What I Learned In My College Decision: From Western Reserve Academy to Minerva Schools
//written on 2019.2.21//
Any social setting you place yourself in presents opinions guiding you on how to live your life. High school is particularly important in this regard. In these years, you walk in a confused cloud of existence, trying to hear everything that was said to you in order to see the street you were in (reference to Our Town), to sift through a million voices, to develop a voice of your own, and to find your identity. My discontent with the singular grade-oriented voice under the Chinese educational system sent me afar, seeking for a new environment where I can hear voices of all frequencies. By coming to Western Reserve Academy, I had taken a gamble. Literally, because I made the decision in under two weeks without any previous experience abroad. Figuratively, because I am lucky if I should find some voices that I enjoy hearing; luckier if some changed my predisposed liking. For example, I had dramatically declared after my freshman year tryouts that I did not enjoy riflery, yet I grew fond of it in a month, became captain two years later, and cried at my last practice three Thursdays ago. Back to the objective of high school. What I did not expect was to develop a voice so drastically different from the majority, or to fail to find an identity.
Let’s start with the former. In October, I committed a binding application to Williams College, ranked the №1 liberal arts college by the U.S. News. No one spoke ill of it. The volume of external accreditations drowned out my indifference to the school. Williams, undoubtedly, excelled at education, and I certainly couldn’t go wrong with an acclaimed choice.
I could. By December 7th, I had debated to withdraw my application for the fourth time. In a van-ride conversation on our way to Indianapolis Invitational Rifle Match, Mr. Ong explained his college choice — he loved Bowdoin when he first set foot on campus. Prestige, though is a part of Bowdoin, never came up in the conversation. I sat in the passenger seat, laid out my reasoning for applying Early Decision to Williams against the darkening sky, and shook my head at my blindness for the past three months. I picked up my phone to finally hit withdraw, only to find a rejection letter. I never would’ve anticipated just how happy I was to be rejected because, in fact, another school fired the enthusiasm in me in every regard — Minerva. No one spoke ill of this school, either, because no one had heard of it. It held no place on U.S. News, Forbes, Niche, or anything in that regard. Amidst a bombardment of college guidances in my senior fall, I had dismissed my passion and put little work into my Minerva application. I now prayed for a supernatural mercy to forgive my self-distrust and to gift me with Minerva’s acceptance. Upon returning from Indiana, I revised the list of colleges I would apply to in January. I called my mother and said: “Whenever I do something for social affirmation, I am very unhappy. If these were the last four years of my life and I must go to college, I would spend it at Minerva. As for jobs that require a prestigious college degree, I will worry about that after I graduate.” I received Minerva’s acceptance letter several hours later, two days earlier than the supposed notification date. I spent this past weekend visiting Minerva at San Francisco, the first of the seven global cities I would study in, where I would hear the widest range of voices worldwide. My brief stay on campus generated a fuel of passion and energy greater than any I have experienced before, which I can still feel today. In two weeks, I will visit another college, while I await my regular decision results. Wherever I choose to attend in the end, moving forward, I would take care to balance between honoring my voice and staying open to those around me.
When I still sat in the balcony of the chapel, I believed that in three years I would figure out a truth in alignment with the Reserve Experience (consisting of narratives that fit in the grand picture). I would tell that truth and earn empathizing acclaim. I’m afraid I have to disappoint my younger self that that hasn’t been my case. I am starting to make sense of my much queerer narrative that culminated in my college decision. (I use queer in the general sense of breaking the univocal norm.)
However, I will please my younger self by quoting her favorite Steve Jobs speech since middle school: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart even when it leads you off the well worn path; and that will make all the difference.”
I am lucky to find some dots that connected; luckier that some have changed my ready-made connections. Ways to connect the dots multiply as I move through time, sift through voices, and create more dots. A year ago, I would tell a story of how the pressure to perform as well as I did in my first two riflery seasons had lowered my junior year match scores. Eight months ago, I would tell the same story in a different light: how I almost did not sign up for riflery and therefore would not have Mr. Ong persuade me to join College Level U.S. History. These are now my two best memories from Reserve. We also wouldn’t have the van-ride conversation that perhaps changed my course of education. Even at a fixed point in time, I could weave a handful of narratives by looking at the dots at slightly different angles. Therefore, the latter agenda: to fail to find an identity. Identity is a fixed word. I construct, rather than find, my identity in fabricating and connecting the dots every day. In Michel Foucault’s words, “do not ask who I am, and do not ask me to remain the same.” I recently learned the fluidity and malleability of identity under Mr. Ray’s guidance. My identity shifts, evolves, and emerges from the multitude of voices in my social setting.
But it is so easy to lose sense in that setting — in a sea of univocality, to misbalance external and inner beliefs, to sacrifice individuality for comforting approval, and to escape the responsibility of doing the right thing, whatever that means to you. Use your privileged years here to foster a voice from the open accumulation of those around you. If you notice a pattern in yourself that differ from others, don’t dismiss it. To deviate from the majority takes immense courage, but it becomes easier, as everything must do. I’ve trusted that the dots will connect, and it has worked out well for me. Perhaps my younger self, who loved the quote from Steve Jobs, already possessed the wisdom that I would discover and digest once more in my senior year. Mr. Ong had advised me in May that “being comfortable with yourself is the most important task of your high school years,” which I have only recently started to understand. Tyler Durden from Fight Club would say “let that which does not matter truly slide.” Charles Strickland from The Moon and Sixpence declared that “I didn’t care what anybody thought. It wasn’t I that acted, but something stronger within me.” Chloe ended her speech on a line from Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” We all need a little eccentricity sometimes. Let these voices give you the courage to trust that your dots will connect, too.