Friday, March 28, 2014

and recreate a place as my own world

Thursday, March 28th 2013

I received an email that redirected me to a portal that congratulated me on my acceptance to the University of California, Berkeley. 

I wish I could say that it was one of the happiest moments of that year, but in truth, it took me months before I let myself feel more than just contentment with my acceptance. I had spent years fantasizing and plotting my escape from the mundanity of suburbia: the early daydreams I'd nursed at age twelve were nothing more than being the kind of girl who drank cappuccinos and wrote in ink-stained journals while waiting for her boyfriend at a cozy cafe like a character from a Salinger novella; as I grew older and more ambitious, I saw myself as a Wall Street-type tycoon, sauntering my way towards a brass-doored elevator wearing Manolos and a frosty, Anna Wintour expression. In the end, it never really mattered which of the elaborate and decidedly not mundane plots I'd concocted would come true: all I knew was that if I got into my elusive dream school, everything else would fall into place.

I don't know what gave me the false confidence that I would get into what I thought was the school of my ambitions; maybe telling myself that I was the underdog in the game of life was a coping strategy to reconcile the fact that I had less-than-stellar grades and standardized test scores for the schools I dreamt of. I knew even before the applications were due that the numbers on my transcript put me at a disadvantage compared to thousands of other applicants vying for all the same spots at all the same universities, and yet I clung to the idea that I would get in anyways. I had convinced myself that if I could beat the odds and get into a "good" college, I could do and be everything I've ever wanted.

Growing up in a system that evaluates your worth as a human being by the colleges you get admitted to was a burden I carried in the years and months leading up to my senior year of high school. Cutting class with friends or daydreaming about prom were thoughts put on the back-burner as just another escapist fantasy worthy of a John Hughes movie; my high school reality was one practice SAT tests and constantly asking myself "will this help me get into college?" Sometimes I'll be watching a show like Teen Wolf or The Carrie Diaries and wonder if the writers even remember what high school was like: where's the insurmountable pressure to be both well-rounded and entirely unique? Where's the overwhelming sense of degradation that you're only as good as what's recorded on a few sheets of paper?

Where was the bittersweetness of being good enough for one school—just not the one you had your heart set on?

Friday, March 15th 2013

It was a half day that day—we were let out of school at 11:15AM, and my friends and I went to Patty's Eggnest for brunch to celebrate. I originally hadn't planned on doing anything after school at all, but I needed the distraction to keep myself from frantically hitting the refresh arrow the moment I got back from school. I still remember the distinct combination of dread and anticipation I felt from the moment I woke up that morning and how I tried too hard to pretend that I didn't care about anything except the Swedish pancakes in front of me and the light rain falling outside. I was excessively conscious of how this day would change everything; it was the first of the several colleges I applied to to release their admission decision. Time was moving too slowly but also too quickly: what was I going to do if I got home before they released the decisions? What if too many people were hitting refresh too and we crashed the server? What if I got accepted by some odd miracle?

What if I got rejected?

I like to think in spite of everything that did happen, at least my calm pretense worked: to this day I don't think any of my friends at the diner even suspected that I was panicking inside. One of the greatest tragedies of the college application season was just how the process made me feel like I was being pitted against the people I was closest to: it went unspoken between us that we didn't talk about where we applied or where we really wanted to go.

So of course I never told any of my best friends that I even wanted to go to UChicago. Of course I never told anybody who lived within 800 miles of me that I cried for hours and hours that day when I read that I had been waitlisted and wouldn't find out if I made it off for another month and a half. Of course I kept it all to myself, because the college application and admissions process broke me, and I didn't want to admit that I measured my worthiness as an eighteen-year-old by my (in)ability to get into the school I wanted to attend the most. I knew inherently that the way I was going about it all was wrong, but I cried anyways, because I genuinely believed that I had ruined my chances at happiness by not being good enough. I cried, because I genuinely believed that I never would be good enough for anything.

The rain didn't let up that weekend or really that entire month, but I'd already grown used to its monotony years ago.

Thursday, January 12th 2012

I was sixteen and naive, and it was raining that night when I got into the passenger seat of a sixteen-year-old boy's car. Statistically speaking, this was probably the most dangerous situation I'd ever gotten myself into at the time, but I needed a ride home and he had just gotten his driver's license the day before. He warned me that he was bad at directions and I lied and reassured him that I knew where we were going. It was only later when I drove that road in the daytime that I realized we had taken the long way.

The car ride lulled into silence at first, but I didn't mind too much; I've always been comfortable with quiet, and even though I didn't know the boy driving me home very well, I had a feeling that he was the kind of person who would be at ease with it too. I was surprised when he ventured to break the silence, but what surprised me more were the things I learned about myself that proved to be more dangerous than riding shotgun, and how I let those thoughts shape who I became in the months following our little conversation.

Of all the questions and answers I replayed in my head over the course of the next few weeks, "what's your class rank?" haunted me the most. His blunt curiosity caught me off guard, and I'd never felt more self-conscious of my supposed reputation for being one of those kids designed to excel at the college admissions game. The question was a test, a gauge of how good a player I really was. No one knew the truth that I wasn't even in the top 5% of my graduating class or that I was barely even making the top 10%, and I wanted to keep it that way.

I replied: "it's decent," but inside I think I broke when I told him what I did on 92nd Street, just a little. That was my wall of distance, of space, of casual. I'd never told anybody something as leading (albeit vague) as that before. I became even more obsessed with maintaining that kind of reputation that I was good enough to "win," and that fixation slowly ate away at my self-confidence as I withdrew from admitting anything to anyone in the months ahead.

