Dream Schools Don’t Exist
By Katherine Li. I’ve been sitting with one girl for 25 minutes. I’m working at Girls Inc.’s externship training day, where high school girls learn career development skills. My current task is to move around the room, assisting girls in building their resumes. But I’ve been sitting with one girl for 25 minutes. In my view, I can’t leave this girl because what she has to say, what she is feeling, needs more attention.
After making my rounds through the computer lab, giving notes of advice and occasionally talking about my Duke application experience to some curious students, I made my way to a girl that was sitting by herself in a corner of the lab.
“How’s your resume going?” I asked as I stood beside her. She nervously glanced at me and mumbled incoherently. As I bent down to look over the resume that she was working on, she highlighted several lines and deleted them. What I saw on her resume included research at several different universities, the founding of several clubs at her high school, and performances at Carnegie Hall, among other amazing accomplishments.
“Hey, you don’t have to delete things,” I said. She expressed sounds of frustration and scrolled quickly through her resume, highlighting and deleting. I took the empty seat beside her.
I don’t remember exactly how our conversation strayed away from the topic of resumes, but as I offered pointers, she mentioned something about wanting to get into one of the Ivy League colleges. She said that it was her dream school, that she wouldn’t know what to do if she were to be rejected. What this girl was saying felt familiar. The pressure of college applications definitely got to me as well. But having been through the process, I wanted to offer advice on how to alleviate the stress. I had regrets for not immersing myself enough socially during the last two years of high school because I was so stressed about college applications, and I didn’t want her to make the same mistakes that I did.
As our conversation continued, the girl told me about how she didn’t feel supported at school or at home, how the pressure of getting into her dream school was eating at her. She and her family are from a country outside the US. She said that she didn’t feel like she deserved to have fun because her family sacrificed so much to let her live in the US. She was only going into her junior year of high school, but she just wanted to be in college already because she felt like it would be an escape.
This conversation was difficult. I tried my best to offer advice. I encouraged her to talk with her teachers and counsellors more, to explore what she was genuinely interested in, and to have fun. But mostly, I listened. I think that this is what she needed.
Again, I’m thinking about the stress that society puts on getting into college. The elite status that comes with attending a top school is so sought after that it sometimes becomes the major reason for many people applying to those schools. The idea of a “dream school” can be so harmful. I don’t think that dream schools exist. It sounds so cheesy, but the school that one ends up at often ends up being the place that they love. After talking with this amazing, strong, and accomplished girl, I also want to stress the importance of teachers and staff at schools that wholeheartedly support their students and view them as unique individuals. So much of the time, educators are the ones that spark inspiration in youth.
I hope that my advice sticks with this girl. She is, as Girls Inc. likes to say, strong, smart, and bold. It’s difficult for a lot of us to see this in ourselves, but I’m confident that she can, and will soon.