Fuzzy HangHi guys, it’s been a while, so let’s just jump right in with this point of re-entry, from David Brooks’ February 9 Op-Ed column: “To hear Sanders or Trump, Cruz and Ben Carson campaign is to wallow in the pornography of pessimism, to conclude that this country is on the verge of complete collapse. That’s simply not true. We have problems, but they are less serious than those faced by just about any other nation on earth.”

Before you grow too baffled, rest assured that this blog is not being converted into a political forum. But given what I’ve been up to over the past seven months or so, I couldn’t help but feel a particular appreciation for Brooks calling out the fear/anger-mongering for the sake of mongering. Don’t get me wrong – questioning the status quo is an important and sacred part of a free society, but there’s a difference between intellectual discourse and baiting.

And you know who really resents the disingenuousness of the mongering? My 18-year-old clients. Regardless of their political persuasion, they don’t like to feel as though they’re getting played. Which brings me to: a) what I’ve been doing since we last spoke and b) what I’ve been reading. Hint: the answers to both questions are virtually the same and can be summed up in two words: college essays.

Both the beauty and the horror of 18-year olds is that (with some exceptions) they are innately optimistic. This isn’t to say they aren’t questioning everything that’s come before, but they tend to believe it will get better and they personally can be agents of change. Heck, one of my students wrote a whole essay about being an optimist and how such an outlook will serve him well as a scientist and entrepreneur.

Another of my kiddos described the moment when she knew she wanted to be a doctor. While lifeguarding at the local pool, one of her charges got a bloody nose and as my gal held a paper towel up to the little boy’s nose and tipped his head back, she realized the power of being able to use her hands to help someone.

Even the most mundane-seeming events in a young person’s life can be made meaningful through their sensitive and thoughtful perspective. Like my client who wrote about learning to make her often-grumpy Punjabi grandfather a cup of chai tea, a rite that wasn’t significant to her until she realized how much it meant to him.

And then there was an essay by one of my Chinese students that was so beautifully written, with a narrative voice so strong, I can’t do it justice trying to paraphrase it here. But I’ll just say this (as Senator Sanders often quips): at its heart, the essay was about his struggle to find his place somewhere between the two cultures he occupied as an international student in the U.S. Beyond his lovely writing, the part that slayed me was the raw vulnerability he displayed when describing the intense, to the point of agonizing, desire he initially felt to be American.

I work with a fair number of international students (and lots more who are their family’s first or second generation in the U.S.) and the essays that describe the agony and the ecstasy of this journey are a constant reminder that we’re doing something right over here. Even more encouraging is witnessing how so many of my students–regardless of their background–want to pay it forward. I can’t tell you how many kids want to develop renewable energy systems or businesses based in social entrepreneurship or organizations to address all those parts of the current system they don’t think are working. I’ve got young women who want to work with younger girls to encourage their love of math and science. I’ve even got someone brave enough to want to tackle big money in politics. Beyond their goals, the sheer magnitude of their energy is astounding. How could I possibly identify with the “pornography of pessimism” when this is my daily reading material? I think it’s pretty clear who is going to make America great again.



SafariWhere You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be:
An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
by Frank Bruni

Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. But we’ll get back to that. Let’s start with the anxiety around college admissions. What’s it all about? Why is it so much worse now than it used to be?

One reason is the mythology around “brand name” schools, the idea that entrance to a highly selective and well-known college validates a student’s worth and will automatically set them on a path to success. Additionally, the rise of college rankings has created a cycle in which schools that already have 10 times the number of applicants they can accept go to great lengths to recruit even more applicants, thereby driving down their acceptance rate while simultaneously driving up their ranking. And then there is the special consideration afforded to athletes, legacy students, current/potential donors, children of the famous and those of faculty, all of whom, in addition to an increasing pool of international students, decreases other applicants’ chances.

Not to mention all the trouble I personally am causing. Like I said, Frank Bruni has a big problem with me. According to Frank, I am part of the nefarious cabal known as Private Consultants who strip unwitting families of their last dollars while “prepping and packaging students … festooning them with all the right ribbons and all the prettiest bows.” There is oh so much I could say in response to this depiction, but before I get too snarky or defensive, let me explain why I became a college essay coach and why I think helping students with their college essays is not in fact the problem, but rather part of the solution.

A while back, I started volunteering as a writer coach in the Berkeley schools, where I worked (and still do) one-on-one with the same students all year as they navigated their various English assignments. I found that the relationships I developed with the students were surprisingly meaningful and in particular, I enjoyed the assignments that required the students to write about themselves. From my own experiences, I knew how empowering it was to write one’s own story and I loved being able to share that excitement by encouraging kids to tell their individual stories as only they could. It made me want to do more encouraging, more coaching. And what bigger milestone is there in a young person’s life than the transition from high school to college?

As one of the experts in Bruni’s book puts it, “[College is] supposed to put you in touch with yourself, so that you know more about your strengths, weaknesses and values and can use that information as your mooring and compass in a tumultuous, unpredictable world.” When I read those words, they spoke to me because, on a smaller scale, writing one’s college essays (and really the whole college application process) should entail the same goals.

Despite Frank’s one-dimensional generalizations about private college counselors, I’m going to let him off the hook because he has an important point to make, one that I wish more people would take to heart. What one does is a lot more important than where one does it. Checking off boxes and accumulating status symbols only gets you so far. But to be an engaged, aware and actualized human being will allow you to soar no matter where you launch.

Thank you to Mary Boyer, patron of the arts and many a liberal arts college, for sending this one my way.

Safari 2

Fly like an eagle