Friday, March 29th 2013

It was the last day before spring break and I had just finished entering the attendance record for third period English IV AP Lit when my teacher asked me: "how did it go?"

He was alluding to what's unofficially known as 'Ivy Day,' when many of the top universities—including many of the Ivy League schools—in the United States release their admission decisions and make (but more often break) the fragile hearts of high school seniors across the globe. The joke was on the schools that had released their decisions on Ivy Day though: I'd already had my heart broken two weeks before, so I took every acceptance and rejection letter following UChicago's decision with measured apathy. I calmly told him about the three rejections (Yale, Columbia, Duke) I'd received before finally getting accepted to Berkeley.

Some heads turned when my English teacher gave me a high-five for getting into his alma mater; he told me again about how I would love it here, but instead of allowing myself to be happy over imagining my life in a state of eternal sunshine, I confessed how I was planning on appealing to try and get off the waitlist for UChicago and asked if he would be willing to write an additional letter of recommendation for me.

Even then I recognized that I should have been proud of what I'd managed to accomplish at all: getting in to UC Berkeley isn't an easy feat, but I beat those odds and had a place in the class of 2017. I knew that I should have smiled more when people congratulated me that day, that week, that month. I wish I'd been excited that I had an escape route at all: here was my golden ticket to the golden state, mine for the taking. All I had to do was submit my statement of intent and I would be officially college-bound.

Instead, I stubbornly held out hope that maybe I'd make it off the waitlist and wallowed in discontentment for more than a month. I submitted my SIR on the very last day out of stubbornness. By that time it wasn't even about getting off the stupid list at Chicago anymore: all I wanted was a definite answer and peace of mind, and I couldn't let myself start daydreaming about happiness at Berkeley until I finally got the "sorry, we regret to inform you" that set me free.

Thursday, June 13th 2013

My flight touched down at the Oakland International Airport some time around noon that day and it was the first of many solo Sea-Tac to Oakland flights I would take in the coming years. I came to California for my freshman student orientation not knowing what to expect besides sunshine and palm trees; I certainly didn't expect to fall in love with the possibilities my new life had to offer me so quickly, but I came here with an open heart, freshly divorced from my old convictions that I needed one very specific college acceptance to affirm my potential for success.

That afternoon I went out with two of my roommates for dinner and met my roommate's friend who had just finished her first year at Cal, and she answered many of our questions and soothed our worries over jasmine milk tea from Quickly. "You guys are going to love it here!" she exclaimed, and for the first time, I finally let myself believe it.

That night I spent hours lying in the bottom bunk of my room in Bowles Hall almost paralyzed with anxiety and sleeplessness even though orientation hadn't even officially begun. I couldn't stop thinking of how much I regretted not doing and saying in high school, rewinding, pausing, and replaying moments I wish I had a chance to do over. Every thought, from not taking enough pictures with my parents at the graduation ceremony to not saying 'thank you' sincerely enough to the people who mattered, reminded me that I had to make these next four years ones I wouldn't regret. I was determined to shape the dreams I had all those years ago into my new reality, and when I was done writing out and letting go of all my regrets from high school, I finally fell asleep to Lana Del Rey's "My Best Days" and the sound of crickets chirping outside.

It was sunny when I woke up the next morning.

Friday, March 28th 2014

I'm writing this because I was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley exactly a year ago today, and coming here for college has been the best decision I've ever made. I don't even know if I can begin to explain how fortunate I feel to be surrounded by such passion and brilliance, or how the people I've met since coming here continue to inspire and humble me on a daily basis. A few weeks ago one of my best friends remarked that I sound like I'm having the best college experience, and I think the most important decision I made was choosing to make my college experience the sweet escape I dreamed of into my new reality. I'm here, learning and doing everything I love for the first time in my life and I couldn't be happier.

I'm writing this because I want to share my story for any and all of the kids out there who feel and have felt broken by the college admissions process. When I watched Congratulations, We Regret to Inform You the other day, I was reminded for the first time in a while of how desolate the last couple of years of my high school experience had gotten, and I like to think that I've come a long way in just this past year towards becoming the kind of person I want to be. It's taken me a long time to accept that I was standing in the way of achieving my goals, and I know I'm still working hard to deserve all this.

I'm writing this because I'm finally proud of what I have and will achieve.

xoxo, vivian


  1. So wonderful to read your story and your achievement! Great going Viv :) Keep in touch


  2. ohh wow!! Your post here came at the perfect time!! Thank you so much for your advice on my last post by the way because it really does help me a lot and it makes me realize that I'm in control of what I will do at college.. because it is true!
    Berkeley is a wonderful college and I am so glad that you love it there and that you get to study what you like! I think you definitely made your college experience worth it and it seems like the perfect fit for you!! Also, you must be so brave to be studying to far away from home!

    You have honestly come a long way from just a year ago and you should be so proud of yourself! I 'm actually proud for you!! I understand exactly how you felt back then especially with the whole being compared to everyone else thing. I feel like these schools only care about numbers.. gpa.. sat's.. It sucks to have to be compared so harshly! (Trust me, I know how you feel because I am not in the top 10% of my class.. close but not in there!)
    and ohh wow, that story about getting into that boy's car... that sounds like quite an adventure!!!

    I'm going to take a look at the video you showed ! I've actually watched a few minutes already and it seems pretty promising!! This is a beautifully written post!! =)