An overwhelming culture

Nancy Albanese, an ASL mother and parent of three, knew her 8-year-old son would never go to college to play baseball, let alone play professionally. She knew he wasn’t very good, and he knew it too. But she still made the trek to Wormwood Scrubs every Saturday to watch him play baseball and have fun.

One such Saturday, her good friend approached her and asked, “why is he playing baseball? He’s not going to [get into] college playing baseball.”

“He’s playing baseball because he really likes it,” Albanese retorted, taken aback by the question. “Yeah,” the friend added, “but he could be practicing his sport.”

As a parent within ASL’s community, Albanese has noticed a culture where many things, from activities at school to parent cocktail conversations, revolve around one issue: College.

For the past four years, college has also been at the forefront of Vikram Prasad’s (’15) mind. “You don’t think about enjoying high school or being with your friends, you’re just thinking about college college college, all the time,” he said. “I think because ASL [has] an affluent culture, most people have college-educated parents and this trickles down to become a college obsessed culture.”

Prasad believes this pressure has significantly influenced the decisions he has made in high school. “I feel like I really overreached in some of the courses I took, such as my junior year math course. I took it and it ended [up] being way too much for me to handle. If I could take it I would [to] impress all the ‘good’ colleges,” he said.

Alex Campili (’15), like Prasad, felt the pressure early on to try new classes and join new clubs for college. For her though, it started as early as freshman year. Upon entering the High School, Campili had her first meeting with her Grade 9 dean. One of the dean’s first questions took Campili by surprise. ‘What is your thing gonna be when you apply for college?’

Campili tried Model United Nations, robotics, anything she could do in an effort to find her “thing” as her dean had suggested.

College Counselor Ivan Hauck believes this early start in thinking about college can be both positive and negative, but he sees it as central to ASL’s identity. “I would say we are a college prep school, we have a history of preparing students to be academically and socially successful in college. In order to do that it really does start day one of High School,” he said.

These pressures surrounding college, however, are not only placed by counselors, advisors and parents, but also by students. And often, these expectations can be far more crude.

When Veronica Lim (’15) was accepted into a university, it should have been a moment to celebrate her accomplishments. Instead, she couldn’t help but think about everyone else. Who else had gotten in from ASL? How did she compare to them? Did she deserve the spot?

Lim believes the pressure from everyone around her fuelled these thoughts. She had always earned good grades and had built a reputation for herself. “I didn’t feel like people were judging me but I was scared of them judging me. I think that I was getting good grades, and I thought a lot of people were expecting me to get into these ‘Ivies’,” she said.

Yet, while these expectations are certainly felt by Lim and others, some believe that ASL’s reputation of ultra-competitiveness is not as formidable as advertised. “I think what happens is, there is the vocal minority, where some students are regularly talking about who’s getting in where and all of that, but I think there are a lot of people who don’t care about that,” Hauck said.

Albanese echoed Hauck’s sentiment. In fact, she knows parents who decided not to move back to the U.S. because they found “ASL to [have] less pressure than if they were at a private school in New York City, or a private school in Greenwich, Connecticut,” she said. “I know people who have done this who have said, ‘you know what, we like it here because it’s less stress’.”

The college counselling department looks to alleviate judgement that students feel through what they call “college norms.” Every year, the senior class decides on a set of guidelines regarding how peers and parents talk about their respective college processes.

“The goal of college norms is to help everybody to get on the same page, most importantly that we are a united school, that we are a united senior class and we all have the same goals and same ambitions,” Hauck said.

Campili, though, doesn’t believe college norms are that helpful. “I think that if people are very secretive about it, it makes it even worse. I have to think about where everyone is applying because you are competing with everyone around you,” she said.

Albanese believes that although this secrecy can be beneficial, it can often be used for a more ulterior motive than protecting feelings. “Sometimes, I think there is another part [of the secrecy] which is, ‘I don’t want to tell you, I’m going to act all chill about this but actually I’m trying to get my kid into Stanford.’ I think there are parents who give off one vibe and they are doing something else,” Albanese said.

Director of Academic Advising and College Counseling Patty Strohm sees college norms as a way to not only help students, but also their parents. Strohm believes that parents – who are undergoing a college process of their own – often deal with the process as they would in their job. Businessmen, she said, often look at it by delegating and managing, whereas lawyers might think about it under a legal lens. This mentality can mean overwhelming talk about college at home, or “college for dinner” as Strohm put it.

“I feel really sorry for you teenagers. People think they can ask you the most intrusive questions. Would you ever go up to a man and ask him how much money he made, how much he weighed, how expensive his car is, his house was?” Strohm said. “These same people feel it’s ok to ask you what your SAT scores are. I think the norms are a way to help kids with a vocabulary to make you feel more comfortable.”

Within the parent community, Albanese sees that these college norms are respected and are helpful. “We know that we aren’t supposed to ask you, ‘Where are you applying to? Or what SAT score did you get?’ I think the parents that I know don’t do those types of things. Generally, they are respectful and supportive of each other,” she said.

However, the competitive undercurrent still comes through. Along with another ASL parent, Albanese heads a committee to support parents of alternative learners or students who are in the SLD program. In meetings, parents often share experiences where they feel they are competing with other parents and their kids. Are their kids taking enough APs? Will they be able to compete for the best colleges?

Albanese sees that this competitiveness largely stems from the type of people that attend ASL. “If you think about a lot of the community here as parents, if they are American then they are in companies, and the only people that companies bring over are people who are talented, so to an extent, you get self-selection,” Albanese said. “The expectations of the parent group [is] that their kids are going to go to the best [colleges].”

The parents in the international community add pressure in another way. “[With Europeans], you go to the other extreme where people have heard of Harvard, Princeton and Yale but they haven’t heard of a lot of other great schools. They are the ones who are going to be more skeptical, and they are going to put more pressure on the brand names,” Albanese said.

Campili believes that the emphasis on brand and ranking are not exclusive to the international crowd, but is present in the whole community.

She had believed that rankings were not important to her in the college process, until she was in the thick of it. “I think that there is a lot of pressure to get into schools based on U.S. News rankings. I thought that I didn’t care about that as much, but then when decisions started to roll in, I realized that I did care when I was making choices between different schools,” Campili said. “I think that the ASL [community] places way too much emphasis on getting into a ‘good’ school and then choosing the ‘good’ school instead of choosing the good fit.”

This emphasis on brand manifested itself when Campili was making her final decision about where she was going to attend in the fall. When she talked with her peers about her pending decision, she remembers people saying, “definitely choose UC Berkeley.” When asked why, they would respond, “well the other schools are not well-ranked, [this other college is] not really a good school.”

Many believe that the ever-rising stakes of the college admissions process and everything that comes with it – the extensive extracurriculars, the competitiveness, and the expectations can have a far-reaching impact. “Personally, I think we run the risk of creating a whole new generation of kids who burn out and never produce anything because they are exhausted,” Albanese said.