name] that asks a student to enter into an empty room to train by himself. A student would enter, throw punches and shout. The idea is that if you can create a sense of self in a vacuum that will defend itself, you will be able to stay in control of yourself. You will have created a sphere of control around you that no one can touch.”

What I found very fascinating about the practice was the vocal yells of the student. To shout into emptiness is something we rarely do for the sake of ourselves. It always feel awkward to speak into the world and receive no feedback or acknowledgement of your presence or existence. This lack of external confirmation and contradiction also allows us to be who we really are. This practice deconstructs the external influences of ourselves and allows us to build our own sense of selves, from ourselves.

I think it was only when I was stripped away of my past and put into a vacuum did I get a better sense of who I was and allowed me to define myself. It was only when I didn’t have anything to hold onto when I decided to stand up for myself.

Some people never grow out of their attachments to external objects. Many college students (including UCB kids) become complacent in the school of their choice and invest their identity and ego in the institution. They are promised financial security, a higher quality standard of living, and a more fulfilling life. Granted, schools could provide the artificial presence of these desires, but it is a fragile construction that could collapse anytime.

You see the examples of this every once in awhile. We call this the “mid-life crisis.” It is the moment of many people’s lives when they feel like they have no significance or meaning in themselves, despite their college degrees, their six-figure salaries, and their double-sided resumes. Then, their flawed paradigms tells them that the solution to their loss of self is to invest their ego’s into material objects. They buy midlife-crisis sports car, marry midlife-crisis trophy wives, take midlife-crisis vacations, and do other reckless things in hopes something will fill the void that was their sense of self.

If you feel happy getting into the college of your choice, great! Just remember that you’re still in the driver seat of your life. If you still feel bad for attending a less-desirable one, that’s fine. Just know that it’s usually only at the time of uncomfort do we ever feel the need to extend past our comfort zone and re-innovate ourselves.

A lot of you guys (referring to high school seniors) may not viscerally understand what I am saying right now, and that’s ok. If you have to be upset, be upset, but don’t let it dwell. Go enjoy your summer vacation, do things that will challenge yourself (whether physically or mentally), and look forward to a awesome new school year in college!


I’d like to conclude with an offer to help and to listen to anyone who seeks my help. If you want college or life advice, or just want to contemplate the existence of the universe, ask me! I’d be happy to spend at least 15 minutes helping a fellow friend (or even stranger) out if it could help them make a better decision or ease their worries. My email is jmaa@berkeley.edu. In the meantime, I recommend this video of a commencement speech titled “You Are Not Special.” It’s one of my favorite speeches that kind of relates to what I’m talking about.

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3 Responses

  1. Rabab says:

    I really enjoyed this piece. I am a senior undergrad graduating this December, and I don’t go to a very good university. I wish I had found your piece earlier. Hopefully I am not too late to turn my perspective.

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