The author at Pitzer College. Photo courtesy of Alizah Salario
In the Chicago suburbs where I grew up, an elite college education wasn’t unusual. It was an expectation, and that came with a huge sense of entitlement.
Each spring, my high school newspaper published a list of colleges where every graduating senior was going. As an editor, it was my job to contact the classmates who didn’t submit their decision to the paper to find out their college of choice. A few were evasive; I knew they were waitlisted. I felt uncomfortable pressing them to say on the record they were going to the University of Illinois, for instance, knowing they were on the waitlist at Northwestern. It was the first time (but not the last) deadline pressure crushed my timidity. I pushed for what felt like crucial information the student body deserved to know.
It seems strange to me now that I didn’t see a problem with publishing what was on some level a classist social hierarchy. In light of the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, the list (which included its fair share of Ivy League and legacy admissions) and the parents who illegally bribed test proctors and university employees to to falsify applications, are born of the same expectations and pressures. The belief that where you go to college defines you and your future — and the desperate measures parents and students go to in securing spots at top school — are even more intense nearly two decades after I graduated high school.
At least that’s where my social anxiety stemmed from. My high school is widely considered to be one of the best public schools in the country. College anxiety and application bolstering began early sophomore year. SAT prep courses and private tutoring were common, as were extensive college tours organized by high-achieving parents for their high-achieving kids. I was quickly swept up in the notion that if I failed to achieve academically, I’d likely fail at life.
I begged for private SAT prep, but my father refused. My grades and test scores were good, he reasoned. Not good enough, I countered. Freshman year, he made me quit the swim team because practice before and after school was “too much” for me (our team won the state championships). He complained that I stayed up all hours doing homework after my long rehearsals for our school’s near-professional plays. My peers complained about how much their parents pressured them; I wanted to be pushed harder.
This distinction caused me extreme humiliation as a teenager. What was wrong with my father? What I considered average exceeded his expectations. My father, a generation older than most of my peers’ parents, had gone to Roosevelt University on the GI Bill and later to the Chicago School of Optometry. He was old, to me, and spoke of going to “the school of hard knocks” and quotas for Jewish students that might have deterred him from going to medical school. My mother never attended college. I was expected to go to college, but not at all costs. It was understood I’d attend the college that gave me the most aid/scholarship money and I did. It wasn’t the most prestigious place I got in, and I learned my dad’s values differed from the people around me, who were shocked I wouldn’t attend the best school I got into. He never said it, but he didn’t need to. My father made it clear I wasn’t entitled to anything.
I ended up at Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Though it’s a top liberal arts college, I still felt ashamed that its reputation fell short in the eyes of some striver friends. This was an early lesson for me in hierarchies, brand recognition and how money, or those willing to spend it, made a massive difference in who got ahead. I had taken so much for granted, and realized that although I felt I had it rough compared to those surrounding me, I was incredibly high-achieving and privileged by most standards. Though I scorned peers who did “better” than me because their parents paid for pricey tutors and pushed them to extremes, I too had felt entitled to success. That’s what bothers me most: the system makes even people like me feel they aren’t enough.
I was grateful I chose a school that provided an excellent education, and allowed me the freedom to find value and meaning outside of academics. But a feeling of inadequacy stuck with me. I was determined to attend an Ivy League grad school, and I did. I took out loans, and felt anxious about my debt. After a fellowship post-graduation, I took a paying job I didn’t want, adjacent to my field.
I don’t regret my choices. I just wish I’d better understood the consequen-ces. Attending the best colleges does not equal happiness. It doesn’t guarantee success or financial security.
I also wish I’d better understood myself, and why I was both envious and scornful of so many people I grew up with. Maybe that’s why I was so annoyed at my father — he refused to play the game. Perhaps he was wise not to get swept up in a game that was rigged from the start.