Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including Public Radio International’s “The Takeaway” and WNYC’s “The Brian Lehrer Show.” He is the co-author of “I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” and editor of the graphic novel anthologies “Secret Identities” and “Shattered.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
An Asian student who claimed that Harvard and Stanford were competing for her turned out to have lied
Jeff Yang: Do Asian students face too much pressure to succeed academically?
They called Sara Kim the “Genius Girl.”
She was the prodigy whose academic prowess, perfect SATs and otherworldly STEM skills led first to the equivalent of a bidding war between Harvard and Stanford, and then to an unprecedented proposal in which Kim would be allowed to attend each school for two years before choosing the one from which she’d graduate. And add to that: Harvard enlisted no other than billionaire Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to try to recruit her to its campus.
For days, the Korean media gave Kim’s unique achievement wall-to-wall coverage, promoting the young woman as an exemplary role model for its youth, and spotlighting the inspirational parenting achievement of her father, Kim Jung-wook, a managing director at a software company.
And then, as suddenly as it erupted, the story imploded.
Harvard and Stanford declared that no such admission offer had been made, and that in fact Kim had not been accepted to either school.
The congratulatory missives printed on official letterhead were found to be forgeries; the email correspondences between the colleges and the applicant were equally fake.
Kim’s father issued a public apology, taking responsibility for pressuring his daughter to the extent that she engineered the elaborate hoax: “I did not know until now how much my child was suffering and hurting and did not properly take care of her. As her father, I regret having pushed my child into deeper sickness and causing the problem to get bigger.”
Here’s what’s really sad about the whole debacle: Kim, a student at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, VA, would probably have had little problem getting into a great college.
That’s because every student at “TJ” gets into a great college. Not necessarily Harvard or Stanford, but many excellent schools across the country.
Regularly ranked the number one high school of any kind, public or private, in the nation, TJ’s renown extends all the way to Asia. It’s no wonder that a steady stream of Asian immigrants flock to the suburbs of Northern Virginia with the sole reason for establishing residency in the U.S. to send their kids to the school.
And like many top-tier public high schools with STEM specializations, the school has a disproportionately Asian student body. About 60% of TJ students are of Asian descent. Whites account for 29%, Hispanics make up around 8% and blacks less than 3%.
It’s competitive as hell — difficult to get into and even harder to excel in, given the stellar quality of its student body and its exceedingly high workload and expectations.
Kim was hardly failing. She maintained good grades and received her share of academic accolades, winning mostly fourth prizes and honorable mentions in the school’s many Math Olympiads, science fairs and other tournaments. But she wasn’t among the best of the best at TJ. She wasn’t Pooja Chandrashekar, her classmate who made headlines of her own by being accepted into all eight Ivy League colleges.
Following the revelation of her admissions hoax, it came out that she likely engaged in a series of deceptions in order to make herself look exceptional. There were red flags and cues and clues, which were overlooked by her father and teachers.
The fact is, Kim isn’t the only example of a young Asian American pushed to the limits and beyond by the stress of academic success at all costs, measured in greatest part by the name of the college that offers acceptance.
Just a few weeks ago, Chinese American senior Mira Hu, who had been dropped off to take the SATs by her parents, went missing for nearly a week after declaring she was “overwhelmed” by the pressures she experienced to succeed academically. She was a senior at San Marino High School, a top-performing Southern California school with a student body that’s two-thirds Asian American.
And Palo Alto’s Gunn High School — rated the 4th best STEM school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, with a student body that is 44% Asian — has been rocked by a string of suicides, including four deaths over just the past six months. Three of the students who took their lives were Asian American.
Asian parents, especially first-generation immigrants, frequently see academic success as a ticket out of the toil and sacrifice that they experienced in their adult lives. They see hard work in schools as a small price to pay for a lifetime of security. And they’re right: Nothing produces a greater return on investment of time than a good education.
But the definition of a “good education” is what’s in question. The bar is being set higher, and the start line earlier, all the time. The pressure to get into the best — that is to say, the most prestigious — grad school, college, high school, middle school, elementary school, kindergarten, and even preschool, is rising. And to what end result?
As Bryan Hassin TJ class of 1997, wrote on Quora, “Several of my friends and I were admitted to TJ and several of my friends — many of whom were just as qualified, if not more so — were not admitted. Those who were admitted to TJ went on to have phenomenal experiences there, got into great colleges, excelled there, and are generally doing pretty well in life. Those who were not admitted to TJ, on the other hand…well, they went on to have phenomenal experiences at our base school, graduated at or near the top of their class, got into great colleges, excelled there, and are doing just as well, if not better, than I and most of my classmates. The takeaway is clear: it isn’t nearly as important whether or not you get into a particular school (or university or job) as it is what you do with your time.”
That’s wisdom you might not learn at the best universities in the world — and might not learn until it’s too late.