Admitting colleges are a crapshoot

When I applied to college as a 17-year-old high school senior, I was freaked out. I had just witnessed my incredible, wise-beyond-her-years sister be rejected by all of her dream schools: Harvard, Yale, Princeton… even the University of Michigan, our local public school. It shook me to my core. How was it possible, that this beautiful person I so looked up to was rejected? I saw how it changed her, how she turned inwards, lost confidence, reduced her own worth in her mind. It was too painful to watch, so I too turned inward and away. I centered myself, not knowing then what it was I was doing.

I did what she and I always did best together: I used my survival skills. I observed what my sister had done (maintained her privacy in college essays) and compared against results (rejected by her dream schools). I identified possible reasons why she could have been misunderstood, and decided to experiment. The thing about experimenting is you need to have a large enough sample size. So, I applied to 13 schools.

College Confidential chatter said that if you were Asian, your chances were lower in California because that school already had so many West Coast Asians applying. “Too many” was the message I received. Noted. I decided to apply to Stanford.

The chatter also said if you were Asian, your chances were rough in the South and Midwest, but higher on the East Coast. Hmm, okay. I decided to apply to Princeton (because of my sister) and Yale (because of a two-week summer program I attended my junior year financed by a full-scholarship). Not Harvard: not after what they did to my sister. I hated Boston for years, only redeveloping a newly appreciative relationship with the city thanks to some friends who decided to settle there temporarily.

I reviewed all the mailers I’d received. Mailers that… I didn’t know how they got my address. At first, I was spooked. How did they know who I was? Where I was? Later on in life, I realized it was because the College Board sold SAT scores. The adults were surveilling the children, deciding who to admit to the inner sanctum. At the time, I didn’t understand, but it was noted.

Reed College made the list. Because they invited me to a junior-year program specifically for students of color. I was really confused about why I was invited. I didn’t see myself as a “person of color.” I didn’t even think of myself as Asian until the third, fourth, fifth, … ?th time someone — a white boy raised by a single mother — in school made what seemed like an innocent question: did they build the Great Wall of China to keep SARS out? I was stunned. I didn’t know how to respond to that sheer ignorance, so I just smiled and laughed. Two Black twin sisters and my best friend from high school, a half-Chinese, half-Polish now-doctor focused on restorative justice treatment for individuals with addictions, laughed with me. And there was tense silence afterwards. This, by the way, was why I had chosen to wear high heels everyday in high school, even though I am 5′ 11″. Because I needed to make sure when we moved school districts, that no one would mess with my beautiful sister. And if I needed to literally tower over them to keep them from hurting her, I’d do it.

Anyways, back to Reed. It was a free trip to Portland so why not? I’m so glad I went. It planted a seed of what a supportive community that believed in me felt like. I’ve lost touch with my fellow scholars but I still hold dear a photo we took of our fists in a circle, showing the beauty of our skin. A veritable spectrum of potential.

Then, I decided to take some leaps of faith. I checked out a book of the 500 best colleges in America from my public library — a beloved institution that my parents ritualistically brought me to — and got down to studying. This wasn’t my idea: it was Lin’s. I poured over every page, trying to gauge how I felt about each description. Where I might apply beyond this world I knew.

I observed that engineering-oriented schools didn’t ask for as many words. Test scores, name, address. Straight-forward. One school just asked for my test scores, name, and address. It took five minutes and I got in. Huh. A few others, like Rice University and Vanderbilt, required lengthy personal essays. They always asked questions that made it sound like you could just tell them about a platonic thing that happened in your life. But I knew better from my sister: I knew, they wanted me to bare my soul. So I did. I laid it on thick, working the system. This poor little girl stretching out her hand asking: “please sir, can I have some more?”

See the thing was, I started to understand the implicit rules of the world in explicit terms. I needed to figure out the rules of the world for myself because, it was apparent, no one thought it was worth their time to teach me. After all, after AP English my freshman year, I was simply dumped into a corner and told: go read whatever you want. Seriously? I picked up Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities” and hated it. Worse, the version I had at home was written in tiny font so I squinted my entire way through it. What I thought was maybe a 200-page volume turns out was actually closer to… 1000? It took the entire year. But I was determined to finish it, because I had started it.

I now wear glasses so strong, some of my friends worry about me going blind. Incidentally, one of my neighbors who hired me as a babysitter when I was growing up was legally blind. She was also Black and beautiful, raising two incredible children with her husband. I remember her asking me to tutor her eldest and then she asked me to name my price. I was shocked. Me? Name my price? You’re the adult, you have more experience, you tell me! I ultimately asked her for $30/hour, based on some online research. She said yes without hesitation. It was so different from those other parents in the neighborhood who protested when I tried to raise my rates from $4.50/hour to $5/hour + $1/child. I gave into them, just like I gave in to being paid in Avon beauty products by one desperate mother who was quietly trying to hold her beautiful family together, including her baby. Her bright inquisitive baby who lit up every time he saw a banana… and who pooped green immediately after each banana. Oh well. As long as he enjoyed it. Only decades later did I realize my Black neighbor was coaching me to advocate for myself.

