I come from a public high school. Half of the student body qualifies for food stamps, the school boasts a 57 percent college readiness rate and only a small handful of students leave the state to go to college. My high school was blessed with diversity, filled to the brim with people of all backgrounds and experiences, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses. It wasn’t perfect; it didn’t have every opportunity I had hoped for in high school and not every student made it into their cap and gown, but I found comfort in the knowledge that my school didn’t need to be a preparatory school to be “good enough” for a pre-college education … until I came to Stanford.
Within this palm tree-covered campus, diversity reigns supreme. Students hail from the Bay Area to all the way from Russia and beyond. We have students who come from the top one percent of the economic scale and others who are the first to attend college in their family. It’s a heterogeneous mix of bright minds, talented musicians and passionate poets, purely excited about learning. On the surface, Stanford looks like a perfect melting pot of diversity.
While I thought I’d find this diversity comforting and familiar to what I experienced at my high school, my first few weeks at Stanford have made me feel as if my background at a low-income, underfunded public high school is something to be ashamed rather than proud – it’s this feeling that relative to the education my Stanford classmates were offered, my high school experience was weaker, less whole, embarrassing.
My dormmates come from Andover and Loomis Chaffee, preparatory schools that practically feed into the Ivy League. My classmates were able to take 15 AP courses by the time they graduated, participate in school research and attend national competitions in robotics. Even within my home state of Illinois, the state school funding was dramatically lopsided toward the bigger public schools in Chicago suburbs. In contrast, schools from my hometown received less than three percent of the $500 million in special state education subsidies related to property wealth.
It was when I began classes the first week and realized practically everyone in my ECON 1 class had taken AP Econ before that I felt the blow of this high school experience. FOMO hit – was I not going to experience academic success in college because I missed out on a “real” high school education? It was in that moment, staring helplessly at shifting supply and demand curves, that I felt woefully unprepared for Stanford’s academic rigor. I had become strangely uncomfortable with the idea that my underprivileged high school had somehow underserved me. Never before had I felt embarrassed or sheepish about my prior education – it was a feeling entirely new and wholly consuming. I began to paint this bleak mental image of the school I once loved and imagined it as this unpresentable place unworthy of mention to my peers. My home school had become a memory I desperately sought desperately push out of sight and out of mind.
But is it truly right to feel ashamed of the past that set me up for today? Is “impostor syndrome” simply manifesting itself in the form of my rocky academic underpinnings? While I still struggle with acknowledging the relative merits of my high school, I’ve realized that the foundation for my current academic life is built upon those high school teachers who shaped me and the experiences that made me. My academic basis is built upon the best my school could offer me — it’s no fault of my school’s that it received so little funding, nor is it shameful that it may never live up to the college-preparatory rigor of those East Coast boarding schools.
And more importantly, any future academic success we have is not predicated on the pedigree of our high school education, nor is it dramatically affected by a perceived head start given by privileged schools (Chem 31X and Math 51 level out the playing field, anyway). Rather, we begin a clean slate at Stanford as freshmen. Each student has the opportunity to make the most of the vast resources available and to push past any lingering perception of academic disadvantage. After all, our success in college – and subsequent break from impostor syndrome – can only come from our confidence, persistence and will to break the inertia of worry and doubt.
Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.