The first thing my high school teachers assumed about me was future valedictorian. It could be worse, I suppose. I cannot pinpoint a time or even a conversation that would lead them to think I wanted to be valedictorian — but then again, wasn’t valedictorian the implied goal of every student?
As a child, that’s what I was taught. My family moved from Hsinchu, Taiwan to Vancouver, WA when I was five years old. Growing up, my parents instilled in me an incredible respect for school and education. Even though it was never explicitly stated, I knew I was expected to take advantage of all the opportunities my parents never had: the robotics team, orchestra, competitive swimming, even chess lessons. I wanted to make my parents proud, and to my parents heavily emphasized AP classes and SAT scores, it fit hand in hand with graduating at the top of my class.
And it’s not just my parents. Today’s society and school systems define success as a single pathway of taking challenging classes, participating in a set of related extracurriculars, and matriculating to a prestigious four-year university. But, this can create a toxic narrative for students who are pressured to fit the mold, and prevent students from seeking deeper learning and developing a post-high school plan that makes sense for them. It wasn’t until my eighth-grade teacher, Mrs. Ellis, cajoled my class into designing our individual passion projects, that I realized that there are other ways to learn. These other ways of learning and of school not only intrigued me, but invited me to engage with myself and my community on a completely unexpected level. I found accepted and needed in completed unexpected places.
Nonetheless, sixth grade me, still in the midst of grappling with identity, values, and the type of person I wanted to be, didn’t know passion projects were a thing. Back then, I was a timid and shy girl, content with following directions if it meant I blended in. I followed the directions to build robots. I followed the directions to rosin my bow before practicing scales. I followed the directions to swim, swim more, swim with better technique. My parents had experienced success through consistency, and since I looked up to my parents with a stubborn staunchness, I decided consistency would be my thing too.
At least, that was the plan until my team ripped the robot apart at a competition. Until I tried quitting the cello three times, finding a way to convince myself — or was it to reassure those around me — that I didn’t mean it each and every time. Until times for competitive swimming plateaued, and I was going through the motions of all these things with a heavy heart and even tears in my eyes. As a culmination of the pressure, stress, and frustration that came with these activities (that looking back, didn’t connect with me), I couldn’t fall asleep. Insomnia was a thing, shadows were my friends, and I could barely recognize myself. The proof? Captured in that 7th grade student ID card profile photo. I was a shell.
I was a shell that had lost its interior depth and its exterior shine, not because it was meant for me, but because I felt trapped in the single pathway my community defined “success.” The path that was charted for me allowed for no personalization and no opportunity for deeper learning. I did not realize I had educational and developmental needs outside of a pre-set list of activities and classes, much less my right to address those needs.
It wasn’t until an eighth-grade passion project that this need started making sense to me. I had completed a journalistic research project on the summer education opportunity gap for students and realized that even though the assignment had ended, I had learned so much that I felt an obligation and responsibility to my student community to take action. I organized a pancake breakfast fundraiser raising almost $1,000 for students-in-transition in my school district to participate in extracurricular activities. There were successes, things like engaging over ten community donors and countless student volunteers, and failures, such as forgetting to set up a cash register. Nonetheless, this was the most organic learning experience I’d ever had. I loved in. In this way, I came to appreciate designing my own methods of learning while giving back.
This might be an interesting story by itself, how a timid, Taiwanese-American girl overcame insomnia and depression in opportunities for deep learning through self-designed projects — even if it meant being misunderstood or ridiculed by her immigrant community. She goes on to find a love for global education for its ability to bring clarity onto her own perspective, and even starts Project Exchange, an organization increasing access to cross-cultural learning for middle & high school students through digital programs. But still, she is a pawn in a system that values and celebrates numbers and scores, and struggles to reconcile her values with those around her. She was discouraged from speaking of these personal struggles because it was raw and embarrassing. It did not behoove the aspiring valedictorian.
Now, I am a junior in high school. In the experiences unlocked through that first passion project, I have found the strength and community to redesign my learning. Instead of a schedule full of AP classes (just imagine the textbooks), I’ve replaced them with CTE Entrepreneurship Capstone classes instead. I’m self-studying the majority of my classes. I’m lucky to have found spaces and communities I enjoy working in and giving back to and am even luckier to have found ways to connect school to that work. Yes, I was valedictorian, and yes, I am not anymore. Yes, many people around it found my decisions hard to understand, and yes, some people still don’t believe in my decisions. But no, I do not regret a thing, because I am in a better place emotionally, mentally, and physically to realize my visions for the future.
The last thing I told my high school teachers was that the word “valedictorian” did not matter to me. It couldn’t be worse, I suppose, to be judged by your title rather than by your actions and values. To be locked into the “success” pathway when there are so many alternative definitions. Today’s high school students are calling for a change in how our high schools define success, by destigmatizing career & technical education opportunities, introducing alternative pathways to graduation, and strengthening mastery-based and personalized learning experiences. If schools fail to do so, students will continue internalizing widespread toxic narratives that are both insensitive and unrealistic. I have been privileged to break out of this narrative through discovering my passions. In pursuing these passions through an unconventional education journey, they have set me free — and am excited to work with educators, administrators, legislators, and more to help others chart their own learning journey as well.