But I digress. Back to the college search. I considered Olin, a newly minted, not-yet accredited university. It sounded amazing. But it wasn’t yet accredited. I couldn’t take that risk. Not yet.

I was curious about the East Coast. People on the Internet told me “liberal arts schools.” I had no idea what that meant but it sounded fancy. Most weren’t very appealing to me though. I’d thumb through their promotional material and see person after person, not one of whom looked like me. So I decided: well, it’s not for me then.

Except Swarthmore. They didn’t just have photos. They had drawings. One stood out in my mind: a hand-sketched autobiography on paper that looked like a brown paper bag. I thought: I can do that. So I salvaged one of the paper bags we had from the grocery store, took an erasable black pen that I had, in a moment of weakness, snuck into my mother’s pocket at Office Depot, and started drawing. (My mother, by the way, chastised me for that act of rebellion. I never stole again.)

I’d never drawn before. But I had a model in that booklet from Swarthmore. Their prompt was to tell them about me. So I did, through drawing. I figured there was no way they would accept such a wacky idea but heck, why not? It was an experiment after all.

I also applied to the FAFSA (federal-government provided financial aid) and literally a hundred scholarship programs offered by institutions from The Detroit Free Press to the local credit union quietly operating in the Domino’s Farms office building owned by Tom Monahan, where my mother toiled as the operating manager of an office building cafeteria and I helped her while on vacation from school. Just like I helped do her homework in ESL that her workplace required and paid for. Just like I helped her take inventory in the backroom and run the numbers for the petty cash drawer at the end of each day. My mother worked over 12 hours a day, literally breaking her back lifting heavy objects and losing her mind managing catering and purchasing for her managers and company, all of whom were white. She worked for people who saw her potential enough to promote her from an hourly prep cook chopping vegetables to a mid-level manager. But never more. Her English wasn’t good enough. Just like how her radiology medical skills — gathered from years and years of pursuing education even in the face of the entire national education system in China shutting down under Mao’s regime — weren’t good enough here in the US. We never talked about it. But I saw her, like the time I was too sick to finish my homework: a book report on Arthur Ashe. My mother, tired as she was after 12 hours of work slaving over the inventory, numbers, and management of unionized hourly workers for her white bosses, still found the time to help me finish my homework.

When the results came back, I was accepted to 12 out of the 13 universities I’d applied to. One school waitlisted and then ultimately rejected me: Stanford.

Interesting. Noted.

So now, I had my pick of the litter. Some universities included their financial aid offer alongside the acceptance letter. They were in the Yes pile. Everyone else including Vanderbilt and Rice: No. Five of those universities offered me a full ride and a chance to visit the university for a weekend in advance of decision day. I whittled down the Yes pile to Yale, Reed, Princeton, Swarthmore, and the University of Michigan. I reveled in the choice. My turn.

I gave them all a chance and with each visit, observed how I felt with my fellow cohort. I thought Yale would win for sure, given my amazing summer experience there where I made friends with people, some of whom I still keep in touch with a decade later. But when I got there and asked a friend from Key Club I knew to show me around, I remembered being blown off for a party. Okay, fine. I know how to take care of myself. I walked around by myself, just like how I spent my elementary school days walking as close to the wall as possible, whispering to myself in my mind: be invisible. Be invisible. Be invisible. That way, no one will taunt you for being different.

In the end, I decided against Yale. Too fratty. The engineering school was so unimportant to the university, it took a full 30 minutes (at least in my memory) to walk from the quad to the lecture hall. I was surprised at myself, but confident in my conviction.

I thought it would be Reed. I’d loved my time there, exploring Powell’s books and running around with no boundaries dictated by the university like Yale had told us: don’t cross that street. It’s dangerous over there. But I was a walker, and I liked exploring, so I did cross the street when I was visiting Yale. I saw the bar, named Toad’s something or other, and people having fun. And I wondered why they told me to not cross the street. Did they think I couldn’t handle it? Because I could. I mean, I’m still alive aren’t I?

But when I was there at Reed, I also didn’t feel at home. That wasn’t Reed’s fault; it was mine. I wasn’t progressive enough for Reed at the time. They had gender-less bathrooms and that made me feel unsafe. I couldn’t place my finger on why at the time, though I know now.

