The most stressful thing in my life

When it's time to confront life beyond college

By EJ Fuller | May | June 2020
I’m still in high school, but the most stressful thing in my life is college. I would have to say the single most stressful thing in my life for the past six months hasn’t been finals or relationships or presentations. It has been college. A career. The question of: What the hell am I, a 15-year-old who doesn’t even know how to drive a car yet, going to do with the rest of my life? It’s an important question. And everyone has to answer it at some point. But a lot of people go to college without answering it. A lot of people get a job without answering it. A lot of people have no idea where they are going, but keep on living anyway. And, for a lot of people, that’s all right. But I am not one of those people. You see, I’ve been thinking about college since I was 11. I’ve always done well in school and people have always told me I’m a smart kid. I believed them, most of the time, but I tried not to let it get to my head. Well, I guess I did let it get to my head, because, somehow, I convinced myself that everything was going to be all right as long as I got good grades and didn’t smoke weed. Assuredly, my small pre-pubescent brain told me, I will live a long, fulfilling life as long as I keep these good grades and don’t get into trouble. If I have this piece of paper which says, “Hey, this kid is pretty cool and he does better than his classmates in this curriculum which the government of the United States haphazardly put together in a matter of time inconceivably too short to actually represent a means of properly educating anyone who plans to do anything productive or meaningful in actual society and represents a conglomerate of the information which is largely relevant today but provides significantly less time than is needed to fully understand or properly develop any of these subjects among the hundreds of thousands of students who will be entering our society over the coming decades.” That’s what everyone who was successful ever did, right? I mean, what more could the world ask of me? There was no need to consider what I actually wanted to do or how I was going to do them or why those things mattered to me. Of course not, I was 10. Eleven. Whatever. I was too young to know what really mattered. To know to go looking for something which was really important to me. I had things which interested me more than others — mostly video games and some endeavors into drawing, both of which I still keep with me to this day (though, thankfully, significantly less of the former) — but I had put no thought into a career or anything I could pursue financially. My parents told me I should be an engineer. I was smart — good at math. That was all it took for me to be an engineer in their eyes. I was sure I could do it, too. It sounded pretty all right to me. “I’ll go to MIT,” I thought. “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do. I’ll be an engineer.” But what kind of engineer? Computer engineering? Mechanical engineering? Architectural engineering? Biomedical engineering? Environmental engineering? Civil engineering? Online engineering, whatever that means? I put no consideration into it. I never spent time thinking about what a career in engineering would be like or what I would do to get there in my career or what projects I could pursue in the meantime. At the time, the thought of my career, though reminders often came, was so distant and ungraspable to me that I never even bothered to try and wrap my head around it. Then, once I got to high school, specifically, in my sophomore year, I was hit with a bout of questions I could not answer. Questions relating to what I wanted to do and where I was going to do them. I was presented with decisions that I now realized would affect the rest of my short time here on earth. And I realized I didn’t really want to be an engineer. In fact, I realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do at all. Having put little to no thought into the actual process, I was struck with the severity of the decisions which I was presented with. Time and time again, I was asked things which I had no way of answering with certainty. I thought about dozens of different career paths I could take. I took an online personality test to tell me what I should do. I asked my parents and my friends and my student counselors and my high school dean of admissions (thank you for all of your help Mr. West) what I should do, but every time I sat down to think of a plan or make a decision — answer that essential question — I always came back to the same answer: I don’t know. How can I know? I’ve never had the opportunity to try any of these things. Now I’m expected to make an essentially blind decision based on vague and personal recounts from other people on how they did the things they wanted to do? What if I don’t want to do those things? What if I want to do nothing? What if I want to do everything? I was completely lost. I think this whole “college preparation” thing is a total sham. Every year, people want to start preparing for college earlier and earlier. First, it was high school, an obviously important time to consider college. Then, when they realized high schoolers had no idea what they wanted to do in college, they moved it to middle school, so people could start thinking early. Now, there are college preparation programs for elementary schoolers. These programs are missing the point. It is important to get kids to consider college, very important in fact, but they are approaching it from entirely the wrong angle.

