I grew up in a family that drilled into us how important education was. Even though either one of my parents graduated from college, I was certain that I would.
I thought that as long as I worked hard enough, I would definitely make it into one of the best universities in the world – if not Harvard or Yale then surely an Ivy League school.
I wanted to be valedictorian before I even knew that was a thing and I dreamed of speaking at my high school and college graduation.
But…that didn’t happen. Because something called life happened.
I grew up in a small, predominantly white suburban town in Colorado surrounded by picturesque mountains, white-picket fences, and a view of the American dream in the eyes of my immigrant parents.
But as a result, by the time I was 13 years old, my parents realized that my siblings and I had lost all ability to speak Cantonese or Mandarin. We just never had the need or desire to develop those language skills.
And now, my parents worried that they had robbed us of a chance to understand our own heritage. So they figured that if they wanted to salvage this, they needed to do something drastic. And they did.
They pulled us out of school and uprooted the whole family and moved us to South China. We spent the next 3 years traveling all over Asia and learning the Chinese languages simply through immersion.
And now you’re probably wondering what we did to keep up our education.
Since we were traveling so much, we didn’t enroll in any local Chinese schools. Instead, we signed up for online courses through Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth (CTY) program – which was a fantastic program. But it was expensive.
So my mom only enrolled us in the bare minimum of courses that she felt were most important: math and writing. Then left out everything else. And as the 13-year-old that I was, I didn’t think twice to challenge my mom about it.
I blitzed through courses like Geometry, Trigonometry, Algebra, Pre-Calculus, and AP English Language and Composition. And still seriously thought that all my academic dreams were still fully within reach for me when I got back to the United States.
But I had an ugly surprise waiting for me when I returned back to Colorado.
There are no words to describe the moment when you finally realize that you’ve been living in a complete lie. Stripped of your dignity and pride, you are left with this constant humiliation. Thick, dark, and flammable like tar, it just oozes out of you and coats everything you touch, think, and feel and never ceases to burn.
That’s how it felt like when I met with my high school counselor for the first time to review my academic record.
Even though I was able to get all the credits of my online courses transferred to this high school and I was able to get my language requirements waived, I was about three and a half years behind from graduating.
And since I was going to enroll as a junior at that time, that meant I had to complete 3.5 years of credits in less than 2 years to graduate on time.
And the worst part was that it wasn’t my fault. At age 13, I had no control over my education. There was nothing I could have done to prevent this. But none of it mattered because, at the end of the day, I still had to live with the consequences.
And so I did.
In a race to graduate on time and put together a competitive college application, I did absolutely everything that I could.
I maxed out on all the courses that I could enroll in during the regular academic year including all the AP college-level courses I could fit into my schedule (a total of 24 classes) and then enrolled in 8 additional online classes on top of that.
Which meant that I never had a break. Whether it was summer break, winter break, or spring break, I was studying.
When I wasn’t studying, I signed up for literally every extracurricular activity still available to me to help bulk up my college application. But my options were limited.
Since I was a junior already, I was automatically disqualified from joining a variety of clubs and student organizations, especially the ones that are in higher demand. For example, the business club DECA only accepts freshmen and sophomores.
As for the other programs that I was really interested in like competing for a coveted seat at the All-State Orchestra, my skill level just wasn’t up to scratch anymore after being 3 years away, so unless a miracle happened, I knew I didn’t have much of a shot.
Nevertheless, I still found a way to pile on the extracurricular activities and worked myself into a frenzy.
I joined our book club, school orchestra, participated in school musicals, became a LYNX leader, joined the National Honors Society, volunteered, and became the Chairwoman of the Youth Advisory Board for my local city government.
Maybe I was overcompensating for the lost time or maybe I was overcompensating for my own insecurities, but it fueled me.
Feeling like I was robbed of a future that was rightfully mine filled me with intense resentment but it got me through everything that was thrown my way.
That isn’t to say, however, that I made it through unscathed because this experience scarred me for many years to come.
There was little awareness of this at the time, but I can finally put words to what ended up happening to me during these 2 years in high school.
I developed severe, debilitating anxiety. Not only did I carry around an unrelenting sense of shame and insecurity every day, but I also regularly suffered from intense anxiety attacks.
There really are no words to adequately describe how an anxiety attack feels like. It’s like you’re being strangled alive and have no control over your arms and legs to fight back.
Air escapes out of you and the more you try to catch a breath is the faster you suffocate – all the while your heart is beating out of your chest and there’s nothing you can do to make it stop. You just have power through.
I suffered through so many of these attacks silently by myself.
This was partly because my family perceived my anxiety as me just being selfish and entitled and obsessed with studying. And partly because my school counselors didn’t have enough understanding of mental health at the time to be able to spot the signs.
But the main reason is that I didn’t think seeking help was an option for me. It took all the energy in the world just to keep myself intact and I didn’t have the additional energy to seek out help and explain everything that I was going through.
If anything, I thought this was just a problem that only I suffered and with so little time as is to get to graduation, I didn’t feel like I had the luxury of taking a detour.
I will also add that high school on its own really can be a stressful time.
Not only with academics and your future hanging in the balance, but dealing with peer pressure and trying to re-assimilate into American culture proved to be a hugely challenging task for me all at the same time.
Despite this mountain of challenges and setbacks, my herculean effort paid off and I graduated on time with a 4.3 GPA and high honors!
Even though high school was nothing like what I expected, I gained a lot of unexpected things. I developed an insane amount of grit and incredible coping skills for many other challenges that life had in store for me. I lived through an experience that I will have bragging rights over for the rest of my life.
And the biggest surprise of all?! This experience also gave me a rich and compelling story that I was able to write about in my scholarship applications – which ended up helping me win over $200K in scholarships.
So the moral of the blog?
Lean into your story. Live it fully with everything that you have –savor the challenges, bask in the achievements, and relish the pain and sacrifices it took to get to where you are.
Not only because this is what it feels like to be truly alive, but you also never know how it may come back to repay you in other ways later in life.