As my four years of high school life come to an awkward close, I finally started pushing myself to meet new people — whether they’re other incoming Berkeley freshmen, some friends that I rarely had a chance to talk to, or even random people over the internet trying to make new friends just like me.
And as I make new connections, it seems like people get super interested in my passions and experiences — non-profit programs centered around technology and education populated my entire resume, when, on the contrary, I appeared to be someone who would easily conform to the traditional education system. So, they naturally wondered: What exactly was I looking for from these programs? Why were these things such a big deal for me?
For the majority of my time in China, I lived under the impression that I would be going through a traditional Chinese education: first, take Zhongkao (state-administered entrance exam of high school), then Gaokao (state-administered entrance exam for higher education), then live the life (what I do, where I live, and how much money I get to earn for the rest of my life) determined by those tests. Immigration was never something that I’d expected—though technically my parents started the process years ago, it came as a surprise to me.
But, even after 5 years in the U.S, China's education system has still shaped me.
I was born in Shanghai, supposedly one of the most prosperous yet competitive cities in China. Back when I was in school there, most public schools were considered "below average" (I remember my parents using "going to public school" as a threat to push me to study harder). Most middle-class families would choose to send their children to private schools as long as they could bear the cost. And, as the demand for a higher-quality private education increased, private schools gradually started looking for higher-quality students by adding an interview process. And thus, the competition grew.
According to an online poll, more than 40 percent of Chinese parents feel they have no choice but to send their children to after-school classes because of the intense competition in the education system. Chinese parents have reportedly spent up to US$43,500 every year on after-school classes. And somehow, even without necessarily getting justification for the money spent, parents acquire a sense of security and competence through sending their kids to endless weekend classes.
I spent almost every meal of my weekend in my dad's car when I was just a fifth grader, moving from one class to another with minimal time to breathe in between. Those weekend classes covered almost everything you’d imagine a student could do: from Chinese literature, English, and Math Olympiad, to skating, piano, and Taekwondo – all for one purpose: to show the recruiters of a good private school my capabilities and how diverse my character was.
Indeed, I was lucky. I was lucky because of my parents' ability to invest in me. I was lucky enough to even be exposed to what would be considered in China to be an "elite education" this early in my years. I was lucky enough to be at a semi-international boarding school where educators held drastically different views.
Mr. Wei Wan, the head of my middle school, once stated in a speech, that "all good education, at home and abroad, ancient and modern, has always been pointing at the cultivation of student autonomy". I was given the freedom to choose and build — whether it was through picking my own instrument to play, selecting my own elective classes to attend, or creating a barely surviving coding club with a friend, all for the first time.
From there, I came to an early realization that education was not simply about going to school (and trust me, this sounds simple, but most middle-class parents in China are still stuck in it).
Frankly, looking at it now, the majority of the after-school/weekend classes that my parents had been investing in me has gone to waste. Now, I am not exceptionally good at math; I no longer play piano for performances; rarely do I have the opportunity to spend time exploring Chinese literature. Yet, passions I began developing in middle school had a lasting impact on me, and some eventually made it into my college applications: I played the trumpet in my high school marching band, created a successful club, and organized several events around the nation. But, most importantly, I’ve decided to study computer science.
United States: A Taste of "Freedom"
The invitation to immigrate to the U.S. came as a surprise to me and my family (it usually takes longer for a program application like ours to be approved). I had less than a year to prepare myself for what I considered, then, to be the longest trip of my life, and before I knew it, I'd left my home in Shanghai for what could’ve been "forever".
Thanks to years of spoken English training, the transition could not have been smoother. My parents were able to send me to one of the best public schools in the nation. I made new friends, found clubs to join, and did well in all of my classes.
Yet, no matter how many AP classes or awards or clubs my new school had, a public school was still, indeed, different from a private school. I noticed a massive and constantly growing gap between the best and the worst students, and, though my school was proud of its diversity, the groups – races, genders, interests – rarely mixed. Teachers were less like teachers – they only do their part of the job to deliver the content to us; learning and assimilating this content was our job.