If any change is to be made in our current education systems, then the most important aspect which must be addressed is the structuring of the priorities of the programs and institutions which relate to the preparation of students for college and their future careers.
In my experience, in the United States, there is this incredibly disgusting and misguided understanding that in order to be successful, you must pursue a job which is considered a “real job.” These jobs include: being an engineer, being a doctor, or being a lawyer. A real job is something where your career is laid out before you, where you are a member of the societal ladder, working under other, more powerful people, whose jobs are even more “real” than yours. Real jobs do not include anything related to entrepreneurship, the arts, more obscure sciences like philosophy or psychology, or any job where you do not receive a steady paycheck where you do the same thing day in and day out. In order to be a successful member of society, you must never take risks, stay eternally loyal to your higher-ups, and always be at work on time. This definition of “success” differs so greatly from my own that it makes me want to scream. Success should never be determined based on whether or not you have obtained a job where you are financially secure or respected by others. These things, while they may seem nice, are ultimately irrelevant to life fulfillment. Every word has multiple meanings (except monosomies) and the word “success” is an especially crucial example of one such word. Dictionary.com provides two definitions which I think are useful for this topic. The first is, “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” I’ll get back to that later. The second is, “the attainment of popularity or profit.” What is so awful to me is how much the primary definition of success has been replaced with a secondary definition. Attaining popularity and earning profit is only a single type of success, but they have come to define the word’s entire meaning. Success is no longer accomplishing your goal. Success is now becoming rich and famous. Success is about having the nicest house or the nicest cars. Success is owning more property than your contemporaries. Success is no longer about you. It’s about other people. And this is why pursuing success, as it has been redefined, leaves so many people unhappy and unfulfilled. Why are there so many rich and famous people who aren’t happy? Because their success is all about other people. Do other people respect me? Do other people care about my success? Do other people look at me as better because of this house I own or this car I drive? But you can’t control how other people look at you. You can’t make people like you or respect you or look up to you. You cannot control the feelings of others. You can only control yourself. And this is why they are unhappy. Because they put so much of their energy into other people, and they don’t get anything back. They think, because of what everyone around them tells them, owning this thing or looking this way will make them happy, but they realize it doesn’t. And then, they have nowhere to go, because they have put so much of themselves into other people there aren’t any of them left to go back to. They are empty. This is why college preparation programs have continued to leave so many students unsatisfied when it comes to their careers. Because they are told to simply pursue the jobs which have the least risk and the most profits, they never consider what is actually important to themselves. And so, when they get those jobs, they realize they never considered if the job was what they really wanted to do. And then they have nowhere to go. These programs are missing the most important aspect of career planning for students: the student. What do the students want? What students need is not someone who can tell them their dream of  becoming an artist is never going to go anywhere and then recommend they look into what college they should go to in order to become a law major because that’s what their dad did. What students need is someone who can help them make those dreams — their lofty aspirations or their cloudy visions — and turn them into a career. The problem I and many of my classmates face, as we are confronted with many decisions which will shape the rest of our life, is that we do not know what we want to do. Time and again we are asked to make decisions based around our future career. To take classes that are related to the field in which we wish to study. To take summer programs related to it. Find the colleges that give you the best education in your given field. But they never stop to consider what we want to do. And for the majority of students, this is immensely stressful. Earlier, I said that, when I was 11, I was too young to fully consider my career. I don’t think anyone could disagree with that statement in good faith. I was 11, what can you expect? Four years is a pretty long time — but it’s not that long when you consider how much more time I’m going to spend actually working on my career. At age 15, I am considered fully ready to know what it is I want to spend the next veritable decades of my life contributing to and should be able to take actionable steps towards that career at this moment. I am expected to know what I want to do for the rest of my life. I don’t even know what I want for dinner tonight. How can this be considered reasonable? How, in our current society, is it considered OK for educational institutions who, may I remind you, provide demonstrably little in the ways of preparing for the actual problems you will face in life as a member of society, to ask their students to make these decisions? The amount of stress that has been placed on students, especially those targeted by schools to be especially capable, is so abhorrent as to warrant the disqualification of every institution that has ever been responsible for encouraging this behavior. The amount of stress students are placed under, disregarding all of the other stressors teenagers must deal with in their lives, is widely acknowledged by so many people today, and yet nothing has been done to change the programs and institutions responsible. It is criminal. If any change is to be made in our current education systems, then the most important aspect which must be addressed is the structuring of the priorities of the programs and institutions which relate to the preparation of students for college and their future careers. I could write another entire essay about the specific changes I would like to see made in our education systems, but I don’t have enough space left in the 2,500 word count on this assignment to do so. For now, I’ll just say I believe large changes must be made in order to create a system which functions without asking students to answer questions they are not prepared for, and which prepares them to answer them later on. My hope is, through this short essay, I have relayed some of the emotions students like myself have been experiencing. I know I tried to touch on a lot of different subjects at once, and I’m sorry if at times I seemed like I was rambling. This topic is pretty close to home for obvious reasons. I hope I have done a decent enough job of expressing what so many other students have been struggling with and why I believe there are facets of our education system which are so abhorrent. If you have read through the entirety of my writing, then know I am grateful for your time and do hope you take some of the things I have said with you. If you are a student, then I hope reading the thoughts of someone who is going through the same things you are has helped you feel less alone in your struggles. Trust me, I know how helpful a similar perspective can be when you let the stresses of life get you down. If, somehow, this essay is picked for a place in this magazine among the many others who were submitted by equally capable and driven students, then know I am incredibly grateful. Now, I have to get back to preparing for college. Thank you for reading.
E.J. Fuller is a student at International Polytechnic High School in Pomona

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