College: The Pursuit of Success or Happiness?

When I was in eighth grade, one day I entered my dorm to hear sobs coming from one of my prefect’s rooms. The rest of the girls in my dorm lingered in our common room baffled. The prefect in question, Emily*, was always quick to smile and wave to me in the hallways. At check-ins, she was always the one who waved off work as something that wasn’t as stressful as everyone made it seem and urged us eighth graders to always follow our hearts. Now she was audibly sobbing in her room.

In the common room, timid looks were shared between the girls. Who would go in to try to comfort her first? No one took the bait, and eventually another senior girl who didn’t prefect my dorm burst in with chocolates and a tissue box under her arm. She flew into Emily’s room. Now the sounds of sobs mixed with the sounds of low, comforting undertones, and we, girls, were only more bewildered. Was Emily going through a break up? That would explain the chocolates.

After an hour, however, the truth was uncovered. Emily slinked out of her room in baggy sweatpants, hair disheveled, eyes puffy. One of my friends immediately ran up to hug her, and Emily received the hug tepidly obviously not in the mood for sympathies. She did, eventually say, though, “It’s okay guys. I just got rejected from college.” Of course, as eighth graders we lacked the social graces that Emily deserved to be afforded in that moment, and someone asked, “Which?” The doomed answer: Harvard.

At my small New England boarding school, seniors act as dorm RAs or prefects in all of the lower class dorms. As a lower schooler (8th and 9th grade) especially, seniors make a huge impact on your school career. Their impact is not only felt in the dorms, but also around campus, when they spare you a smile and a wave like Emily always did. And that fall was my first time learning the pivotal Groton lesson: do not talk to seniors about college period.

And that fall was my first time learning the pivotal Groton lesson: do not talk to seniors about college period.

This is a lesson every Groton student learns very early on in their careers. This year, my own senior advisee (a 9th grade girl I have been assigned to mentor) told me about a time during her first week of school when she asked her cross country captains where they were applying to college and the older girls on the team immediately shunned her. At Groton, we are taught to work as hard as possible to get into as good a school as possible. We are taught that we must strive to make the best grades, take on the most leadership opportunities, participate in the most extracurriculars while at the same time not talking about our accomplishments because that would be bragging. This weird paradox comes to a head every fall when seniors are applying to college, and now, in the midst of my own senior fall, I am beginning to question more and more why.

A couple of weeks ago in English class my teacher posed the question: what is success?

He asked us to think about what success means in theory vs. in practice. I wrote, “Obviously, success means to be happy in the most pure meaning of the word, but I won’t pretend like I am not chasing the American Dream, and that on some level I see Groton as the first stepping stone on this journey. I think that I am coming away from this education endowed with something — an ability to think more critically perhaps.” Looking at my words now, they seem a bit canned. I do think that I am coming away from this education endowed with something, and while I have become a better student at Groton, what I really gain is the ability to say, “I went to Groton School.”

I toiled away for all five years. I did the hard work. And it is this spirit of excellence that I have been upheld to, and in fact the impression of excellence that I will be able to plant on anyone I tell that I went to Groton, that I really hope to carry with me for the rest of my life.

According to Business Insider, Groton is the 3rd most elite high school in the country with a 12% acceptance rate. It is the quintessential old boys school. The school’s most notable alumni include the Roosevelts. Over time, the school has gradually shifted to represent more liberal values. The school first accepted African Americans in 1952 and girls in 1975. Most recently, under the current headmaster, Temba Maqubela, there was an initiative called GRAIN (Groton Affordability and Inclusion) to freeze tuition until the 2017–18 school year. Mr. Maqubela’s key word is “Inclusion” or the ‘I’ word as it was dubbed. Clubs on campus such as GSA, Groton Feminists, and Cultural Alliance are in full force. I, myself, am a Diversity and Inclusion Task Force prefect.

However, despite all of these drives to make Groton a more inclusive community, as a senior applying to college, I can’t help but see the ways that Groton is still an old, elitist boys club in essence.

However, despite all of these drives to make Groton a more inclusive community, as a senior applying to college, I can’t help but see the ways that Groton is still an old, elitist boys club in essence. I can’t help but notice that I didn’t even talk to my significant other about college until very recently. I notice the fact that it’s become a joke amongst my classmates about the number of students applying to Yale and whether or not we are in a big competition with each other.

But I also can’t help but make note when a classmate of mine told me that her parents are forcing her to ED to Harvard because they both went there, her grandparents both went there, and now her older sister is attending. I am bothered not just by the fact that my school fosters a community where we apply to Ivies for the name and not because they are where we will be happiest. It is that despite my attending Groton, I still am not EDing to an Ivy and in fact EAing to my state school as a safety , whilst my peer is applying to an Ivy without a doubt that that is where her future lays (despite the fact that we have worked equally as hard) which bothers me.

I say that I am endowed with a spirit of excellence because I go to Groton. Yet, ironically, even though I am excited about where I am EDing, I am still not secure in my choice because it is not an Ivy. I grew up poor, and I in part came to Groton to uplift my educational status as a way to escape my socioeconomic background. A little part of me is terrified that I’ve made the choice to secure my lack of success — that is, my not becoming rich — because I took the less followed path of applying early to a school I genuinely love but which is not an Ivy. But another part of me still questions whether or not going to Harvard would really revolutionize my future. Would going to Harvard really guarantee me monetary success? Or would I still be bound by my parents’ circumstances no matter what school I go to? Would my friend who is applying to Harvard as a double legacy not too be bound by her parents’ lucrative circumstances whether or not she goes to Harvard? And therefore, does it even matter what college we go to if our lives are already predestined for us by the rules of society?

In the real world, there are successful people and unsuccessful people. And in the real world, success is not often determined by how hard you work (like my high school), but instead who you know.

And in the real world, success is not often determined by how hard you work (like my high school), but instead who you know.

And so, I’ve begun to question if my school’s efforts are futile. I know that I have far exceeded my parent’s accomplishments when they were my age, but my biggest fear is that while I have been enabled with more tools than my parents thanks to my schooling, I will not be able to escape their lower ambitions. Perhaps this is why, even though my school has heralded itself as a diverse and inclusive community, especially in terms of socioeconomic status, I still feel the push to be this one-note-definition of successful. Only if I graduate Groton, graduate college, and go on to my professional career and make something big of myself will I know that it was worth it.

But I suppose the same would be true for my peer who is EDing to Harvard. Harvard holds the key to success, and if my peer doesn’t leave Harvard and make something big of herself, would her parents sacrifices be worth it?

And thus, life at Groton revolves. Through the college process, the strange intersections of class and socioeconomic status converge. We all, rich or poor, elitist or working class, put our eggs in the Groton basket and hope that it will grant us success. And while, I’m 99% sure that my peer will end up successful — in the monetary sense of the word — because of the tradition of success that her family maintains, I have intentionally chosen to not take the path that most clearly seems to lead to that success- even though I have the opportunity to exceed my limitations.

Personally, given my situation, I think either path I take would be brave. But I think it says something that I am choosing to not meet my own narrow definition of success. Perhaps, in my choice to not go to an Ivy as a means to “escape” my limitations, I actually will end up successful: I will be happy.

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