Four years ago, I broke into tears as I opened the last of my 14 college rejection letters. No waitlists, just rejections. I was absolutely crushed. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t take it. I sat there crying inconsolably, my mom shaking her head next to me and my brother at a loss of words in the video call. I avoided friends and people whom I knew were going to ask the long-awaited “Where are you going for college?” for the next several months, embarrased of myself. Disappointed. Angry. Ashamed. Lost.
I had molded my identity into the ideal college applicant, one that was unrecognizable to my true self.
All my life I had been taught to work towards college. I had internalized the idea that getting a higher education was my path to success. I had molded my identity into the ideal college applicant, one that was unrecognizable to my true self. I had the grades and test scores, the extracurriculars and that “spike” that I was told would made me stand out in the applicant pool.
In one sweep of a moment, the identity that had been crafted for myself throughout my teenage years vanished.
Turns out I was wrong, wrong, wrong. In one sweep of a moment, the identity that had been crafted for myself throughout my teenage years vanished. While the colleges that I applied were the most competitive in the world, and thus the rejections were not surprising – they didn’t sting any less. I thought I had lost it all, because I failed to achieve what was then my only goal in life.
The college rejections didn’t end once I got into college the following year; they followed me to my freshman year of college, in conversations surrounding our age and my background. They followed me to my sophomore year of college, in the looks of faces of people who thought I was still underage, when in reality I was already of legal age. The looks of disbelief on their faces never stung less, and I learned to be cautious about who I revealed my age to. It didn’t matter what they said after they got over the initial shock; the fact that they had been taken aback that I had turned 20 as a college freshman said plenty already. It felt like everyone was mocking me like I had been set back a year, like I hadn’t been capable of measuring up to their level when I was their age. To this day, I am still reluctant to share my birthdate with most people.
The thing that really ate away at my confidence was the privilege that I felt unworthy of. I have supportive parents in a financially stable household. I always have. My dad’s struggles growing up made him determined to provide me with a stable upbringing and enriching education, and I did. I attended a private bilingual school. My mom packed all my lunches and drove me to all my music practices and other extracurriculars. I even had private tutors for different test preparations. I did the IB programme in school, while also taking the SAT, ACT, SAT Subject Tests, and TOEFL. I could afford all the test fees. I could also afford the fees of applying to multiple colleges. I could afford to take a gap year while staying at home and not having to work. I was so privileged, which is why I felt like an utter failure when none of it had paid off.
Four years have passed since the day I realized I wouldn’t be attending college that same year. Four years have passed, and the thought of it still triggers my insecure self. Flashbacks of people commenting about how “surprised” they were that I was a year older than they were, yet they were a grade higher than I was, still sting. The privilege that I associated with my gap year only hardened the blow. I was the privileged brat who only got into college because she had the financial means to fund for everything.
The thing is, none of these insecurities are actually real. They were only a failure because I chose to see them as such; they were only a burden because I made them so. The truth of the matter is, I only entered college a year (and a half) later than most people. I ended up attending a reputable school through continued effort and hard work – though the reputation of the university means less to me now than it did back then. The extra time that I had before college allowed me to solidify my career plans, and I was able to lock down my majors in cognitive science and psychology, with a minor in Chinese, freshman year of college. I may have “lost” time not starting college with peers my age, but I gained it by starting college with a plan that I was confident about. My financial privilege and supportive parents were the backbone to my subsequent successes, something that I am blessed with and am eternally grateful for.
The thing is, none of these insecurities are actually real. They were only a failure because I chose to see them as such; they were only a burden because I made them so.
Just like I am still working on letting go of the “ideal student” identity that I had been taught to internalize at a young age, I am also letting go of the judgment of others. I have lived my entire life trying to please everyone – my parents, teachers, friends, peers, strangers, society – that I internalized all their opinions about me without first questioning whether that was what I wanted to do. In many cases, I wasn’t given a chance to develop my own voice. But I also chose not to have a voice, because I thought that only others knew what was best for me.
At the end of the day, the only judgment that I need to let go of is the one I have of myself.
I thought I was truly starting to get to know myself when I got into college, but the habit of wanting to do things for the sake of others, to please others, crawled its way back. I realized that, while everyone’s opinion matters, their opinion of me has no weight on my identity. None of the derisive comments about my age and privilege are real, just like none of the expectations of others are there unless I want them to be. Only I think so much about myself, only I can question and criticize and mold myself as much. At the end of the day, the only judgment that I need to let go of is the one I have of myself.
As I am approaching my college graduation in December of this year, I find myself thinking back to this transitional moment in my life. I find myself realizing that I have – again – put my self-worth, effort and values into my work. On whether I get accepted into said job or not. Whether they like me or not. If I’m good enough for them, or not. This continuous cycle of living under the mercy of others will be the death of me, and so I am killing it. I am killing the negative thoughts and insecure beliefs that have plagued my entire life. I am ridding myself of the people-pleaser identity that had grown on me. I am shedding my past, because my identity is no longer determined by the things that are no longer part of my present life. My identity is based on who I choose to be now, and I choose myself.