That left Princeton and Swarthmore. I felt both excited and not quite at home at both institutions. The people I saw around me, my fellow prospective students, were all so curious. And so many of them already had a passion: whether it was astrophysics — a field I’d never heard of before! — or photography or playing the trumpet. Each one of them was exceptional. I felt like a complete imposter. But none of them ever made me feel that way. It was all in my head, and they were patient with me as much as they could be, until they couldn’t anymore. Some of them talked to me, acknowledging what they saw and asking me if I wanted to talk about it. Usually I didn’t at the time, because I’d learned to keep my mouth shut. But I noticed that they cared to ask. We’re all still friends.

Some of the others who didn’t talk to me suddenly never told me why. It hurt, to constantly be nice and try to make friends, only to have some turn away without the decency of an explanation. It always stuck with me, the shame of not knowing what I had done wrong.

A decade later, I’ve observed all those friends going on their own journeys. And I understood finally, why it was they needed to create a boundary with me. Harm attracts harm. Abuse attracts abuse. Because we understand some part of each others’ experience and we want to acknowledge that, because we need it ourselves. It takes monumental effort to resist the temptation. I learned that the hard way.

But I digress again. People at work always think my head works in a straight line because of how I write: I get straight to the critical path. Start to finish: boom. Ha, that was never the way my brain works. You only just saw it that way, because you couldn’t imagine another way.

Okay, back to the story. In my heart, I wanted to go to Swarthmore. It was a Quaker school, which I didn’t understand. It was small — smaller than my high school — and I felt safe. Especially at a vigil my student guides brought me to. I didn’t understand why at the time. I do now. Nobody every told it to me straight, but I’m a fast learner. Even if no one had the energy to make time for me, I had the energy to observe. I’m a survivor like that.

So there it was: Princeton or Swarthmore. My heart wanted to go to Swarthmore, but I knew in the end that I couldn’t. My grandparents already were aghast that I hadn’t applied to Harvard and said no to Yale. What was I doing? No one in China had heard of Princeton, because it centers its undergraduate program (something my sister mentioned to me). My mother had left her life and future to follow my father to America. And I was an ungrateful brat at the time who thought my accomplishments were all mine. Ha.

I wanted to go to Swarthmore, but ultimately I chose Princeton. Because I knew that I needed to be there for my mother every time she returned to China to visit her family and her former medical school classmates. They were now leading their hospital, whereas my mother could point to me and my fluent English, and say: see, she is my accomplishment.

So I said yes to Princeton. And I wrote a heartfelt letter back to Swarthmore, thanking them for seeing me like I saw me. And I cried quietly with myself.

My math and science teachers who had moved heaven and earth to educate me, from the 1:1 pre-calculus special credit so that I could also take AP statistics, to the theatrical chemistry magic show brought about after a year of learning how to do structured note-taking, took the time to write beautiful recommendation letters from me. I couldn’t believe the words they used to describe me, and I couldn’t believe that they sent me drafts asking me what I thought. Getting my consent before telling my story to the powers that be. But I’m so grateful they did.

The principal at an elementary school in my public school system — the one I was the new kid at after our family moved so that my mother could realize her dream of owning a home — wrote me a letter of recommendation too. I asked if he could send me a draft and he did. I noticed a difference in the precision of the words he — a Black man who led his school with quiet determined principle — used to describe me compared with my white math and chemistry teachers. So I asked him if it would be okay for me to write a revision and then he could sign it. He said yes, so I did. It wasn’t because I didn’t think he didn’t appreciated my work: I knew he did, because he let my sister and me start multiple programs for the elementary school children in my new school district, which for me was a way to let out all of my creative energy while doing something good. Because volunteering was “free”, whereas school sports or playing in the orchestra was not. I stopped doing those, when the schools weren’t able to offer me instruction on how to play baseball or a violin to bring home for practice.

When I got my 12 acceptance letters, I went to the high school guidance counselor and shared them with her like she asked. I mentioned I was going to Princeton on a full scholarship.

“That’s great,” she said to her computer, shuffling around papers. “Just make sure to apply to the community college too, just in case.”

Every time I take a bold step, the people around me told me to wait my turn. To keep my head down. To just grin and bear it. There’s a turn of phrase in Chinese: chi1ku3 吃苦. I carried that around with me for over 31 years. Funny, those things we carry as we witness things falling apart with our eyes like we’re watching… the opposite of a benevolent God.

But no more. Look people: this is not my first goat rodeo. I’m a survivor. But you know, I’d much rather thrive because I know what it feels like to do that. SO if you’re wondering what’s wrong with me, have I gone off the deep end, I reply: HA! Look in a mirror. Really look. Introspect. Hopefully you’ll learn something about yourself and the way you harm those around you, and then you’ll able to make progress on yourself.

First published April 22, 2021. Thank you to all the teachers in my life, even those I didn’t appreciate when I was your student. Edited April 23, 2021 to correct some grammar and replace an incorrect Reed reference with the correct Rice reference. Edited April 25, 2021 to expand from “not my first rodeo” to give a nod to the incredible Goat Rodeo Sessions.