Confessions from my High School Experience in the Bay Area

Why I couldn’t see past the culture.

flappy bird trying to get over obstacles to get into college

Disclaimer: Everything in this article is based on personal experience, and in no way is representative of everyone’s experience growing up in the Bay. This is a self-reflection while trying to make sense of my past. I am aware that I am extremely privileged to have had the chance to have the resources I did, and am in no way saying my privilege led to a worse education than those who did not have these resources.

Growing up, I felt a sense of superiority coming from the all-year-round sunny Bay Area.

Like many of my peers, I looked down on states that had snow, people who called “boba” “bubble tea”, and felt weird going to cities that were less than 50% Asian.

Everywhere I looked I saw free swag worn by students’ parents who worked at Google, Facebook, Cisco and other big companies. I’m going to work there one day, I thought, as I visited company headquarters and indulged myself in their free lunches and snacks on weekend day trips.

I joined as many clubs and non-profits as I could because I was passionate…

…about listing more activities on my college application so I appeared more diverse and with a personality. I viewed extracurriculars as a list of checkboxes that I had to fill, rather than a way to explore my passions outside of school. I thought internships were something that were to be “granted” to people who checked all the boxes.

My friends cried over their A-minuses, retook the SAT to increase their score from the 98th to the 99th percentile, shrugged off mental health as a normality, and worshipped good grades like a personality trait.

When prepping for college applications, I felt out of place when my parents didn’t sign me up for couple-thousand-dollar SAT prep classes and college counseling. I begged them to sign me up so I could fit in and wouldn’t be behind (I regret it). I went to these boot camps, spending mornings taking full 4-hour exams and the rest of the day going over my mistakes and meticulously writing down why I missed each question.

I spent my lunches at club meetings, so I could show interest and try my hand at getting leadership positions I didn’t care about. My peers started clubs just so that they appeared desirable to colleges. The pressure to get leadership experience influenced me to half-heartedly start my own non-profit because I thought I had to in order to get into a good college.

I often felt that classes were a competition, like Darwin’s “survival of the fittest.” I was constantly asked how I did on tests by other students just so they can assess themselves. If I did better, I would feel bad about it when others didn’t do as well. “I barely even studied,” was a common saying, as people secretly spent late nights studying and hiding their work ethic in order to avoid being called a “try-hard.”

Only in the Bay Area you get Tinder matches that would still ask about your SAT/ACT score as a conversation starter.

When I was applying for college, the majority of my peers applied to Computer Science, even those who knew that they absolutely hated it. To this day, many people I know who are failing their computer science classes still can’t bring themselves to switch to a different major because they cannot de-idolize the high starting salary of a tech job from their minds, and don’t think they can get a job otherwise. Never did enjoyment and fulfillment in life come into question, as those were interests reserved for those we had already “made it” successful.

When college admissions rolled around, my classmates were so well conditioned to getting good grades and following the formula of doing well in classes that many of them lacked a passion for what they did. Writing the essay for admissions was often the hardest part, as it was a competition of whoever was best at sounding passionate in something they were not passionate about. Though I knew I loved design, I didn’t apply to be a design major because I was convinced design was not something that would support me financially.

During admission decisions, I felt guilty for getting in schools with a lower GPA and SAT score than my peers. Everyone talked about others as “deserving” or “undeserving” of getting into schools rather than sharing and celebrating others’ successes. I used r/ApplyingToCollege religiously, binged college decision videos, became addicted to comparing myself with others, and attributed my self-worth to college acceptances.

When committing to a private out-of-state school (CMU), I faced backlash from my classmates because I was told Pittsburgh was an inferior city to cities in the Bay. While writing my opinions article on the benefits of attending a private university, no one sided with me. The majority of my class chose to stay in-state instead of going out-of-state because they were scared of going somewhere that was “less” than the Bay.

This culture didn’t stop at the students. Parents would talk about older friends in terms of what job they have, what school they went to, or how well they’re doing in school. I witnessed families split up so that one of their kids could live with one parent in a separate apartment and attend a school in a better school district. Parents would humble brag about their kids’ accomplishments and be active in group chats discussing the hottest new college admission counseling center or gossip about success stories of their friends’ sons and daughters getting in the top 10.

