By Sophia Xiao
What’s happening to the students of the Bay Area?
We live in Silicon Valley, a place that leads the world in technology. Somehow, it only makes sense that its children must lead the world in academics. This is what millions of Bay Area students tell themselves every day as they struggle through ever increasing college standards, AP classes and anxiety. And to a degree, the “work hard now to play hard later” idea makes sense because hard work means a better college which means a better job which means higher pay which hopefully will finally turn into a happy life. However the cost of this philosophy, especially here in the Bay Area, and especially now more than ever, is piling.
“Gunn was ranked by U.S. News World Report as one of the nation’s top five STEM schools. Every year, about 20 of its seniors get into Stanford and a quarter are offered spots at University of California schools,” wrote The Atlantic. Yet despite its academic success, the Palo Alto School District has had two suicide clusters, one in 2008 and one in 2014. Seven students, many of which had promising futures, committed suicide. All of a sudden it seemed, news reporters flocked to nearby schools like Gunn and Mission, and administration finally woke up to try to control the mental health crisis.
At the end of 2016, Newsweek’s rankings had 11 Bay Area schools in their top 100 US private high schools list and 14 schools in their top 500 US public high schools list. These powerhouses are all surprisingly close to home– Monta Vista, ranked 18th, and Lynbrook, ranked 29th, are both less than half an hour drive away. With the culture of Silicon Valley success and these nationally ranked schools breathing down our necks, it’s no wonder Piedmont Hills students are feeling the stress to outperform and overachieve.
Why are the schools around here so competitive?
With four AP classes, two club officer positions, a job, and other achievements to pad her resume, senior Sarah Dao’s schedule is packed.
“I know that the way I’m stressed right now isn’t really healthy, but I also think it’d be a waste if I don’t give it my best,” confesses Sarah.
This mindset to always be the best is common. A big reason for Silicon Valley’s academic success is that it is filled with hard working immigrants who have come to give the best life they can to their children. These immigrants believe that since they worked so hard for their kids, the kids should obviously work just as hard for themselves. A further reason for this Silicon Valley mindset is that 32% of San Jose’s demography is Asian, a culture which emphasizes obedience, high standards and constant success.
We live in one of the most expensive places to in the US, and the expectation is that we become an engineer and work for one of the tech giants next door. This pressure to be outstanding is what makes Bay Area students successful but is also what drives a lot of students to their breaking point.
“There is definitely a pressure to overachieve. I’m always looking down on myself as an underachiever since everyone else is taking all these extra classes,” admits sophomore Steven To.
“It’s just society’s standards now,” Sarah states simply. And it’s true. For students who judge themselves based on how impressive they look on paper to colleges, average is nowhere near enough.
“Students are definitely coming in with more competitive classes, with higher classes… I think it is part sort of colleges (responsibility/fault), but I also think it’s just part of our society and how it’s changed in the sense of how competitive it’s gotten and the stress it puts on students,” agrees Counselor Justine Kunkel.
Okay, but is this stress necessarily a bad thing? It only lasts for four years anyways, right?
As more and more kids get access to private tutoring, music classes, college counseling and other extracurriculars, people are finding more ways to get a competitive edge over everyone else. Parents start their children on this path to college with the idea “the younger the better.” This poses a problem to kids who have grown up with overachievement infused into their identity. Fear of failure is something that students are taught in order to get into college, but by then, these habits and lifestyles are hard to get rid of, causing long term stress and anxiety.
“I obviously do have students that strive off of stress. It moves them and motivates them to get things done, but we do have a large number of students here that sort of give in to the stress and it really affects them. Ultimately it can lead to the other grades falling and mental health issues. So I would say that (academic stress) is more a detrimental than a positive thing,” expresses Ms. Kunkel.
Something new that has popped up recently is an entire industry based solely on getting kids into specific colleges. Of course, it makes sense for parents to hire help for something as important as getting into good colleges. However, college counseling reinforces the culture of tailoring students’ lives towards college, as if many students don’t base a large portion of their lives off of the admissions process already. Additionally, counseling creates an imbalance among students with different backgrounds. It gives those who can afford them an unfair advantage over the students who simply don’t have those kinds of resources.
So how do we regain control of our lives?
In the midst of this chaos known as high school, it is important to slow down and take more breaks from the all consuming goal known as college. You are the one who decides your fate, not the college you go to– a different one won’t make or break you. Allow the things you do for college to also be things that you love. For example, Sarah, who enjoys graphic design and music, is publicist for NHS and president of the Instrumental Club.
Likewise, remember that you don’t have to take all the APs and extracurriculars in the world. If you genuinely hate and suck at math, then taking that AP Calculus class may not be the best idea.
I’m not saying to stop pushing yourself to do more, but don’t do it for the primary purpose of getting into college. You don’t want to wake up one day after graduating from college and have no idea what to do next because all you’ve ever done was for it.
And listen to Steven’s advice: “There will be times where you procrastinate, and that’s fine. We’re not perfect, but at the same time, we’re also capable of great things.”
Compared to even four years ago, college admissions have tightened considerably, and it’s reflecting on our high schoolers. Nine years ago, it took a suicide cluster of 4 students for the Palo Alto High School District to implement significant measures for the safety of students. How long and what will it take for we, as students, to start taking our own mental health more seriously?