In wake of college decisions: an open letter to parents and communities

In wake of college decisions, I understand there have been strong emotions. I congratulate everyone who got into their dream schools, but I also congratulate everyone who will continue to work hard despite the results. I don’t see college as a final destination, and I believe everyone has the chance to achieve their own fulfilling version of success no matter where they go. But as a teen with friends and personal experiences, I do have one request for communities: please teach us to value personal growth as well as personal achievements.

I agree that some thrive under competition, that competition can be something that pushes us to strive to be better. But I don’t agree that competition should be something that is discussed at dinner tables, within the classroom, or glorified in such a way where students have one picture of success. If we keep emphasizing one image of success, what will the rest of our students feel?

I feel so fortunate to now be in a school community that has taught me to see value in my talents, but I ache for the teenagers who feel like rejects or failures because their community hasn’t supported their talents for what they are.

I ache for everyone who have given up their true interests to chase down the image of success built up upon countless AP and honors classes. I ache for everyone whose parents compare them to their peers or siblings because they truly only want the best for their children and that specific image is all they’ve ever known. I ache for all the teenagers that feel like failures because thinking about college is a privilege they can barely afford to think about. I ache for all the teens that don’t see the value in their resilience and determination because there is no award for it. I ache for everyone whose self-worth has come to rely on letter grades, awards, and resumes.

When I first transferred to an arts high school, someone asked why I was wasting my talents and intellect on the arts. At the time, I didn’t understand the question. I didn’t understand why finally having the courage to pursue something that had become deeply rooted in my identity and made me feel whole was a waste. I didn’t understand why wanting to be able to use my words to change others’ lives was a waste of my talents. And I didn’t understand why finally being able to take pride in what I could do was such a horrible thing. Above all, I didn’t understand why my ideas of success didn’t fit into the other’s sense of success. Is “success” such a rigid kind of definition that students really need to lose and change themselves to?

Comic by Phalaen Chang

My Creative Writing Director recently created an open call for rejection letters to create a “wall of rejection” in our library to show that there is a beauty in having the courage to risk trying and failing. My novel teacher always tells me that it is okay to fail because “there is only an definite amount of rejections before you receive an infinite amount of acceptances.”

My poetry teacher congratulates me on the ways I have grown as a writer based on the new styles I experiment with rather than decisions from editors I will never meet. My Spanish teacher always tells me that I have succeeded so long as I consistently put my best out there.

These are things that I wish I had heard earlier. These are things that I wish for all my peers struggling to fit into other people’s mold of perfection to have heard earlier. These are things I wish were universal lessons that we would grow up hearing, rather than comparisons to “successful” people. These are things that I wish were reflected in the way we treat each other in the face of failure and rejection.

As a principal of Newport Harbor High School once said in the wake of a student’s suicide, “All of us, as a community, have to get to this point if we want to avoid our students feeling shamed, isolated or worthless.” (Read the full post here)

Please teach us that it is okay to love and be passionate about something that is not what will make us rich in the future, but rather what will bring us meaning to our lives. Please teach us that it is okay to fail, and that it is okay to try things that do not fit the mold of success. Please teach us how to see each other as friends rather than competitors.

All of us have the potential to succeed if we decide to broaden our perspective of what it means to succeed. All of us deserve to be seen as someone with that potential to succeed in one way or another. And my greatest hope is that communities will give their students the room to grow into their own definition of success.

Comic by Phalaen Chang

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