Before coming to the U.S, I don't think I'd ever been told, at least directly, that I "could not" learn something. Back in China, if I had asked, I would always land on an answer that I could somewhat comprehend, even if the answer I was looking for was far off my grid – in which case, the teachers would usually attempt to teach me the content in smaller pieces. Yet, at my new school, I was barred from taking Geometry in eighth grade because I had missed a single unit of Algebra 1 under the Chinese math curriculum, even though I could’ve easily made it up with a week of self-studying. Instead, I was kept in the Algebra 1 classroom for an entire year.
"Why aren't you taking Geometry already?" my algebra teacher asked me after handing back my perfect midterm exam. "Why waste your time here?"
Because neither of us could challenge the system.
Things got a lot better in high school – I was free to balance my own course load, and I still had enough time to get involved in extracurriculars. I still opted to take the hardest classes offered, but this time, not because I so eagerly wanted to, but because most of my friends were taking these courses. American high schools are very polarized – there were 800+ students in my class, but throughout the 4 years, I probably interacted with less than a quarter of them. I was free to make my own friends, but who my friends were almost certainly defined who I became.
And, if there's one thing I learned from a public school system, it’s this – if you can't challenge the system, just ignore it. If I were to have met all of the expectations that had been set on me throughout high school, I would never have become who I am today.
My school had a peculiar system that allowed students to report the higher grade for the semester even if we earned one letter grade lower for a quarter (e.g. an A in quarter 1 + a B in quarter 2 = an A for the semester). A lot of teachers took this negatively – they saw this as a way for students to slack off. But, it was precisely a system like this that provided freedom for students with heavy course loads.
I do not study for quizzes and tests in the majority of my non-AP classes. I would rather spend that time doing things that I am fond of – whether it is writing curricula for a local education company, running events, or just building dumb programming projects. I do not need 100% in biology, English, or history – a 89.5% will do if it earns me an A. I could use the time it takes to earn the extra 10.5% on something better, like designing a better UI for my school's 20-year-old grade reporting site or running a huge hackathon in the Midwest...
After I graduated, I asked my mother a question – if she could do it all over again, would she still have chosen to send me to a public school?
"Yes, " she said, "but if conditions allow, I want you to send your kids to a private school... at least through middle school."
I never bothered my parents for academic-related things throughout high school. To be honest, they probably would not have known my grades at all if I didn't occasionally mention it at the dinner table. I am someone that fits well into the U.S. education system, and I know how to play along. But, not everyone is that lucky – close to 12% of students in my school district with 165,000+ students do not see the finish line, according to the school website.
With this in mind, I don't think there can be a perfect model for large educational systems.
There are generally two ways a program can optimize itself on: breadth or depth. Do you opt for the size of your audience, or do you opt for the quality? American public schools are obviously far into breadth while the boarding schools in China are dedicated to depth. Yet, I don't think I could become who I am without both – China tested my limits, and America exposed me to limitless opportunities and diversity.
Can education be both breadth-first and depth-first? Not through a traditional school system, since it lacks the versatility to do so, and American ideals will almost always opt for breadth. But, what about a third-party, independent organization? The programs I've been involved with over the past three years all optimized for breadth. Depth itself is much harder to achieve, especially when these organizations require high school students to take the lead.
My friends would usually assume that I would pursue a non-traditional path when it comes to education. But frankly, if an average student walks on a road paved by traditional values, I've only been zig-zagging back and forth the edges, never deviating far from the traditional path. There are programs out there who tries to pave alternative routes for non-traditional students, yet almost all of them are either taking a long detour, or just too narrow and risky to walk on. Eventually I'll have the courage to take the leap and create my own path somewhere out there, but for now, I'd much rather take my time to explore how wide the paved road could be.
Special thanks to Megan Cui.