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On Bay Area Academic Culture

By: Anishi Patel

For those who are unfamiliar, California’s Silicon Valley is a premier technological hub, and boasts an essential and thriving immigrant community, of which I am a part. We bring Boba tea (so much that the official Cupertino Snapchat geofilter includes a boba cup cartoon), love our Teslas (the Tesla factory tour is virtually a rite of passage), and, as a consequence of our upbringings, raise academic standards throughout the Bay Area.

 

I am the daughter of two Indian-American immigrants who travelled to the U.S. for a better college education and became engineers and business owners. It’s not a unique story for a Bay Area family: 23% of the 2010 Bay Area population was East Asian or Indian, and when the 2020 census is conducted, I only expect that number to grow. I live in an especially concentrated area of the Bay, and at my school, East Asian and Indian students make up 60% of the student body. At other schools in the area, the numbers are even higher. 

 

To be the product of a family that has worked so hard to earn their status in life is a blessing, and a source of pressure. Bay Area students, especially immigrant students, are expected to excel in their academic lives and make their parents proud by earning admission to a top-tier college. It is the ultimate validation of our parents’ American dreams: our successes are theirs as well, and proof that their efforts in establishing themselves in a new country have paid off (of course, I’m inclined to argue that living in the Bay Area is a mark of success in itself — huzzah for housing prices! — but the success of the progeny is of utmost importance to many immigrant families).

 

The “insanely academic Asian student” stereotype, while under no circumstances a representation of all immigrant students, is a standard toward which many of us strive, or feel we are forced to strive. Making my parents proud is a task I take on almost subconsciously, and it’s an endeavor I’m honored to embark on, but many immigrant students might concede that the traditional path to this goal is a source of great stress. Taking 6+ Advanced Placement classes in high school, founding clubs and nonprofit organizations, collecting leadership positions, and winning academic and sporting competitions are hallmarks of a “successful” Bay Area student’s high school experience. 

 

Don’t just take my word for it — you can follow the money. The Bay Area is home to a seemingly infinite number of college and standardized testing preparation institutions, and it’s almost unheard of for a student to exit high school without having taken courses or counseling from one such practice.

 

And the prices? Some counseling practices charge upward of $10,000 for college essay editing and general counseling, while private tutoring for the SAT can reach $300 an hour. But, these businesses are able to stay afloat, in fact their boats might be flying above the water, because the Bay’s uncompromising academic culture ensures that parents will pay these fees to keep their students competitive. 

 

Competitive, there’s a key word. In the Bay’s cutthroat academic culture, it almost feels as if everything is a competition, every standardized test score, every second shaved off a runner’s mile time, every smile from a potential recommendation letter-writing teacher, every game won, no matter how small. 

 

And, if I may parrot Adam Smith for a moment, it is competition that pushes us to greater heights. For us, these heights mean applying to ever-more-prestigious summer programs, studying an extra month to take AP exams for AP classes the school doesn’t offer, and competing with a growing pool of qualified candidates for college admission. 

 

And as admission rates decline across the country, competition for limited seats only becomes more cutthroat by the year. To give you an idea of the mounting pressure Bay Area students face, UCLA’s acceptance rate went from 25% in 2011 to 14% in 2018. The top-tier schools Bay Area students generally shoot for are receiving record numbers of applicants each year, and college dreams that might have seemed feasible a decade ago no longer are. In an effort to prepare their students, parents begin to have their kids take SAT preparation exams as early as middle school, and sometimes pay for college counseling before their children even begin high school. 

 

It’s a vicious cycle that looks like it’s only going to get worse by the year, but that’s not to say Bay Area academic culture is all bleak. A thriving immigrant population means schools host Bollywood shows, K-pop dances at homecoming festivities, have ethnic foods at club fairs, and just generally reflect the diversity of their student bodies. 

 

Bay Area students of immigrant parents are always secure in the knowledge that there is someone close by who can relate to their struggles and way of life. As taxing as the Bay Area grind might be, there’s a whole school of academically pressured, emotionally drained, and sleep deprived high school students to lean on when the going gets tough. 

 

So here’s my best advice, as a Bay Area high school senior: a boba a day keeps the tears away.

Anishi Patel is a senior at Saratoga High School with a passion for creative writing. Her work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and is in Skipping Stones Magazine, The Blue Marble Review, and 805 Lit, among others. Anishi is an Editor-in-Chief for the Saratoga Falcon, and she is also the leading editor for her school’s literary magazine, Soundings.

Instagram: @anishi.patel 

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