However, despite all this, the Bay still holds a place in my heart. It is the place I grew up in, it’s where I met my first friends, and shed tears of camaraderie with my peers as we struggled in the same honors classes. It is where I met my first boyfriend, got my driver license, and developed much of my network today. It’s where I fostered my love for technology, learned how to write my first line of code, and edited my first YouTube video.

Without the Bay, I would not be who I am today.

But it is also where I’ve had my darkest moments comparing myself to others, seen people backstab each other to one-up each other to get in better schools, use others with no intention of returning favors, and turn to drugs as a haven for stress.

I no longer view the Bay as the best place to live, nor do I believe that the stress culture is beneficial in fostering the “competitive” students that come out from it. Many of the brightest people I’ve met are not from the Bay, and in no way do I think the culture in Bay Area high schools is a valid excuse to “prepare” students for collaborative working environments in the industry or in college. Going out-of-state has greatly shifted and opened my perspective in being more accepting of different opinions and areas of study outside of tech. I’m a firm believer that tech-above-all-else is not a mindset that should be cultivated or should last. I am hopeful that the culture changes, so that we’ll begin to shift toward a more collaborative, diverse, and open-minded future generation of Bay Area students in the years to come.

Escaping the Mindset

I didn’t realize right after leaving high school that these experiences were atypical. In fact, I initially felt proud of it, as if it was a difficult incidence that made me stronger than others. I proudly wore the Bay Area label on my arm like a badge of honor.

It took me almost 2 years of reflection on these high school experiences, speaking with peers from other states, to realize that this culture is not ubiquitous or necessary to be “good enough” for top universities.

I like to imagine a “normal” path of learning and moving forward like following the rules of driving a car forward on the road. Just like driving, working and growing with others involves focusing on oneself while also respecting those around you to also move forward with you. You don’t want to be the driver who intentionally tries to get in others’ way. Though you probably won’t be caught, doing this more shatters your integrity and others will not want to drive near you. Driving on the road is not a race — you all have different goals and treating it like a race doesn’t make sense because you all have different routes to get to different places. Similarly, for those who are currently in the Bay Area bubble, my biggest piece of advice to keep in mind that life is not a competition. Everyone has their own journey, and it’s about which direction you take your journey and who you share it with, not about the destination you’ll end up at.

To my Bay Area peers still in the mindset, here’s a special challenge to you: Next time you’re annoyed at someone posting another LinkedIn or Facebook status update on getting an internship or getting into a college and comment “Congrats” while feeling bad about yourself, I urge you to think about their journey to get to that destination. Rather than sitting back and complaining to others that someone else is more “deserving” of that opportunity, here’s a couple other routes you can take instead:

  • Reach out and ask for a coffee chat. Most people love to discuss and share advice on what got them to where they were, especially having gone through the process themselves.
  • Follow their story and journey. Keep updated with the content they put out and be inspired. People who share content love to have thoughtful feedback/comments and engagement!

And even if you are jealous of someone because of what they have accomplished, ask yourself: Is this what I want to do too? No two people will walk the exact same footsteps on the Earth, so refrain from comparing apples to oranges.

Please leave a clap 👏 (or several! Did you know you can leave more than one?) and share this article with anyone you think might be stuck in the mindset.

Acknowledgements

Confession posts with similar outlooks

confession written by another CMU student from CMU Confessions page

Inspiration

I drew inspiration from Gloria Liou’s article “This is Silicon Valley,” Ankush Swarnakar’s “An Open Letter to MSJHS,” and Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu — all amazing pieces, and really brought me hope that this perspective is only beginning to be shared.

Thank You

This article was the result of countless conversations with my friends, family, classmates, and family friends. Thank you to my friends for reading my article and being so supportive, as well as everyone who has listened to me talk about these topics.

And lastly, thank you for reading through my confessions! This is most definitely still a work in progress — if you disagree, agree, or anything in between, please ping me if you’d like to chat, I’m happy to set up a time and discuss these topics further!

Hello 👋, I’m Nancy! Currently an Instructional Design Intern @ State Farm, Content @ Design Buddies, HCI @ CMU.