Self contentment does not need to come from prestige: A reflection


Emily Wong

Students conversing about what to do over the weekend at college

Shereen Ahmed, Opinions Editor

When I was younger, I used to plan out my college acceptance fantasies, imagining myself getting into all the Ivy Leagues imaginable and choosing one while wearing a hat sporting the college’s name in front of my whole family. What school would I have picked? Brown–with their world-renowned research in biomedicine. I imagined myself working at Warren Alpert School of Medicine with a stethoscope engraved with my name. I was going to go to the college and career center every week along with making a running document of every single class I was going to take, along with the grades I was going to get. It was settled: no one was going to risk telling Shereen her life might alter otherwise. The funny thing is, however, that my application to Brown fell through five years later, and I didn’t apply as a biology major to any college.

 During high school, whenever someone used to talk about colleges or rankings in the library or lunch line, my heart suddenly became frantic as I grew weary of what they were going to ask from me. Worrying if they were going to ask the amount of APs I was taking next year, or if I had started to plan out who I wanted as my college counselor. Coming home, I would sporadically take out a bunch of folders to continue planning my process: looking at the essays ahead of time and even drafting the list of colleges I would be applying to. My goal was all eight Ivies; Caltech, MIT; and the “southern” Ivies such as Vanderbilt, Emory, and Rice. A bunch of my self-worth had been tied to this idea of getting into my dream schools as I assumed it would help me live my life happily ever after.    

It’s safe to say my life definitely did a 180-degree turn when I finally came to the understanding that what I was asking from myself was unreasonable. Taking AP Biology as a sophomore, I used it as a way to tell myself that “I was better than others because “I took a more advanced class.” However, in reality, I was blinding myself from the reality that I was suffering and losing endless amounts of sleep. I stopped hanging out with friends and buried myself in books, frustrating myself if I was not getting the same results my other friends did even if they studied less than me. I started questioning myself, asking if I was cut out to be a Dougherty Valley student or even cut out to go to college. I started comparing myself with kids who could do it all. The perfect GPAs, presidents of clubs, shadowing doctors from Stanford. Many nights I just stayed up watching “How did I get into so and so school” videos on Youtube, and simply asked myself: Why wasn’t I enough? The picking out hat fantasies played out to me all throughout my sophomore year, however, my idea of going to Brown was becoming less and less likely as my grades were falling.

I don’t mind if I go to a school that’s not well known or a top tier 30, but what I do mind is making sure I go somewhere where I thrive and am happy.


When we were stuck at home during quarantine, all of the free time on my hands led me to start going through Youtube vlogs of people being “happy” and “content,” spending their days at Princeton, Caltech, Vanderbilt, Yale. I thought to myself, surely my life will not be good if I go anywhere else. Not bothering to look at any other college vlogs. In this process, I started asking myself: what really makes me happy? Was it the subtle flex of the school in my Instagram bio? The constant praise I would be receiving from my relatives and family friends? The shiny label I would be able to put on LinkedIn to scout job employers? 

In the midst of my Youtube college video phase, I came across a Ted Talk video titled “The Unspoken Reality Behind the Harvard Gates” by Alex Chan. He described the horror and hardships that came about studying at Harvard, how it wasn’t like what the outside world saw. How the moment you got in, you would realize there would be smarter, more talented people than you out there and how it would always be a sloppy battle. Competing for jobs, club president roles, and even classes. Towards the end, he said, “if you don’t end up in your dream school, it’s ok because what matters more is who you are.” Those words gave me a sense of comfort, something I was yearning to hear for the past four years of my life. 

 It dawned on me that going to a prestigious school wasn’t to make myself happy, but it was to prove to other people that I was successful. It was a trophy reward for my parents to brag about to other children when the topic of “where’s your child going?” came up. It was a way for me to show to others that I was “more accomplished than them.” I went to bed that night thinking, “Were other people’s opinions of me worth my mental health?”

My view of success changed significantly as I progressed through high school. The presence of teachers such as Mr. Kim, an AP Computer Science teacher, and Mr. Vangene, an American History teacher, and Ms. Decker, my Journalism teacher gave me the confidence to be a successful individual wherever I go. Five years from now, Mr. Vangene told me, no one is going to ask where I went to college as long as I have a degree in what I desired. Mr. Kim further reassured me that the only thing that matters is my willingness to learn and my determination to not give up. He told me, “America is the land of opportunities. If you try, you can be successful.” Ms. Decker’s continuous advice to me for the past four years, along with her being in every step of the day through my college journey, made me realize that I am capable of great things regardless of where I go. She always tells me to go to a school where I am happy, and being successful is in no way correlated to where you go. Her reflection article “Where you go to college does matter, but not for the reason you think” forced me to fully reconsider my idea of going to college. Was it for the name? Or did I want to be happy? This made me wonder why I had been so worried in the first place. Why couldn’t I be jovial and enjoy my childhood and make the most of it, doing things I loved instead of worrying about how many AP classes I was going to take?

I was content with my decision to go to a school where I would be happy instead of its name for a while. I started developing self-confidence and surrounding myself with people who didn’t talk about the names of colleges all the time. With the tiny bursts of happiness I kept receiving,  I realized that life is so much more than where you go; it is about becoming human and being yourself, something I would be able to achieve in a place where I was happy regardless of what “US News” ranked the school as.  

As I was remaking my sophomore college list when I was entering my senior year, I tried to find schools with good job placement programs, amazing dance teams, huge racial diversity, a sporting Journalism program, fun classes one could take such as one on the science of how to make chocolate. Looking back on the list, I changed more than 70% of the schools I originally applied to.

However, with the college talks spreading around the school senior year, it worried me that my choices were not correct: how I was not “doing alright by myself” by not applying to tier 30 schools. How I would see my classmates succeed while I simply fall behind. 

Alas, I started doing more research on the topic, feeling lost as I went back to square one, divulging myself into the midst of Quora and Reddit posts trying to give myself a glimpse of hope. I read self-satisfaction posts from people in their late 30’s who decided to go to a state school to save money. I read posts of people who went to a school they initially did not want to go to but ended up loving it there. Among all the stories I read, the common line tended to be that the name of a school does not take you far, but how much hard work you put in does.   

It’s still a learning process for me, and I have a lot to learn. Sometimes when my friends tell me they’ve been working on their Yale essays the whole night while I have my college apps completed, I think that I didn’t work hard enough or dreamed too low; how I took the easy path. When my friends have big dreams and aspirations to end up in an Ivy League to make their family proud, sometimes I ask myself, “don’t my parents deserve better?” It’s still a battle I struggle with every single day, and I feel the mentality will not go away until I actually step foot in my new school, surrounding myself with people I love. 

I don’t mind if I go to a school that’s not well known or a top tier 30, but what I do mind is making sure I go somewhere where I thrive and am happy. Somewhere I will look back on with fond memories, and make my younger self proud.

I have been meaning to write this op-ed for a while, especially with the toxicity many of us go through. If no one is going to tell you this, I will: your self-worth and self-love are in no way determined by where you go to continue your education–honestly half of the college admissions are luck. I wish I could tell my freshman year self that it’s okay to get a couple of B’s and to not stress out all the time. How comparing yourself to others does absolutely nothing. How I would end up being okay and I would get into colleges where I would love to study at. I would just tell my younger self to simply be Shereen.