By Sarah Wong '20
Sweltering heat kissed my sunburned skin as the damp August air conquered my lungs with unrestrained brutality. Droplets of sweat trickled down my forehead, cheeks, and the bridge of my nose. My roommate and I walked up and down the stairs, transporting our countless belongings from the car to our temporarily austere McAfee double. The blistering heat failed to dampen my excitement about starting a new adventure at Wellesley. My whole life had been leading up to this moment, and I couldn’t wait to soak up the knowledge that college brochures boasted about and the life skills that my family claimed to be the secrets to success.
I started my first year at Wellesley as an eager Wendy (yeah, I was totally a Wendy), unable to conceptualize the immense volume of academic knowledge I expected to learn. Over the past thirty-six months, I have learned more than I could have ever imagined, although it hasn’t been what I initially set out to discover.
My dad was born in Vietnam and raised in Hong Kong, and my mom was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. Being mixed race, I was brought up with a combination of cultural values that attached stark definitions to the ubiquitous buzzwords education and success. I grew up listening to my dad tell stories about the competitive academic environment and family pressure he experienced in Hong Kong. Grades were viewed as a symbol of family worth and honor, and although poor performance was not a sin, bringing dishonor upon one’s family was a shameful and unforgettable action. Certain professions, such as doctors and lawyers, were praised, while others, such as artists and cashiers, were frowned upon. My dad would study with his brothers for countless hours each week, and if his exam scores did not reflect his effort, his mother would beat him with a bamboo stick until his grandmother would intervene.
When I was younger, my dad understood the importance of mistakes as well as victories, and his stories drastically influenced my outlook on diligence and strong work ethic. Both of my parents sacrificed a tremendous amount so that I could have the opportunity to attend a private high school and a prestigious college. They strived to provide me with continuous support and encouragement, but they also pushed me to challenge myself to achieve even more than I thought was possible. I took pride in their steep expectations, but this external pressure was often frustrating. I felt like the results I had worked so diligently to achieve would never be enough for my parents, and I couldn’t imagine a greater reward than receiving their approval. The goal of attending a prestigious institution was ingrained in me from an early age, and I was surprised to learn that undergraduate, graduate, and even Ph.D. level programs were not attended by everyone.
Working towards perfect grades was my version of a video game. I set achievable goals for myself and it was fun to chase them. It never occurred to me that as I got older, the levels of the game would get harder—exponentially harder. When I was in elementary school, perfection seemed almost effortless. I did very little and received high marks. I was the Extra Credit Queen in third grade, and I was awarded the Super Student of the Day thirty-two times. I would become extremely upset and agitated whenever I would get anything less than an A. Small grade deductions which left my peers unaffected would cause me great stress and long-term frustration. As I entered high school, this frustration transformed into lowered self-esteem and an unbreakable fear of not having the intelligence to succeed. I would wake up in a sweat from nightmares about incorrect homework problems, and I became fixated on calculating my grades. My fear of academic failure combined with family medical emergencies and complicated friendships sent me down an unsettling path of apathy and self-destruction. I managed to persevere through high school (what a time), and entered Wellesley as a prospective Political Science and Economics double major. I was proud of my acceptance, but also ashamed of my failure to be admitted to an Ivy.
I enjoyed my first year at Wellesley and found a comfortable, supportive group of friends. I was accepted by my peers, and I felt adjusted to my new environment in a short time period. However, I couldn’t shake off the feeling that something was missing. This past September, I filled that hole after moving into The SCoop, Wellesley’s Sustainability Co-op. I found myself tremendously inspired by each and every one of my housemates, and I couldn’t comprehend how such successful and beautiful souls would have chosen me to join their community. Every SCoopie seemed so successful, yet not a single member had travelled on the path that I thought was the only possibility.
Our house is a diverse collection of artists, musicians, anthropologists, geologists, educators, and so much more. We have roots in numerous cultural backgrounds, practice different religions, and express multiple genders and sexualities. As a competent Wellesley student, most might be surprised by my inability to realize that there are different paths to success earlier. This idea opened up opportunities that I had never considered, and I am now a Geosciences major and Education Studies minor. I am spending more time expressing my creative personality, journaling, and going on spontaneous adventures with friends (even if that might mean skipping a class once in a while). I have even talked with friends and received assistance in managing my mental health; a step that would have seemed crazy to me in high school.
SCoop has encouraged me to shape my own definition of success, although, it is still challenging for me to stop measuring my self-worth based on my test scores and the opinions of those around me. I consider myself strong, smart, and independent, but that doesn’t mean that I should be ashamed to ask for help or learn from others. This is true of each and every wonderful student on this campus. Wellesley can be an extremely stressful, and even toxic environment, but there truly is a support system for everyone, you just have to take the leap and apply. This is a shout-out and acknowledgement to all of my fellow SCoopies — I am blessed to call SCoop my home and you my family.
From March 2018 issue