By TARA THEAN MEI FENG
I have always been thankful to be among the lucky few who can say, with absolute certainty, that they loved school. My memories of high school form a blurry, happy kaleidoscope. I found my hands full of learning and discovery and exciting things to do.
Having immersed myself in activities throughout, I expected to lead a similar lifestyle after high school, and to learn even more than I had before. What I found instead surprised me; it was not events or activities that taught me the biggest lessons, but a particular undertaking of mine: applying to study in the United States.
Like many of my peers, I approached this process with apprehension. It is famously complicated, guaranteeing months of studying, essay-writing, and begging teachers for recommendations. But beneath the surface drudgery lies an immensely valuable opportunity for self-discovery and reflection, and I can testify to this now: beyond mastering obscure words for the SATs, I learnt lessons that I can truly call invaluable – both in the context of college applications and life in general.
The most important thing, I found, was taking ownership over my own choices. It was important to me not to let anybody second-guess my own feelings about what I wanted out of my education or life. The very act of applying to university meant assuming the mantle of adult responsibility for my own future, and from thereon I refused to allow anyone to think for me. I saw some very qualified friends falter because they were drowned in the deluge of well-meaning parties trying to steer their lives as they saw fit.
The trick here lies in knowing what to listen to, and what to ignore. Unfortunately, it is not always easy to ignore criticism, and here lies another demon: the tendency to tether your sense of self to your accomplishments. I know what that is like. I know all about that ugly cutthroat frenzy accompanying the university application process.
Competition, and certainly the type involved in this process, emphasizes evaluations, which almost always cause anxiety and battered self-esteem. Perspective is key – it is you that makes you, not your university or your qualifications.
When I was accepted into my university, I was thrilled – but in the months afterward, it became obvious that I was still the same person underneath. I still liked dessert and Beethoven, and I was not inoculated against hardships or heartbreaks. University, however dressed up it may be, is simply a logical progression, and I cannot emphasise enough the importance of preventing it from defining your identity. Another’s criteria for success need not be yours.
When my own university decisions arrived, I was thrilled to have been admitted to a number of wonderful universities, but this introduced its own quandary: choosing which to attend. With so many factors to consider – location, teaching style, and extracurricular offerings – I was wracked with indecision. But I had, very short-sightedly, left out a crucial factor in weighing my options: funding.
Only one of my choices had offered me any form of financial aid. The others, my parents reminded me, would take too large a chunk of the family finances to be feasible. And so my decision was made by default – one I had never wanted to make based on money.
To this day I still remember the garbled feeling in my gut as I pressed the “decline” button on my other choices. I was elated, yet hurt; thankful, yet wistful about what might have been. It may sound silly now, but there was a huge feeling of loss and regret. That day I learnt the lesson I now hold closest to my heart: not to take anything for granted.
I finally saw the grim reality of the financial burden that university was heaping on my family, and I felt indescribably grateful for the easy life I had. Now I find myself far more conscious not only of the reality of money, but of many other kinds of realities. Nothing is inexhaustible.
I always find it difficult to answer questions about the “secret” or “shortcut” to getting into a good university in the United States. The process is not formulaic, and there is no shortcut – it is complex and time consuming in any situation. And when I consider the sleepless nights, the hours I sat until my butt was sore, the endless agonising and soul-searching, I sometimes wonder: why did I do it?
But I found my answer long ago, standing outside Firestone Library one cold night and staring up at the black sky with its spattering of stars, life and stress and beauty bursting from every crack and crevice.
It is because nothing compares to this. And one day, after these four years have gone by, I know I will once again be grateful for the ability to say truthfully that I absolutely, unabashedly, and completely loved school.
Tara Thean Mei Feng is studying at Princeton University in New Jersey, USA. She enjoys ballet and holds an Associate Diploma in piano performance. Tara hopes to be a journalist or a lawyer, and thinks Rice Krispies Treats make the best snacks in the world.
Note: The above entry was written in 2010 for What’s After SPM?, published in 2011. This non-for-profit book project is a collaboration between Leaderonomics and a team of young Malaysians. Click here for details on the project and authors.
Click here for more articles.