Monday, April 25, 2011

Decisions, Decisions...

The college admissions process is almost over for the high school class of 2011! With a deadline of May 1st to turn in a Statement of Intent to Register to the school we’ll be attending in September, I’ve been thinking about and revisiting my decision again and again.
My final three choices were Swarthmore, Brown, and Oberlin (down from an intimidating list of 14 schools where I was accepted to, 14/14). Here’s some advice for this year’s ILC students: do not apply to as many schools as I did. Really. Narrow it down to a number as small as 5 – as long as you keep a diverse acceptance rate in mind (highly selective, selective, backup school), I’m sure you’ll be able to go somewhere amazing. It’ll save you a lot of stress later on, too.
So, to help with my final decision, I decided to visit again during Spring Break. Luckily, Swarthmore was offering an all-expenses-paid visit on the 14th and 15th of April. It was a bit of a struggle to arrange a return date in the middle of the week so that I could see Brown again, but we managed to do it.
My plane took off from the San Francisco International Airport at about 10pm Thursday night. I wasn’t too excited about flying on a red-eye, but it didn’t seem that bad until I realized that I had stored my contacts case in the suitcase which was in the overhead bin – and there were two people sleeping to the right of me! I decided to leave the contacts in, and that turned out to be a terrible mistake as my eyes got more and more irritated with every uncomfortable hour. Once I landed in Philadelphia at 3am West Coast time, I made my way to the Swarthmore student group with bleary eyes and a crick in my neck. Red-eye flights are not a good idea on college visit trips (I later couldn’t keep from nodding asleep in a political science class and I felt really terrible afterwards for doing so, but my body just couldn’t handle being awake for so long).
The other admitted students immediately cheered me up. They had taken it upon themselves to gather in a huge circle and go through introductions, and I spotted someone who I had found on the admitted students Facebook group and exchanged a few messages with beforehand. Everyone was very cheerful but also extremely sharp.  Once I got to campus and met my host, I got a chance to reflect. I really liked Swarthmore and what it had to offer on paper, but the vibe just wasn’t quite right. The fact that they paid for my flight was so helpful, and their financial aid package was astoundingly good, but little things jumped out at me and showed me that Swarthmore wasn’t exactly the right fit for me. For example, the admissions office was very lavish (as opposed to Oberlin’s, which just did the job and felt like the perfect combination of down-to-earth and welcoming). The students were also very driven and passionate (which is good) but had a certain air of intensity and a little bit of social awkwardness. Sometimes, they pushed themselves past the limits of what they could handle with courseloads and extracurriculars. Guiltiness washed over me as people asked if I would attend Swarthmore – I answered with a sad “probably not” and knew that I couldn’t see myself living the life of a Swarthmore student. However, Swarthmore is a great, great place with interesting people, endless opportunities, and wonderful academics; for this year’s ILC students, I recommend at least looking into it. It might just be the place for you.
My grandmother picked me up from Swarthmore on Friday night. She lives about 30 minutes away from the campus, so I stayed with her through Sunday morning. I’m very grateful that I was able to do that. It was so nice to spend a bit of time with her, too.
On Sunday morning, I took Amtrak from Philadelphia to Providence so that I could visit Brown. I walked from the train station to Keeney Quad (which was a pretty short walk) and met Cynthia Fong outside her dorm. I had been emailing her before I left with questions about Brown and she was nice enough to let me stay in her room for a few days. We dropped off my bags and headed off to find some food, which wasn’t hard because there were free snacks by Wriston Quad in celebration of Spring Weekend (a festival at Brown that gives students a chance to release stress and have some fun). The SciLi (Science Library) was our next stop, so that we could eat and finish some homework. At 2pm, Cynthia excitedly led me back to Wriston to see Dave Binder perform as part of Spring Weekend. I had never heard of Dave Binder, but people were apparently pretty excited about him. He played lots of covers and sweet acoustic songs; the crowd went wild. I think they were just happy to be able to relax. I did see some drinking, but it wasn’t overwhelming, and it seemed like everyone was staying safe and no one was being pressured. No one was indecent or obnoxious. Cynthia and her friends told me that Spring Weekend is not typical of Brown at all – usually, on the weekends, people are busy studying.
A flash mob surprised us by dancing to “Forget You” by Cee Lo Green. It was really well done and people loved it. Cynthia and I left Wriston happy and smiling. After dinner, I went to Faunce Hall and checked out the LGBTQ Resource Center. It was closed for the night (since it was 9pm already) but I noticed a group talking in the adjacent room. I poked my head in and introduced myself as an admitted student; the group, which was very friendly, turned out to be the Queer Alliance Coordinating Committee (QACC). I was really excited to have found the college organization that corresponds with the Gay-Straight Alliance at my high school, since I’m the club president and I’m so involved in the activist world. They were just finishing up their meeting, but I did ask a few questions about clubs at Brown. Clubs draw up a budget every year and submit it to a committee of students, which then almost always gives the clubs however much money they need to carry out the projects they have planned. I thought that was great – having grown up in California public schools, I would never, ever expect to get that kind of funding and support from my administration (although they probably do wish that it was possible for them to do so). The QACC supervises a variety of subgroups (I think about 15), which range in focus from support to social events to activism.
The leader of the main activist group (QPAC, or the Queer Political Action Committee), whose name is Gabe, actually had Brown and Oberlin as his final two choices just like I did. Because we had that in common, he understood what was so hard about my decision. We both like Oberlin because the atmosphere is so politically diverse and full of creativity. The music scene at Oberlin (classical, jazz, composition, performance, student groups) is also naturally strong because of the conservatory. In spite of Oberlin’s isolated location, there’s no way to be bored, because the student body is so active and interesting. What most impressed me was that everyone was so welcoming; each student pretty much automatically became my friend the second I stepped on campus. However, Gabe chose to go to Brown mainly because of the diversity in ideology among the students – although Brown is a progressive place, there’s enough of a range of opinions that groups like QPAC could actually be making a big difference, whereas at Oberlin QPAC would pretty much be preaching to the choir. That’s the main thing Cynthia emphasized to me, as well. The location is also very convenient and not isolated at all. It’s easy to get around New England on Amtrak and the Rhode Island statehouse is only a 10-minute walk away. QPAC makes good use of the closeness of the R.I. legislators and often visits to make the biggest impact on policy.
I stayed at Brown until Tuesday afternoon. I visited a few classes (Intro to Political Thought, Econ seminar, literature class on Heaven and Hell focusing on Paradise Lost, and a class on Black Lavender theatre) and also stopped by the Third World Center, the Swearer Center for Public Service, and Meehan Auditorium’s ice rink. Unfortunately, Meehan is a seasonal rink, so I wouldn’t be able to figure skate there all year; I did look up some rinks within an hour or two of Providence, though. It seems like it would be possible to start a recreational figure skating club if I wanted to. The last three classes were quite small, and I felt like there was no lack of personal attention. The professors really seemed to care about the students as individuals, and every student participated willingly. Each class also grabbed my attention and held it for the whole duration – for the most part, I had no problem understanding what was being covered. That was a relief. TWC and the Swearer Center came off as great resources with super friendly people working and hanging out inside.
All of this reassured me that Brown could have a small feel and a sense of community without feeling too small. The location, the resources, the friendliness, the diversity of class offerings, and of course the diversity of the students ultimately convinced me that Brown is the school for me. Oberlin will always be special to me, but I’m confident that Brown is the best place for me to spend the next four years of my life.
Again, I’m really grateful to Cynthia, her roommate, my grandmother, my parents, Sue Kim, and the ILC for making it possible for me to get to this point. I almost can’t believe how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve grown since last November. Thank you all so much.

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